As we approach the forthcoming summit in Washington intended to address the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I cannot help but wonder whether its timing has more to do with American politics than with any genuine momentum in the peace process.
Whatever the case, it is, of course, true that the 10-month moratorium on construction on the West Bank to which Israel agreed last November is due to come to an end, and Abu Mazen has already made it abundantly clear that any resumption of building in the settlements would bring direct negotiations to a halt.
The term “settlements” tends to be used indiscriminately to refer to any building by Israel beyond the 1949 armistice lines. However, most Israelis would draw a clear distinction between the Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo and French Hill, and settlements such as Yitzhar located on the West Bank near Shechem. Towns, such as Ariel and Ma’aleh Adumim, would, in all likelihood, remain part of Israel under any peace agreement, and many Israelis feel that building should be allowed to continue there to meet natural growth needs.
Isaac Herzog, Minister of Welfare and Social Services, is reported as having stated recently that “Netanyahu’s peace intentions may surprise Abbas.” However, this remark more likely reflects his need to justify Labour’s continued participation in Netanyahu’s right-wing government rather than any major developments on the Israeli political front.
Abu Mazen did not want to go to Washington. Not only are the Palestinians fractured among themselves and between those living on the West Bank and those in the Gaza Strip, but his own authority is sufficiently uncertain that he chose not to hold local council elections that should have taken place no later than January 2009. He does not have the stature or enjoy the authority of Yassir Arafat, and any concessions to Israel on his part would almost inevitably lead to his downfall.
In spite of Herzog’s remark, it is difficult to conceive of Prime Minister Netanyahu making the kind of concessions that would be needed to breathe new life into the moribund peace negotiations. He is the prisoner of a right-wing government whose political agenda is largely determined by Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beiteinu” party and Shas, whose spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, expressed the hope this past weekend that “Abu Mazen and all of the Palestinians would die (from the plague).”
Not that the Palestinians themselves are prepared to compromise. A poll conducted earlier this year by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion found that, by a margin of 82% to 13%, Palestinians oppose waiving the ‘right of return’ in exchange for financial compensation for refugees and their descendants.
Furthermore, there are external forces, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, that will attempt to sabotage any hope of peace, regardless of the terms.
Therefore, as we approach a new year, there is sadly little cause for optimism. It is true that the West Bank economy is booming, and the removal of numerous road blocks by the IDF has eased the lives of many Palestinians. Nevertheless, despite these improvements, the Palestinians are unlikely to be in the mood for negotiations, if Israel resumes building in the settlements and in Jerusalem.
However, the question of who builds what and where is only a smoke screen. The real problem is that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are blessed with leaders of the stature of Begin and Sadat, who were prepared to set aside all the obstacles and take that leap that made peace between Israel and Egypt possible.