October 19, 2018

A Palestinian state – or security and stability?

Here is a fun fact that people tend to forget: When Israel attempts to make peace with its neighbors, it is usually not due to American mediation or initiative. Egypt and Israel made peace with the help of President Jimmy Carter, but the surprise initiative came from Anwar Sadat, an Egyptian president who decided to make history and come to Jerusalem. Israel and the Palestinians began their arduous and (still) unsuccessful journey to peace in Oslo. The US was invited to get involved only when the talks produced a promising – so the leaders of Israel thought at the time – beginning.

It is worth remembering that as we look at the confusing, and at times conflicting, messages and stories one reads in the papers about the prospects for yet another attempt at having peace. Last week, it was President Trump hosting Prime Minister Netanyahu and vowing to work for peace. This week it is the revelation (by Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid) concerning a secret peace summit last year in Aqaba – in which Netanyahu met with Secretary of State John Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and Jordan’s King Abdullah. Clearly, something is going on. Clearly, it involves Israel and a few Arab Sunni states who all have a mutual rival – or enemy – in Iran. Clearly, the Palestinian issue is on the table as only one component of a much larger agenda. Clearly, the road for turning any regional initiative into something concrete that will bring about peace is still long.

President Trump seems to see an opening: “Our administration,” he said last week, “is committed to working with Israel and our common allies in the region towards greater security and stability. That includes working toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to see an opening: “We can seize an historic opportunity because for the first time in my lifetime and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly as an ally.”

What is the purpose of an initiative that brings Israel and other Arab countries to the table? It is, as Trump said, to have “security and stability.” This means cooperation between countries that have a stake in containing Iranian expansionism in the region. This means cooperation between countries that all have a stake in quieting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Currently, the conflict is impinging on the Arab nations’ ability to publically work alongside Israel because of its impact on the “Arab street.” Since these countries – and Israel – all want to increase the level of coordination, a solution that tames the impact of the Palestinian issue on the larger, more important issues is necessary.

The Palestinians have few illusions. They know that the leaders of the Arab world don’t care much about them. But they have the power to disrupt any alliance with Israel by rallying the masses and forcing the issue back to the center of the Arab agenda.

Do Arab leaders also have power over the Palestinians? Can they assist in convincing them to accept a deal that Israel could live with? In theory, they do. In practice, this tactic has been tried and has failed more than once. Bill Clinton hoped to get the blessing of Arab leaders during the Camp David talks of 2000, and his book tells the story of his disappointment with their reluctance. They were not willing to tell Yasser Arafat that he needs to compromise on Jerusalem. They were not willing to force him into accepting a deal that forgoes the “right of return.” It is possible, of course, that in the current atmosphere, when the need for them to work with Israel becomes greater, their reluctance will be tamed and their enthusiasm will grow. But it is also possible that as Israel has become less inclined to accept a reality of a Palestinian State – it is willing to talk about a “state minus” or an “autonomy plus” – Arab leaders will be even more disinclined to pressure the Palestinians.

One thing is clear: A certain marginalization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fact. The world has better, more exciting things to think about. Arab countries have greater concerns. Israel has got used to the idea that a solution to the conflict is not forthcoming. Even some Palestinians are looking around and wondering if now is the best time to test the ability of their society to stand on its feet against a backdrop of Middle East upheaval.

So yes, the Palestinians can draw some encouragement from the fact that President Trump conveyed an interest in working towards a solution to their situation. They might also notice the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu is successfully manipulating his rightwing coalition to prevent the establishment of more settlements in the West Bank. Both he and his Defense Minister stand firmly in their insistence that good relations with the Trump administration are more important to Israel than the construction of new settlements (although they do hope to keep building in existing settlement blocs and in Jerusalem).

But they surely notice that the main parties to negotiations are not them. They are Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It is an alliance of grown-up actors whose main interest is not helping the Palestinians to have a state, but rather making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stop being a nuisance that distracts the minds and sucks the energy of leaders who need to deal with greater things.