Too Soon to Rekindle Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

Domestic pressures facing Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas mean France’s bid to reboot Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will likely be a nonstarter, says CFR’s Robert Danin. 

June 3, 2016

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

A French-led initiative kicked off on June 3 aimed at prodding Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table for the first time in two years. Absent from the meeting were senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, and domestic constraints mean neither side is inclined to negotiate seriously right now, says CFR’s Robert Danin. “The Israeli government is a right-wing one that many believe is not in position to be a peacemaker,” he says. “Meanwhile, Palestinian politics are deeply fractured.” At the same time, a recent Egyptian initiative may incentivize “both parties to get their houses in order,” Danin says. Though the two sides have professed a desire for peace, the real test, Danin says, is, “Will their words be backed up by demonstrations of real intent?”

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as Israel’s new Defence Minister Avigdor LiebermanIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as new Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, speaks following his swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset. (Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The parties seem hardly any more likely to reach an agreement than when Secretary Kerry abandoned his efforts two years ago. What does France hope to achieve?

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The French hope this will be a first step in a process that leads to an international conference later in the year to relaunch negotiations. In the last negotiations, led by the United States in 2013–14, the two parties were brought to the table without any terms of reference. Now, the French are proposing that parameters for the core final-status issues [i.e., borders, security, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem] be laid out as a basis for negotiations. France also envisages a series of steps toward future negotiations with clear benchmarks and timelines.

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There’s a common refrain: "We all know what the solution is, we just don’t know how to get there." I’m not sure that’s right. But even if it were true, there’s an important question: Are the two parties really prepared to go into a negotiation and make historic decisions? What France, among others, is pushing for is a return to talks as the way forward. But that seems to me to be a misdiagnosis of the core challenges the respective parties face today, which are largely internal and centered on issues of leadership and legitimacy.

We’ve tested the proposition: In 2013 and 2014, the United States led a vigorous, time-bound effort. The parties could not come to an agreement on the core issues. The Israeli side had significant issues with many of the ideas that were being proposed by the United States. And the Palestinian side would not even respond to American proposals.

Does it make sense, therefore, to make a return to negotiations the number-one priority right now? There are important issues related to preparing the groundwork on each side. Interestingly, over the last few weeks Egypt has put forward such an initiative that has been a striking departure in style from previous regional efforts.

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Is the Egyptian initiative distinct from the Arab Peace Initiative, in which Arab countries have promised Israel normalized relations in exchange for resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians?

The Egyptian effort encompasses the API. On May 17, Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi called for negotiations. But in doing so, he recognized that both sides have domestic problems. The Israeli government is a right-wing one that many believe is not in position to be a peacemaker. Meanwhile, Palestinian politics are deeply fractured. Mahmoud Abbas is the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Fatah, but does not govern or control a significant portion of what is to be the future Palestinian state—namely, Gaza. The divide between Fatah and Hamas, and the resulting stagnation of Palestinian political institutions, including the Palestinian parliament and other organs of government, make it hard to see how Abbas is in a position to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians or has the legitimacy to make the concessions that would be required.

The Egyptian effort recognizes that, and offers some incentives for the parties to get their houses in order. Sisi offered the prospect of warm relations between Egypt and Israel, and pointed to the API as a basis for future peace efforts. [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu responded positively earlier this week. Though he did not say the API should be the basis of the negotiations, it was the first time he related positively in any way to it.

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This has generated ferment in international peacemaking efforts. It doesn’t necessarily undercut the French initiative; indeed, Egypt has said it welcomes the French effort. But it provides an enhanced regional approach, which is something that the Israelis have long said they wanted, rather than a broader international approach, which is what the French initiative offers.

Which Abbas has welcomed, right?

“Palestinian politics today is dominated by a sense of suspended animation.”

The more the international community is involved, the more he is pleased because he sees it as a counterweight to Israel’s preponderance of power. But it’s important that the Egyptians are also seeking to broker unity efforts between Fatah and Hamas, which is something we haven’t seen since before the Arab uprisings in 2011. President Abbas’s relations with President Sisi have not been warm, as they were with President [Hosni] Mubarak, who was in effect his patron. So the Sisi outreach offers improved relations to both Israel and the Palestinians, with peace efforts between them as the vehicle forward.

Most people are skeptical about this, saying that each party has selfish interests at play that have nothing to do with making peace. There’s probably truth to that. And that’s why the important test comes now: Will their words be backed up by demonstrations of real intent?

These efforts are coming as Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the right-wing, nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, is entering the Israeli cabinet as defense minister, a pivot after Netanyahu had been in coalition talks with the opposition leader Isaac Herzog. What will the new cabinet mean for negotiations?

