Last Friday, the Middle East Institute in conjunction with the Conflict Management Program at SAIS, Johns Hopkins held an event entitled “After Israel’s Election, Who Makes the Case for Peace?” Speakers included: Lara Friedman (Americans for Peace Now), Ghaith Al-Omari (WINEP), Ilan Peleg (MEI) and Shibley Telhami (University of Maryland)
Daniel Serwer opened the panel with the observation that since Netanyahu’s sweeping win, silence has descended upon the government formation process. What can we expect from Netanyahu’s fourth term? What can we expect from the Palestinian Authority? Is international recognition the Palestinians’ best alternative to a negotiated agreement? Are settlements Israel’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement? This discussion is taking place against the backdrop of major upheavals and uncertainty in the Middle East. How does this context affect the Israel/Palestine equation?
Ilan Peleg gave an overview of the forces at play during Israel’s latest election. Most surveys predicted that Netanyahu would loose, due to Bibi fatigue’, to the unprecedented rift with the White House, to the increasing socio-economic gaps in Israeli society, and the lack of progress on the peace process. Yet, Netanyahu prevailed.
Peleg attributes this to personality. Netanyahu’s charisma and oratory skills far outweighed those of his rival, Herzog. Netanyahu had a keen understanding of his right-wing constituency. In the final days of the election, he executed a clear cut plan, pulling out all the stops, whereby he was able to steal seats from his more right-wing rivals. Naftali Bennet’s party, Bait Hayehudi suffered, winning only 8 seats, down from 12 in 2013. Through statements like “there will be no Palestinian state under my watch”, and a call to action on the day of the elections with “Arab voters are moving to the polls en masse, and left-wing NGOs are bussing them in”, he reached out to the radical right. Peleg doesn’t see much change in policy likely during the next 2 years.
Gaith Al-Omari believes that is impossible to understand the current Palestinian situation without a broader regional understanding. He attributes the lack of Palestinian interest in the recent elections to two reasons: engaging with the left has proven only to empower Netanyahu, and secondly, they believe they have nothing to gain, as whether Likud or Labor win, it will not translate into political change, especially with regards to Israel’s settlement policy.
Al-Omari feels that Palestinians have no good BATNAs, as all ‘solutions’ will have problematic consequences. Joining international treaties and organizations has lost it’s attractiveness to the Palestinian street, as it has not led to any major advancements. Palestinians are also wary of an ICC bid, as it will have major implications for their relationship with the US, and they don’t want to use their last bullet.
A major issue arises with regards to a possible UN Security Council Resolution setting out the parameters of a peace agreement, including the right of return. Al-Omari says there is no way to ensure what this would entail. Palestinian Authority security cooperation with Israel presents a quandary, as does the lack of national unity. This must all be viewed agasint the backdrop of fears of a potential future intifada, which has a tendency to happen when you least expect it.
Shibley Telhami provided an overview of shift in the US-Israel relationship since the beginning of Obama’s tenure. Obama spent his first years in office trying to discern whether or not Netanyahu was capable of making peace. Kerry’s peace package was built to incentivize Netanyahu to create a coalition that would support a peace deal. The effort failed. After six years of trying, the US is not likely to gamble again anytime soon.
Currently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dwarfed by more pressing issues: the Iranian negotiations and the fight against ISIS. The Administration still believes the conflict is of long-term importance and remains steadfast in favor of a two-state solution. It is conceivable that Obama may support or abstain from a UNSC vote on the issue. Telhami‘s recent polling shows that there is broad opposition to settlements across party lines, and that with regards to the Jewish-Democratic binary, the majority of Americans support Israel as a democratic state. However, when it comes to Congress, there is great divide between Democratic and Republican congressman and their constituencies.
Lara Friedman discussed the future likelihood of US administration efforts towards peace. The State Department has launched a reassessment of it’s policy. They are at a loss for how to proceed. At the end of the day, it will come down to Obama’s personal interest in making a difference. She takes hope from the recent rapprochement with Cuba and believes that the President will make some personal attempt to solve the Palestinian issue before he leaves office in 2016.