Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could envision some Jewish settlements remaining in place inside a Palestinian state after a peace agreement. While many in Israel thought it was a ploy to embarrass the Palestinians (who want no Jews in their state), it could also have been interpreted as a sign that Netanyahu is edging closer to agreeing to a framework for peace in which a Palestinian state (with or without Jews within its borders) would become a reality.
Yesterday, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas responded by telling a conference in Israel (he spoke via a video hookup) that he could envision Israeli military forces remaining in the West Bank for up to three years after the signing of a peace agreement. While he added that he would dismiss any lengthier interim security force out of hand, like Netanyahu’s statement this, too, could be interpreted as a sign that in spite of formidable obstacles, Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is actually succeeding.
With both Netanyahu and Abbas indicating acceptance of relatively minor final status details, it’s likely that some naifs in the State Department will attempt to persuade themselves and their media accomplices that this means that Kerry’s peace framework is a realistic one. If the two leaders are preparing their respective constituencies for some sacrifices—the implicit acceptance of withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian state on Netanyahu’s part, and Abbas’s willingness to countenance limits on Palestinian sovereignty for a time—then it may be possible that Kerry believes he is closer to pulling off this gambit than anyone–other than himself, that is–ever thought possible.
But peace process enthusiasts need to calm down. Not only are both of these seeming concessions only a minuscule dose of an enormous number of bitter pills each side must swallow in the event of an accord, they may actually be more of an indication that this process is, in fact, hopelessly deadlocked. What we may well be witnessing with these statements is not so much signs that the two sides are edging closer to each other but a bizarre dance in which both seek to deflect blame for the inevitable failure.
It should be remembered that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians sought Kerry’s intervention when he made a resumption of the long moribund peace process his top priority upon assuming his post. No one, other than Kerry himself, expressed the slightest optimism about his quest with even veteran peace process fans expressing skepticism.
With the Palestinians hopelessly divided between Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank and the Hamas terrorists in Gaza, there seemed little indication that the PA could agree to a genuine peace agreement or implement it if such a treaty were ever signed. Nor was there any sign the Palestinians were prepared to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state (a requirement that President Obama reiterated last night during his State of the Union address) regardless of its borders. Moreover, any peace deal that renounced, as it must, the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees would place its Palestinian signatories in peril.
As for the Israelis, while Netanyahu has repeatedly endorsed the concept of a two-state solution, neither his coalition nor the majority of the Israeli people seem interested in a repeat of the late Ariel Sharon’s 2005 Gaza withdrawal with another such retreat in the West Bank where the creation of a new terror state would be an even greater danger to Israel than the Hamasistan that exists in Gaza.
Months of talks have produced no visible progress on the substantive issues of Jerusalem, borders, refugees or security. With time running out on the nine months allocated for negotiations, the main fear on both sides is not a failure to reach an agreement that always seemed impossible to the parties but the possibility that they will be blamed for Kerry’s own ignorant folly.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that both Netanyahu and Abbas are now making noises indicating their willingness to embrace a two-state solution even though neither of them believes for a second that a deal is a possibility.
Netanyahu’s statement earned him a vehement rebuke from his right-wing partner, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett. The prime minister’s office ruthlessly answered Bennett with a threat that he might be forced to resign from his Cabinet post if he failed to apologize. But the back-story reveals more to about Netanyahu’s annoyance at Bennett’s inability to realize that all the prime minister was doing was posturing.
Abbas, who is entering his 10th year of a four-year elected term as Palestinian president, isn’t worried about losing votes from his right wing but he is concerned about being outflanked by Hamas. Nevertheless, like Netanyahu, he is concerned about the consequences of being the one to say no to the United States even though, if push came to shove, he knows that is exactly what he will do. While the international community is more likely to blame Israel no matter how intransigent the Palestinians prove to be on final-status issues, Abbas understands that his predecessor Yasir Arafat paid a heavy price for torpedoing offers of statehood in 2000 and 2001 and that he also suffered for turning down Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008.
Though this dance of the deadlocked may appear to Kerry and his posse like progress toward peace, it’s far more likely that all we are witnessing is a desperate effort to avoid responsibility for the failure of talks that never stood a chance of success in the first place.