- The US abandonment of its attempt to bring a 90 day extension of the settlement freeze, in order to return to direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, marks a realisation that this approach was unlikely to succeed.
- However, the Obama administration remains fixed in its view that resolving the conflict is a US national interest, and has made a clear determination to continue actively promoting the peace process. Secretary of State Clinton is now demanding the parties clarify with the US their positions on core issues.
- Both leaders face political constraints from domestic opponents. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas faces opposition from Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, as well as within his own Fatah party. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces threats to the stability of his coalition from right-wing members of the government.
- The US wants to narrow the gaps between the parties, to the point where its own bridging proposals might be viable, but as Clinton acknowledged, an agreement cannot be imposed on the parties.
- The best hope for a successful agreement is if both sides see it as in their interests. Helping both sides see the benefits of peace, and creating the political space for the leaders to make the difficult decisions, is an area where Britain and the international community can play a positive role, as a new BICOM research paper shows.
Why has the US changed its tactics?
The series of direct meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in September brought a moment of optimism to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The two sides agreed on the goal of a framework agreement within a year. But since the conclusion of Israel’s 10-month settlement freeze at the end of September, the process has stalled. Netanyahu was hard pressed to extend the freeze and keep his coalition together, and Abbas was unwilling to continue direct talks without an extension of the freeze.
The US attempted to address this problem by getting Israel to extend the freeze for a temporary period, in return for a package of US incentives. The US hoped that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over a 90-day period might make enough progress on core issues, particularly on borders, to build trust between the parties and keep them both at the table.
At the end of last week the US acknowledged that this approach had not worked. Netanyahu was struggling to get the deal past his coalition and the Palestinian looked set to reject the settlement freeze anyway because it would not explicitly include East Jerusalem.
The strategy in any case raised eyebrows among experts in the region. Those with direct experience of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations doubted that significant progress on borders was possible in 90 days, especially given the low level of trust between the parties. Netanyahu maintains that he cannot address borders without simultaneously having Israel’s security concerns addressed. The plan seemed likely only to delay the breakdown of the direct talks, and create another artificial crisis point in the calendar. The change of US approach reflects not only the difficulty in getting Israel to extend the freeze to the satisfaction of the Palestinians, but the realisation that even if a new moratorium was announced, the resultant 90 days of talks were unlikely to bring the desired result.
What is the US strategy now?
According to Hillary Clinton’s speech on Friday night, the working assumptions that govern the US approach to the Middle East have not changed. She acknowledged that, ‘For Israel and for the region, there may be no greater strategic threat than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran,’ a fact dramatically illustrated by the Wikileaks revelations. But at the same time she made clear that the US considers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be ‘a source of tension and an obstacle to prosperity and opportunity for all the people of the region.’ The conflict, she stressed, ‘strengthens the hands of extremists and rejectionists across the region while sapping the support of those open to coexistence and cooperation.’ As such, she repeated the administration’s position that the ongoing conflict is, ‘at odds also with the interests of the United States.’
Whilst the US had given up for now the hope of direct talks, Clinton also made clear that they did not support any attempt to impose a solution. The speech included an explicit rejection of Palestinian and Arab League threats to turn to the UN. Instead, the US now proposes to try and make progress by getting the parties to set out their positions in dialogue with the US. Washington will then try and narrow gaps by asking ‘tough questions and expecting substantive answers’, and will ‘offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.’ US envoy George Mitchell maintains a pivotal role in this process, and is holding meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the region this week.
Clinton stated that the defined goal remains ‘a framework agreement that would establish the fundamental compromises on all permanent status issues and pave the way for a final peace treaty’, as agreed by the parties at the September summit. The one year timetable has been conspicuously dropped, but the determination of the US to move forward with this issue appears as strong as ever. The administration has clearly rejected calls from some, such as prominent New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, to withdraw from the process and leave the parties to manage on their own.
Step back or step forward?
On the face of it, the new US policy looks like a regression from direct talks to indirect talks. The last round of indirect talks did not bring progress on core issues. Whilst the Palestinians were willing to venture into opening positions in indirect talks, Netanyahu preferred to address final status issues in face to face talks with the Palestinians. If he presented his positions in indirect talks, he could argue, what incentive was there for the Palestinians to enter direct talks?
