Although President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell are pushing hard to get the peace talks back on track, both the Palestinians and the Israelis seem less interested in doing so.
Of course, each side is eager to show the Americans that they are not responsible for the current breakdown, but that is a far cry from the Biblical injunction of “seeking peace and pursuing it.” Why should that be?
Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, has always been an unwilling partner. Not only does he not represent the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but there are also significant elements within the West Bank who question his authority.
There could not be a clearer indication of the frailty of his regime than his reluctance to hold local elections that are now nearly two years overdue. When elections were last held for the Palestinian Legislative Council back in January 2006, Hamas won 74 seats as against the 45 obtained by Abbas’ Fatah party.
Were the Palestinians to enter into serious negotiations with Israel, any agreement would inevitably include a demand for the acceptance of the notion of two states for two peoples. Furthermore, the refugee problem would have to be settled, by and large, within the borders of the new Palestinian state with only a token recognition of “the right of return” to homes abandoned in 1948. Abbas is in no position politically to agree to such a deal.
However, most Israelis are also not over eager to pay the price that a peace agreement would entail, including relinquishing sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem and living alongside a Palestinian state that could easily fall into the hands of Hamas in the same way that the Gaza Strip has.
Following the traumatic experience of forcibly removing 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip in August 2005, the idea of evacuating considerably larger numbers of home owners from the West Bank hardly bears contemplating given the historical and religious significance of such an action.
Therefore, in some ways, the status quo would appear to be preferable. Israel’s economy is booming. (The stock exchange index has risen by 9.1% in dollar terms since the beginning of this year and house prices have risen in double digits in each of the past two years.)
Furthermore, unlike the Intifada, which brought the Israel/Palestinian conflict to the streets and shopping malls of Israel, sporadic attacks by Palestinians on settlers tend to be confined to highways over the Green Line and do not impact upon most of Israel’s citizens.
So life is good – at least on the surface. So why change things? Of course, the medium and long term prospects for a Jewish State that exercises a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip, controls much of the West Bank and limits the political independence of the Arab citizens who live there ought to be a major cause for concern. However, most Israelis, wearied by the Intifada and the seeming inability or lack of willingness on the part of the Palestinians to compromise, would appear to have thrown in their hand and prefer to live for the moment.
Given that background, the pressure being applied on Netanyahu to agree to an extension of the freeze on construction across the Green Line seems to have more to do with America’s domestic political timetable than with anything happening in the Middle East.