A series of dramatic events inside Israel over the course of May culminated in the appointment of Lieberman as the defense minister. He is replacing [Moshe] "Bogie" Ya’alon, who had previously been the Israel Defense Force’s chief of staff. Lieberman is known for his very hawkish views and for having made many shocking comments over the years. He has no real military experience, other than having been a corporal. To put him in the defense ministry in a country where most eighteen-year-olds are conscripted is seen by many Israelis as dangerous and worrisome.

“Israel’s calculation now is the more activism it demonstrates, the easier their case to forestall punitive international measures will be.”

Lieberman has indicated that he recognizes the controversy over his new appointment and has signaled his desire to act responsibly. People sometimes miss this side to him. Yes, he can have a sharp tongue—he has spoken about redrawing Israel’s boundaries so that Arab Israelis would be moved to a future Palestinian entity, which has been seen as hostile if not racist—but he’s also advocated for surprisingly pragmatic policies: being positively disposed toward Secretary Kerry’s initiatives in 2014 and signaling a willingness to give up settlements in the West Bank as part of a peace agreement, even though he lives in a settlement himself.

At the Knesset earlier this week, Lieberman affirmed Netanyahu’s stated commitment to two states for two peoples. He also stated his agreement that the API could enable a serious dialogue with Israel’s neighbors. Now the onus is on Israel to demonstrate that these are not just words.

Lieberman recognizes he has both a domestic and an international problem. But just as when he was foreign minister, he is going to do everything he can to prove to his skeptics that he is a professional and a leader, because he’s playing the long game: to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.

The wave of stabbings and other Palestinian attacks on Israeli security forces and civilians have highlighted gaps between how the security establishment and government perceive questions of security and diplomacy. Military and intelligence leaders have attributed the violence to despair among the Palestinian population, who see an Israeli government that appears disinclined to negotiate, as well as a feckless leadership of their own. What view does the security establishment take with respect to these initiatives?

The security establishment is not taking positions on one initiative versus another, but they have been much more sober about the challenges Israel faces. People are often surprised that retirees from the [intelligence agencies] Mossad and Shin Bet and the military often sound dovish when they leave their posts. They shouldn’t be.

The security establishment has the challenge of keeping Israel secure using the tools at their disposal. But they recognize the limits of force to solve problems that are fundamentally political. Security measures can buy time and keep the situation quiet, but they cannot solve the root problems.

A criticism leveled against Prime Minster Netanyahu has been the absence of any real Israeli peace initiative. The political echelon on the right says: How can we pursue any real peace initiatives with a crumbling Middle East and a PA that we do not consider to be a partner? The security establishment tends to see that characterization as too simple, and one that overlooks opportunities and potential partners.

What calculations is Abbas, who is eighty-one years old, making on negotiations with respect to his domestic position?

The number-one issue Palestinians in political circles are talking about today is not how to resolve their conflict with Israel, but rather, the succession struggle that has already begun. Palestinian politics today is dominated by a sense of suspended animation. There’s a recognition that big changes are going to take place by virtue of the actuary table, yet there’s so much uncertainty about what will happen next.

When Yasser Arafat was president, there was a designated successor to take over the three main institutions: the PLO, PA, and Fatah. Today, the lines of succession for each of those bodies are not at all clear. The successor for the PA is meant to be the speaker of the parliament, who is a member of Hamas. But Hamas is not a member of the PLO and, by definition, not a member of Fatah. So how is this all going to play out when Abbas is gone? Jockeying is already taking place within all the respective political bodies with an eye toward that day.

This succession will mark the end of a generation of Palestinian leaders who came of political age when the PLO was based in Arab capitals and only returned to the Palestinian territories with the Oslo agreements. The next leader is going to be someone who comes from the West Bank or Gaza. It’s going to mark a shift in the center of gravity from those who the Palestinians call “outsiders” to “insiders”—those who have been on the front lines confronting Israel.

The political implications of the looming generational shift are not clear. It will depend on which leaders emerge, how they do so, and whether they can exert their authority over Palestinian institutions. Succession could be messy, prolonged, and even violent. Palestinians are rightfully anxious about it.

Secretary Kerry is representing the Obama administration in France. What is its thinking on Israeli-Palestinian issues as it marks its final months in office?

The administration knows it is not going to reach a peace agreement and has been grappling with what it can do, if anything, that will move the ball forward before the president departs. Some, particularly within the State Department, would like to see the president lay out parameters on all the final-status issues to lay the basis for future negotiations. They believe doing so would do the next president a favor. I’m not so sure.

Yet the Israelis are worried that President Obama may support efforts within the UN Security Council, particularly after the U.S. elections in November, that would be unwelcome in Israel. This probably contributed to Netanyahu’s recent nods toward peace. Israel’s calculation now is the more activism it demonstrates, the easier their case to forestall punitive international measures will be. But all we’ve really seen so far is talk.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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