Now, however, Clinton has emphasised that the US will ‘push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity.’ Though this demand has been interpreted by some as being directed particularly at Netanyahu, it will put pressure on both sides to face up to decisions they would rather avoid. Whilst there was no explicit blame for Netanyahu in Clinton’s speech, there were no words of praise either, in contrast to warm words spoken for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. A publicised meeting between the Secretary of State and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni at the State Department has also been interpreted by some as a message to the Israeli Prime Minister. Nevertheless, there is no doubt frustration at Mahmoud Abbas as well, who did not take the opportunity offered by the ten months of settlement freeze to enter into direct talks with Israel.
It remains to be seen how Netanyahu will respond to this challenge. In a speech on Monday 13 December he welcomed the move to address core issues, and stressed that the issues delaying peace were security, refugees, and recognition of the Jewish State. While these issues will undoubtedly be part of the issues discussed between Israel and the US, the Americans will also seek Netanyahu’s position on the issues of borders and Jerusalem, where Israel is expected to make tough concessions. As leading Israeli analyst Nahum Barnea wrote in Sunday’s Yediot Ahronoth, every discussion on final status issues, ‘will send shockwaves running through the Likud and his coalition or will create a crisis in the relations with Washington.’ If Netanyahu makes a major concession that becomes public, it risks causing the collapse of his government.
It may be that the only way of making progress without an Israeli political crisis, is if the press and the public is not aware of it. As BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow and former Israeli peace emissary Brig Gen (ret.) Michael Herzog has made clear in an article for the Daily Telegraph, the lack of a trusted back-channel has precluded the possibility of closing the gaps away from the public eye. There may be a chance for progress with American mediation if Netanyahu is able to discuss issues sensitive to his right-wing coalition members through a strictly private channel with his US interlocutors.
What will happen next?
In the short term, no dramatic breakthrough should be expected. The leaders remain distrustful of each other, and they face division within their national movements that make them wary of concessions that will be used against them by their more hawkish political opponents. If the US demand for final status positions receives a positive response, it is likely to be away from the public eye.
The Palestinians may continue to threaten to bring the issue to the UN Security Council as a way of putting pressure on both the US and Israel, but the US has taken a clear stand which appears to preclude serious movement on this option in the near future.
At the same time, there is no immediate sign of a return to violence. The security situation in both Israel and the West Bank is good and the economic situation is improving. Even the Gaza Strip is benefiting from a measured easing of restrictions on its borders by Israel, (though periodic spikes in rocket fire and border skirmishes are reminders of the instability there).
But the US is interested in getting to the core issues urgently, even if the parties themselves are cautious. President Obama has less than 18 month before his re-election campaign overwhelms his political agenda. Netanyahu is already about to enter the second half of his four-year term, typically a time in Israel when parties look to please their electoral base and coalitions start to fragment. Progress will be even harder in the midst of an Israeli political crisis or election campaign. If the US maintains the determination it has projected so far, then it will build pressure on both sides in the next few months to lay out their positions on the most difficult questions of borders, Jerusalem and refugees. The end point of this process may yet be some form of US bridging proposal for the terms of an agreement. However, as Secretary of State Clinton herself has made clear, a solution cannot ultimately be imposed. To reach a viable solution work, which actually ends the conflict, the parties themselves have to believe the deal represents their best interests.
What is Britain’s role?
Speaking over the weekend, Israeli Defence Minister and Labour party leader Ehud Barak reasserted the Israeli case for pursuing peace with urgency. A vacuum, he argued, would ultimately lead to a new round of violence. Israel’s control of the Palestinians was, furthermore, undermining Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.
A majority in Israel accept the idea of a two state solution in principle. But past experience of withdrawals from Gaza and Southern Lebanon, which have increased the threat to Israel from Hamas and Hezbollah, have made Israelis wary of making territorial concessions in practice.
To overcome these fears, the success of the West Bank state building programme must be continued. In addition, the case for making the difficult compromises necessary for peace needs to be more effectively made in both Israeli and Palestinian society.
As a new BICOM Research Paper argues, this is one of the areas where the UK can help. Britain, along with the rest of the international community should work to legitimise the peace process and give the leaders the room for manoeuvre to make the difficult concessions. This means not only supporting the ‘top-down’ political negotiations. It also means supporting the Palestinian state building effort in the West Bank, encouraging Arab states to back the peace process more fulsomely and promoting the benefits of peace and a culture of coexistence within Israeli and Palestinian societies. The bedrock of all this is maintaining a profile as a balanced interlocutor, which understands the legitimate concerns of both parties. This is the way the UK can help to give the US-led diplomatic effort the best chance of success.