Strenger Than Fiction / Peace Talks Are Sure to Fail, but What Will Be the Consequences?

Netanyahu probably assumes that the Palestinians will walk out, and he will be justified in maintaining the status quo. But is he prepared for what comes next?

Netanyahu has recently scored a diplomatic victory, as many pundits have pointed out, because the U.S. administration has shifted pressure from Israel to the Palestinians, and pressured them into direct talks with Israel. He probably assumes that the talks will fail, because the Palestinians will walk out at some point, and then he will be justified in maintaining the status quo. But this victory is likely to be hollow.

Netanyahu, Mitchell and Abbas drawing Eran Wolkowski May 2010
Eran Wolkowski

Netanyahus worldview has consistently been that Israel, the Wests foothold in the Middle East, is likely to face threats for a very long time to come, and that any peace agreement must address all realistic threats.

Netanyahu does not believe that betting on the positive dynamics of a peace agreement is sufficient to guarantee Israels survival. The events of the last decade, starting with the second Intifada, have convinced most of Israels electorate to endorse Netanyahus views.

Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that detailed proposals published this year by the hawkish Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs more or less reflect Netanyahus position, particularly because the center is associated with Moshe Ya'alon, Netanyahu's Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Strategic Affairs, and Uzi Arad, his security advisor.

Their claims are as follows: the international assertion that any future peace agreement must be based on 1967 borders is unacceptable, because it fails to address Israels security needs. Hence Israel must to return to a security based diplomacy in which the parameters of any peace agreement must be defined by Israels security needs.

Israel must have enough time to mobilize its military reserves in the event of an attack from the east, and therefore must retain control of the Jordan valley as well as other critical territories beyond the Green Line. Israel is extremely vulnerable to air terrorism, whether through rockets or through 9/11 style suicide attacks; hence it needs complete control over all the airspace west of the Jordan as well as the electromagnetic spectrum.

None of these claimed security threats can be dismissed as paranoid fantasies: all the scenarios have precedents in the past ranging from ground attacks from the east through rocket attacks on Israel to attempts to shoot down Israelis civilian airliners. The latter scenario is particularly chilling, as the downing of single airliner would effectively shut down Israels main physical connection to the outside world in a single moment.

Let us now look at the pressures currently facing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas: a sizeable portion of his constituency has not given up on the Palestinian Right of Return to all of historical Palestine. As many pundits have pointed out, many Palestinians prefer the scenario in which the peace process is pronounced dead. The Palestinian Authority would announce its own dissolution, and Palestinians would demand Israeli citizenship, thus effectively implementing the one-state solution in which Palestinians would soon have a demographic majority.

For Abbas to gain support for a final status agreement, he needs some sizable gains with high symbolic value. The most important would be Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and at least some form of international sovereignty over the holy basin. Even under these conditions, it would be an uphill battle for him to sell the final agreement to the Palestinian people.

If Abbas has to make concessions regarding borders, it will make his task nearly impossible. This is why he insisted that the talks need to presume some understanding about borders. But if Netanyahus views are more or less reflected in the presentation of the Jerusalem Center of Public Studies, there are very good reasons why he refused to agree to such an understanding - his best offer falls far short of the 1967 borders.

Ergo: the gap between the two negotiating parties is so enormous, that the talks are headed for certain failure and we better take a clearheaded look at the likely consequences.

The most likely scenario is that failure of the talks will significantly weaken Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Palestinians will no longer have any hope of attaining sovereignty in peaceful ways, and terror attacks will resume. Israel will react forcefully, possibly along the lines of Operation Cast Lead. This will not only create outrage in the world, but may mobilize Israeli Arabs to start terror attacks inside Israel. This in turn will force Israel to restrict freedom of movement of its Arab citizens and it might start censoring internal criticism of its policies, which would endanger Israels democracy.

The scenario in which the Palestinian Authority dissolves itself and asks the international community to force Israel into the one-state solution is no more palatable. Israel will be forced to resume full control over the West Bank, but will not grant citizenship to Palestinians to safeguard Israels Jewish majority. It will then be accused of being a de facto Apartheid regime which will deepen Israels current bunker mentality, particularly if much of the world will call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions.

The only scenario that could conceivably lead to positive results is the option that Fayyad has been working toward in the last years by improving enormously on Palestinian governance and creating a viable Palestinian security force. After the talks fail, Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state along the 1967 borders next year, and seek international recognition while implementing de facto sovereignty over the territories currently under Palestinian control.

Even Fayyads option will only bear fruit if he succeeds in the difficult task of running Palestine without major security incidents for a few years. The question is whether this will change the state of mind of Israelis sufficiently to regain the lost belief that they will see peace in their lifetime.

Despite these caveats, Fayyads option is the only one that offers a glimmer of hope. His success might wake up Israels disempowered liberals to restate the case for peace. But both Israels liberals and Fayyad must be aware that such a turnaround may take the better part of the coming decade. And in the Middle East, a decade is more than enough for catastrophe to derail anything.