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A Year for Elections, Not Mideast Peace

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 12, 2012
Wall Street Journal

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Last week Israelis and Palestinians held talks for the first time since September 2010. Back then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met at the White House, under bright lights and with great expectations, along with Jordanian King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In a matter of weeks the talks failed—and Mr. Mubarak didn't last much longer himself. What to expect this time?

For starters, note that these talks—hosted in Amman by the Jordanian government—aren't even "negotiations." The Palestinians made clear that these were only discussions of whether negotiations are possible. The most one can hope for is that these exploratory talks extend for several more months or lead at some point to a Netanyahu-Abbas session. This is kicking the can down the road, to be sure, but that is a reasonably accurate way of describing the "peace process" anyway.

Whatever the hopes in Washington or European capitals, Israelis and Palestinians don't expect a breakthrough. Instead, they're focused on three elections: America's, the definite one; the Palestinian Authority's, scheduled for May 4; and Israel's, which Mr. Netanyahu may call later this year.

For Mr. Netanyahu, the question is whether the re-election of Barack Obama would harm his own chances. The ability to get along with Washington is a key asset in Israeli politics, and Israelis would worry about four more years of U.S.-Israeli tension. It is universally understood that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama don't get along. That might lead the Israeli prime minister to try for elections in the fall, before our own—though a decision on whether to bomb Iran's nuclear sites could also affect that timing.

In any event, no major concessions to the Palestinians are now in the cards. Why should Mr. Netanyahu risk destroying his coalition in a possible election year, when previous Israeli offers—especially in 2000 and 2008—were refused, and when he believes the White House doesn't have his back? And why take such risks when Mr. Abbas seems on the verge of inviting Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization, which would bring negotiations to a screeching halt anyway?

So for 2012, Mr. Netanyahu will maneuver with the Palestinians, calculate the timing of his own elections, hope a new face wins in Washington—and make one big decision: whether to hit Iran.

For Mr. Abbas, the possible Israeli elections are of little interest. He must have scant hope they will produce a more conciliatory government, for the right looks far stronger than the left. He knows the rise of Islamist parties in the "Arab Spring" has made most Israelis even more worried about any concessions that might affect their security.

Mr. Abbas, who turns 77 in March, doesn't really want Palestinian elections in 2012, but his options are poor. His United Nations efforts are now dead, for he has failed in the Security Council and backed off after his "victory" of gaining membership in Unesco served only to bankrupt that organization when the U.S. ended its funding.

He cannot find serious negotiations with Israel terribly appealing, for he knows that Hamas and other groups would quickly call every compromise an act of treason. So instead of turning back to the Israelis or the U.N., he is negotiating with Hamas, whom he hates, knowing full well that any agreement may lead to elections that Hamas might win. Logic suggests he will happily see the deal with Hamas break down (as the "Mecca Agreement" between Fatah and Hamas did in 2007) so he can postpone the May 4 elections yet again.

A year of on-again, off-again negotiations with Hamas and with the Israelis must seem far more attractive to Mr. Abbas than elections that could boot him from office and, if Hamas wins, leave as his legacy another disastrous defeat of his Fatah party by Islamist forces. Better to delay, hang on, and see if perhaps the Israelis' fears are right—that a re-elected President Obama emerges as the champion of the Palestinian cause.

And what of Mr. Obama in this election year? He'll spend 2012 trumpeting his "unshakable" commitment to Israeli security but wondering if Mr. Netanyahu will actually hit Iran during the presidential campaign. If so, the electorate is likely to think that a tough and justifiable move, and Mr. Obama would be forced to back it and help Israel cope with the consequences. It might even help the president get re-elected if he ends up using force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and Israel safe.

But both recent two-term presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, dove into Middle East peacemaking in their second terms. That cheers up Mr. Abbas and gives Mr. Netanyahu nightmares. If Mr. Obama loses to a Republican, by contrast, Israelis and Palestinians will sit back in 2013 and wait for some sense of direction from Washington.

Thus the 2012 "peace process" won't revolve around any negotiating table in Amman. That's why when Americans pass through the Middle East, they're never asked "Will there be a peace deal this year?" Instead the questions are "Who will win?" "What will Obama do in a second term?" and, without fail, "What are you going to do about Iran?"

Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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