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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Domestic politics and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

Key points 

  • On the eve of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, neither Israeli PM Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Abbas face urgent internal opposition to their participation in the negotiations. Both are nevertheless constrained by their respective internal political scenes.
  • In Netanyahu’s case, the imminent end of the settlement moratorium poses a looming problem. An agreement on this issue could defuse potential political uproar. However, proposed concessions further down the line could lead to changes within his coalition.
  • Abbas’s immediate internal position is secure. The opposition has been weakened and is confined mostly to the Gaza Strip. But with the ongoing Hamas rule in Gaza, it is not clear how Abbas would set about implementing an agreement if it were to be reached.

Introduction

This week, long awaited direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are due to be re-launched in Washington after almost 20 months without serious contact between the sides. The commencement of the negotiations represents a significant diplomatic achievement for the US Administration, but major obstacles remain ahead. A crucial factor in determining whether the talks will progress will be the ability of the two leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, to navigate their respective domestic political constituencies.

PM Netanyahu: A general calm on the home front

Benjamin Netanyahu enters the talks with the Palestinians from a position of unrivalled strength on the Israeli political scene. One commentator in a recent article described the prime minister as possessing ‘greater political power than any prime minister in the past generation.’ There are a number of factors which contribute to this situation.

Firstly, Netanyahu currently has no major rival for the Likud leadership. Only Vice premier and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom is seen to be challenging Netanyahu within Likud, but Shalom lacks a real power base among Likud voters. With no internal primaries scheduled any time soon, a potential leadership bid from Shalom is essentially neutralised.

Other possible future contenders for the Likud leadership – Moshe Ya’alon, Gidon Sa’ar, Gilad Erdan – have all apparently chosen to use Netanyahu’s prime ministership as a period in which to gain ministerial experience, as they have enough time to wait until Netanyahu steps down before launching a potential leadership bid. Reliable sources indicate that Netanyahu intends to stand for another period in office and is not expected to face a serious challenge in party primaries.

As long as the settlement freeze is not renewed in its entirety, Netanyahu may enter the talks without serious concerns from within his party. However, any hint of major territorial concessions would undoubtedly engender major opposition within Likud. To alleviate these concerns Netanyahu met with Likud activists before leaving for Washington, and pointedly said that he needs no lessons in loyalty to the Land of Israel. Netanyahu continues to enjoy the support of the ideological core of Likud, but if major concessions become a reality, right wing figures such as Benny Begin may choose to leave the Cabinet and destabilise the solid foundations of Netanyahu’s political base. Up and coming rightist MKs such as Danny Danon would undoubtedly seize on such an opportunity to boost their credentials in the right-wing camp.

Regarding his coalition partners, both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu appear to be positioning themselves to take a sceptical, hawkish stance toward the negotiations, each in their separate way. In this regard, comments made by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef against the Palestinian leadership over the weekend should be noted. However, it is also important to stress that Shas is not an uncomplicatedly nationalist party. Its stances on territory are generally pragmatic, and Yosef himself is reported to back a continued, undeclared moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who leads Yisrael Beiteinu, has expressed his firm opposition to a renewal of the settlement freeze. But since it is likely that Netanyahu will seek some compromise that will allow some construction to take place after 26 September, neither of these parties is likely to bolt the coalition in the immediate future.

In the event that the negotiations were to bear fruit, and Netanyahu would need his government’s support for territorial concessions, it is almost certain that the current government would reach a dead end. In such an event, Netanyahu possesses a potential alternative coalition with the opposition Kadima party. Kadima has been generally silent in recent months, because of the centrist policies pursued by Netanyahu’s government. Improved relations with the US have also served to rob the opposition of a clear basis to attack the government.

PM Netanyahu arrives in Washington this week able to credibly contend that talks begin without preconditions and with relatively little concessions on Israel’s behalf. US-Israel relations also appear to be stable. It remains to be seen, however, whether the current upturn in relations with Washington will survive beyond the mid-term congressional elections in November. It is also important to stress that serious progress in the negotiations will almost certainly engender a far stormier Israeli domestic scene. But for the moment, the Israeli prime minister enters the talks amidst rare domestic calm, and a public displaying neither great optimism nor passionate opposition towards negotiations.

President Abbas: position secure, for now

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas agreed to enter negotiations after backing down from his earlier position that direct talks would only be possible if the settlement freeze was extended and included East Jerusalem. As such, his position on entering the talks is somewhat weaker than that of the prime minister of Israel. Abbas also operates in a very different political context than that faced by the Israeli prime minister. Most obviously, the continued Hamas control over the Gaza Strip, and Hamas’s strident opposition to the talks, impedes Abbas’s ability to implement a deal if an agreement is reached.

While Fatah supports the talks, Abbas also faces some internal opposition within his party. Munib al-Masri, for example, a businessman who has headed efforts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas and a personal friend of the PA president, called on Abbas last week not to join the talks. A rally last week in Ramallah against the talks in the West Bank was broken up by Abbas’s security forces. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad later apologised for the police actions, but the incident indicates that Abbas’s domestic audience includes some strong pockets of opposition.

Abbas is also somewhat isolated on the Palestinian political stage as he enters the talks. Neither the Palestine National Council, nor the PLO Executive Committee were convened to approve the decision to enter the talks. Abbas’s agreement to enter talks without preconditions and no clear mention of the parameters for a future solution, were seen as a sign of his limited ability to oppose US pressure. This further weakened his position in the Palestinian street.

Yet Abbas’s domestic position is not uniformly bleak. Firstly – his rivals in Hamas lack a clear strategy at the present time, unwilling to return to ‘armed struggle’ because of its likely cost, and opposing to the political process. The internal Palestinian political process has effectively broken down, meaning that there are no elections in sight. Paradoxically, this means that Abbas’s position is secure. He has maintained quiet in the West Bank, and with the grassroots state building activities of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continuing the economy on the West Bank is experiencing growth.

Arab backing for the talks – including the planned presence of Egyptian President Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdulah in Washington – also serve to increase Abbas’s legitimacy in the Arab political context. The letter he received from President Obama, which was leaked last week and commits the US to helping the Palestinians establish a state alongside Israel, and the Quartet statement of August 20, which described the negotiations as an effort to ‘end the occupation that started in 1967’, are being used by Abbas to legitimise his entry into talks. The one year timeframe mentioned in Obama’s letter may also be of some reassurance to Abbas.

Hence, while Abbas’s internal position is curtailed by the split in the Palestinian camp, it is nevertheless secure. However, serious doubt remains regarding the PA president’s ability to implement any future deal, given the ongoing division in Palestinian leadership.

Conclusion: domestic barriers to the negotiations?

Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas face urgent internal opposition to their participation in the negotiations. But both are nevertheless constrained by their respective internal political scenes. In Netanyahu’s case, it remains to be seen what will happen on 26 September, when the settlement moratorium ends. It is distinctly possible that one of the proposed compromises on this issue will be agreed upon. At that point, Netanyahu will be free to pursue the negotiations without internal pressure. However, proposed concessions further down the line could well lead to the break up and perhaps reformulation of his coalition.

Abbas is seen as having compromised simply by entering the negotiations. As such, he is deeply concerned about the details of the talks, and has suspicions that they may simply drag on without progress. Like Netanyahu, his internal position is secure. But it is far less clear how precisely Abbas would set about implementing an agreement if it were to be reached. While Hamas may have no coherent strategy of its own, it would certainly seek to portray any concessions made by its PA rivals as illegitimate and non-binding.

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