Why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks will go nowhere
The following are excerpts from STRATFOR’s geopolitical weekly column by George Friedman, chief executive officer of STRATFOR, a global intelligence company. He is the author of numerous books and articles on international affairs, warfare and intelligence. His most recent book is “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century.” The opinions expressed are the author’s own.
The Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) have agreed to engage in direct peace talks September 2 in Washington. Neither side has expressed any enthusiasm about the talks. In part, this comes from the fact that entering any negotiations with enthusiasm weakens your bargaining position. But the deeper reason is simply that there have been so many peace talks between the two sides and so many failures that it is difficult for a rational person to see much hope in them. Moreover, the failures have not occurred for trivial reasons. They have occurred because of profound divergences in the interests and outlooks of each side.
These particular talks are further flawed because of their origin. Neither side was eager for the talks. They are taking place because the United States wanted them. Indeed, in a certain sense, both sides are talking because they do not want to alienate the United States and because it is easier to talk and fail than it is to refuse to talk.
It should be understood that many Muslim governments would be appalled if the United States broke with Israel and Israel fell. For example, Egypt and Jordan, facing demographic and security issues of their own, are deeply hostile to at least some Palestinian factions. The vast majority of Jordan’s population is actually Palestinian. Egypt struggles with an Islamist movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which has collaborated with like-minded Islamists among the Palestinians for decades. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are infinitely more interested in the threat from Iran than in the existence of Israel and, indeed, see Israel as one of the buttresses against Iran. Even Iran is less interested in the destruction of Israel than it is in using the issue as a tool in building its own credibility and influence in the region.
In the Islamic world, public opinion, government rhetoric and government policy have long had a distant kinship. If the United States were actually to do what these countries publicly demand, the private response would be deep concern both about the reliability of the United States and about the consequences of a Palestinian state. A wave of euphoric radicalism could threaten all of these regimes. They quite like the status quo, including the part where they get to condemn the United States for maintaining it.
From the point of view of any Israeli foreign minister, the danger of peace talks is that the United States might actually engineer a solution. Any such solution would by definition involve Israeli concessions that would be opposed by a substantial Israeli bloc — and nearly any Israeli faction could derail any agreement. Israeli prime ministers go to the peace talks terrified that the Palestinians might actually get their house in order and be reasonable — leaving it to Israel to stand against an American solution. Had Ariel Sharon not had his stroke, there might have been a strong leader who could wrestle the Israeli political system to the ground and impose a settlement. But at this point, there has not been an Israeli leader since Menachem Begin who could negotiate with confidence in his position. Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself caught between the United States and his severely fractured Cabinet by peace talks.
For its part, Hamas is a religious movement, with roots in Egypt and support from Saudi Arabia. Unlike Fatah, Hamas says it is unwilling to recognize the existence of Israel as a legitimate state, and it appears to be quite serious about this. While there seem to be some elements in Hamas that could consider a shift, this is not the consensus view. Iran also provides support, but the Sunni-Shiite split is real and Iran is mostly fishing in troubled waters. Hamas will take help where it can get it, but Hamas is, to a significant degree, funded by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, so getting too close to Iran would create political problems for Hamas’ leadership. In addition, though Cairo has to deal with Hamas because of the Egypt-Gaza border, Cairo is at best deeply suspicions of the group. Egypt sees Hamas as deriving from the same bedrock of forces that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood and those who killed Anwar Sadat, forces which pose the greatest future challenge to Egyptian stability. As a result, Egypt continues to be Israel’s silent partner in the blockade of Gaza.
Therefore, the PNA dominated by Fatah in no way speaks for all Palestinians. While Fatah dominates the West Bank, Hamas controls Gaza. Were Fatah to make the kinds of concessions that might make a peace agreement possible, Hamas would not only oppose them but would have the means of scuttling anything that involved Gaza. Making matters worse for Fatah, Hamas does enjoy considerable — if precisely unknown — levels of support in the West Bank, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and the PNA, is not eager to find out how much in the current super-heated atmosphere.
The problem is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are sufficiently unsettled to make peace. Both Egypt and Israel were shocked and afraid after the 1973 war. Mutual fear is the foundation of peace among enemies. The uncertainty of the future sobers both sides. But the fact right now is that all of the players prefer the status quo to the risks of the future. Hamas doesn’t want to risk its support by negotiating and implicitly recognizing Israel. The PNA doesn’t want to risk a Hamas uprising in the West Bank by making significant concessions. The Israelis don’t want to gamble with unreliable negotiating partners on a settlement that wouldn’t enjoy broad public support in a domestic political environment where even simple programs can get snarled in a morass of ideology. Until reality or some as-yet-uncommitted force shifts the game, it is easier for them — all of them — to do nothing.
Photo caption: The sun rises over houses in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat south of Bethlehem August 22, 2010. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians would be “difficult but possible”, acknowledging there was scepticism talks will succeed when they resume next month. REUTERS/Baz Ratner