For the newly re-elected US President Barack Obama the plan was clear; to be the president that ended all the wars, withdrawing most of the American soldiers from the Middle East. Like in his first presidency, he targeted to expand America's military in the Asia Pacific as a top priority, and he declared the intention to shift America’s focus from the Middle East. To achieve this, he needed to solve the one problem that according to him is the mother of all problems; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama wanted to focus on the peace process between Israel and Palestinians, and Secretary of State John Kerry was eager to take full responsibility for the job. At the time, Obama’s tension with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became a known fact. Analysis on the future of American-Israeli relations had started circulating already. Obama preferred to be in the shadow in this matter and he left the spotlight to his secretary of state.
Kerry was determined to resolve the conflict. His energy and determination was the main engine of the whole process. Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the other hand seemed to be content with the status-quo and they were not too enthusiastic to start another round of talks with the same, familiar, predictable ending.
In 2011, then-President Shimon Peres had conducted secret, unofficial peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Netanyahu’s behalf. The main purpose was to advance the possibility of restarting official talks by agreeing on a framework document. We knew that the last meeting was canceled. But what is new in this story was revealed last week. According to a report published in February 13, 2015 in The Times of Israel, during these talks which were held far from public eye for over a year, the sides had nearly reached an understanding but in the last minute Netanyahu changed his mind about the agreement. So once again nobody had the urge to start a new round of talks.
Kerry’s peace process came when both parties were weary from ineffective and fruitless negotiations. But both Israel and the Palestinians played along to not be seen as the one who wants to ruin America’s latest initiative. Of course few people were surprised when the negotiations ended. On the contrary, it was Kerry’s endurance that was astonishing.
Abbas’ unilateral moves
Kerry declared his intention to revive the peace talks several times but the war between Israel and Hamas during the summer and the tension raised by Al Aqsa did not leave room for optimism. The last couple of months were not promising for a new round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authorities.
Obama administration says that it is still serious about pursuing new negotiations but it seems like this train has left at the moment. Abbas has a new strategy which indicates that the Palestinian Authority is moving away from the United States because of this failure and doesn’t have confidence in another round of US-brokered talks.
In 2012, Abbas had sought non-member state status at the UN and the General Assembly approved the de facto recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state by accepting to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's observer status at the United Nations to ‘non-member state’ from ‘entity.’ This unilateral move was severely criticized by the United States as well as Israel.
After the failure of the negotiations with Israel, Abbas continued his unilateral moves in international bodies. The last move in that sense was Abbas’ request to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), aimed at holding Israel accountable for alleged war crimes; a decision that can be very unproductive in the end.
On the other hand European countries started taking a more pro-Palestinian stance as they have grown frustrated with Israel, since the collapse of the latest peace talks in April 2014. As Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, they believed Netanyahu is not interested in peace. Lawmakers urged their governments to recognize Palestine, a non-binding, symbolic move that will not have immediate effect but shows clearly the European reaction to the subject. Most Western countries previously supported Israel and US position that an independent Palestinian state should emerge from direct talks and negotiations with Israel and parties should not continue unilateral moves.
Sweden became the biggest Western European country to recognize Palestine, and parliaments in France, Spain, Britain, Portugal and Ireland held votes in which they backed non-binding resolutions in favor of recognition. In December the European Parliament accepted a decision expressing support ‘in principle’ of the recognition of a Palestinian state and the two-state solution, and believes these should go hand in hand with the development of peace talks, which should be advanced. The motion is only symbolic, having no practical implications but it clearly shows European opinion.
Israel decided to freeze the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues
Israel’s decision not to transfer tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority in response to its ICC membership move can end up with the collapse of the Palestinian economy. The collapse of the economy can bring the collapse of the Palestinian Authority as an entity and this may lead to serious security breaches. A result that neither Israel nor the international community would prefer. Tension already elevated, a small local incident may grow to larger riots throughout the territory. This is when Hamas or even worse, international terrorist organizations can take control of the West Bank and fill the power vacuum.
The month of March is very critical for Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s much criticized speech to the American Congress is scheduled for March 3rd, Israeli early elections are on March 17th, and the deadline on Iranian nuclear framework deal is on March 24th. These dates will change a lot in the Middle East.
For Netanyahu the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat and he says he will talk and defend its position in every possible platform. Netanyahu accepted the invitation from the Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner without a formal invitation from Obama. This is seen as an action against the diplomatic protocol. Obama administration is against Netanyahu’s speech when Israeli elections are so close. For Netanyahu this is a chance to score points in Israel’s domestic political race by ‘standing against the will of the US president for the sake of his country.’ Or at least this is how it looks in Washington. Relations between the United States and Israel are particularly tense, and this is no secret.
Upcoming Israeli elections
The upcoming Israeli elections are big challenge for Netanyahu. There is a fatigue with Netanyahu and the electorate question the ten years he served as prime minister. Isaac Herzog is not a new name in the political life but he is little known to Israelis. The race is close according to the polls and it is sure that the new government that will be formed from the results of this election will change the political scene. If Netanyahu (aka Bibi) wins again with the security card or the image of the courageous prime minister who stood against America, the Palestinians will probably be frustrated. A new and fresh left wing government with Herzog (aka Buji) and former chief negotiator with the Palestinians Tzipi Livni can change the atmosphere; dialogue instead of confrontation may triumph. But it is still too soon to predict.
There is no sign of a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at the moment. One has to wait the outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections to foresee the next step in the future of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the Arab initiative would be a good start as a basis for negotiations. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia founded the Arab Peace Initiative at the 2002 Beirut Summit of the Arab League. The proposal promised a complete normalization of relations between 57 Arab states and Israel. The initiative called on Israel to withdraw from Arab territories occupied with 1967 war, a just and agreed upon solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees and accept the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian State. It was adopted unanimously by the League in 2002, and reaffirmed in 2007 but has never been a basis to resolve the conflict. Now that the king is dead, the future of this comfort zone is unknown but it will be a bold step to try and revive this initiative. The one thing that the future negotiations must respect is Palestinian statehood aspirations and Israel’s security concerns. The rest can be solved with goodwill.
Karel Valansi Diplomatic Observer March 2015 issue