The Mideast Peace Process Has Never Been So Irrelevant


abbas-netanyahuBy Amnon Lord

The news last week that the Quartet is suggesting indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the territorial issue caught me by surprise. I believe most Israelis were not aware of any development at all on the Palestinian front, let alone that the Palestinians had responded favorably and that Israel rejected the proposal outright. You could not find much ado about it even in a pro-Palestinian paper like Haaretz.

The reason is sadly simple: Israelis have nearly forgotten about the existence of the Palestinians as an entity. The Palestinians may be at the center of conferences in many important and glorious places in the world at this very moment, but Israelis just don’t know anything about it.

If you travel to the depths of the West Bank, around Nablus or Ariel, you’ll observe a routine of civilian and economic life moving along busy roads. From Hizmeh checkpoint all the way to the heartland of the Palestinian villages surrounding Nablus, you can hardly notice an Israeli soldier. Only in Tapuach junction are there a few border guards. By my estimate, at least two-thirds of the traffic volume is Palestinian.

You could define this as a semi-transparent occupation. The friction is concentrated in a few sour spots or at a couple of terminals. But otherwise, both sides seem to make the best of co-existence inside a strange bubble that hovers in the midst of regional turmoil and international economic distress where stability and growth are a rarity.

There is a feeling in Israel that the peace process has never been as irrelevant as it is now. And strangely, there is a near consensus in Israel about this perception. Only the experts might remark that, while nobody expects a peace settlement as a result of possible contacts between the two parties, negotiations themselves are necessary in order to create a favorable atmosphere in the region surrounding Israel and the Palestinian territories–in Jordan, for example.

The main reason for the feeling that the Palestinian front is a non-issue right now stems from the fact that it has become a sideshow. It is not at all clear how regional changes might affect possible realignments within the Palestinian camp. Some suggest that the huge Islamic takeover of Egypt is tipping the balance in favor of Hamas between the Palestinian Authority in Gaza–what Israelis call Hamastan–and the PA in the West Bank. Hamas is after all a Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

One eternal Israeli dilemma remains: should Israel negotiate with a leadership that may not be able to follow through on an agreement? But beyond this, the consensus spreads wide from the political right to the center and even into left-wing territory that Netanyahu’s government is justly demanding direct negotiations and the Palestinians are to be blamed for not coming to the table with Israel. This controversy was demonstrated dramatically a week and a half ago at the Saban Forum in Washington when US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta exclaimed, “Just get to the damn table.” It was Dan Meridor, the most dovish minister in the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue, who stood up and told Panetta, “On that one, you are simply wrong.” Israel has made unprecedented concessions in order to get the Palestinians to “the damn table” but they refuse.

Whether Meridor is right or wrong, most Israelis agree with him. It seems that even Labor party leader Shelly Yechimovich is on the same wave length with the government on the necessity for direct negotiations.

But all this is hardly Israel’s main concern. The primary worry of both Israelis and many Palestinians is how to keep the West Bank from falling under the political and military influence of forces that take their cue from Turkey, Egypt or Iran. At the same time it is of the utmost importance to secure Jordan. The radical changes in our hemisphere are very negative. It doesn’t sound reasonable for Israel to start “negotiating” around “the damn table” over 1.9 percent of land swaps in the West Bank. It seems odd that Israel has to act as a nanny for two Arab entities like the West Bank PA and the kingdom of Jordan while getting bullied and blamed for not “negotiating” with one of them.

See you after Iran: this is the Israeli answer to the Palestinians and the Quartet. See you after next year’s elections in the United States and possibly in Israel, too. See you after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas leaves office.

{Bitter Lemons/ Newscenter}