What has become of the Arab-Israeli peace process? Recent years have seen little to no progress, though several opportunities have presented themselves. The Annapolis Summit in 2007 formally established the two-state solution, to which both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave their informed consent. Since then, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 – a disastrous Israeli assault on Hamas forces in Gaza – abruptly ended ongoing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis on one track and between Syria and Israel on another. Then came the by-now infamous flotilla incident of 2010, which further derailed any efforts to find a lasting peace. And in 2011, the biggest leak of confidential documents detailing Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking attempts and failures, collusion and cooptation, was exposed by Al Jazeera as the Palestine Papers. Keeping this brief chronology of a failed peace process in mind, a lasting political settlement – whether between Arabs and Israelis or Palestinians and Israelis – is plainly and simply impossible at this point in time. Here are four simple reasons why.
Lack of US leadership
President Barack Obama is running for re-election in less than two months, and has effectively been doing so for the better part of the past two years. There is no substitute for the invaluable role that the United States has to play in facilitating peace talks between Arab and Israeli governments. US President Jimmy Carter hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for weeks at a time at his presidential retreat in Camp David, working tirelessly with these two leaders and their entourages to hone the final text of an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978-79. It was less onerous for US President Bill Clinton to convince King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel to hammer out a peace treaty of their own in 1994, but this was only possible after the Palestinians and Israelis formally recognized each other’s authority as negotiating partners in 1993. Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, even if it is a cold peace that faces significant opposition within both countries, especially in a post-revolutionary Egypt governed by the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, in both cases, the United States was the only credible interlocutor. This remains the case today.
It is no secret that Palestinian society is divided, polarized as never before between two camps – among other fringe elements. This cleavage pits the Palestinian Authority (PA) as the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people against Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood created in the wake of the First Intifada in 1987. Territorially, the PA governs the West Bank while Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip since 2007 after a near-civil war. In terms of ideology, Fatah, the biggest group within the PA, is a secular nationalist organization that has been engaged in dialogue with Israel for 20 years; Hamas is an Islamist fundamentalist group opposed to compromise and dedicated to destroying the state of Israel. Strategically speaking, Fatah and the PA are friendly to the US and welcomed warmly in world capitals from Paris and Moscow to Ankara and Riyadh. Hamas, on the other hand, has found allies in Iran, Syria (not since President Assad’s brutal crackdown began in 2011), Hezbollah in Lebanon and Egypt (since the Muslim Brotherhood ascended to power in 2012). The fact that these two factions are so far apart on substantive issues of policy, and that recent attempts at reconciliation have all failed to bridge these divides, spells disaster for a united Palestinian front in the ongoing peace process with Israel.
Israeli coalition politics
Israel is a pluralist society with a diverse range of actors and organized interests mobilized within political parties. The election of 2009 delivered a Likud-led coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allied with nationalist parties like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu and Haredi parties like Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s Shas. Likud, Beiteinu and Shas are united in their centre-right vision of constructing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, protecting a sovereign Israel through the use of overwhelming military force and adopting a hardline negotiating position with the Palestinians. What this means for Netanyahu’s coalition is that the conditions of any final peace deal could be vetoed by any of his junior coalition partners if they refused to accept it. But that’s not all. In the process of scrapping the accord, they could pull their support from the Likud Party and join what would then become a majority opposition and force early elections, potentially depriving Netanyahu of his premiership and his party of predominance in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament). For this reason, the current Israeli government would be in the awkward position of choosing between peace with the Palestinians or electoral survival in Israel’s domestic political scene in the event that an agreement were ever presented to him for ratification.
This point is so critical to the inability of Palestinians and Israelis to resolve their differences that it is remarkable how little attention it is given in international forums. The Arab countries of the Middle East have been locked in a struggle with Israel since the days of the British Mandate in Palestine, decades before Israel was even established as a sovereign state. After the seminal war of 1967, the Arab League gathered in Khartoum and famously issued three no’s: “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, negotiations with it.” This changed only when Egypt’s Sadat boldly flew to Jerusalem in 1977, addressed the Knesset candidly and admitted that he was ready for peace, recognition and negotiation. However, Arab society from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen remains intransigently opposed to Jewish settlement in Israel, with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist propaganda and hate speech commonly found in public discourse. The Arab states were not bystanders in the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their ancestral homelands; they were active participants. This is not to say that Israel must not share its portion of the burden, but until governments and societies in the Arab world begin to assume responsibility for their policies and behaviours, there will be no solution for Palestine’s woes.