All indications are that the Palestinians are set to return to the top of Israel’s priority list, despite the evident boredom of the public and the politicians with what is euphemistically called in Hebrew “the diplomtic issue.” Here a muttered comment about peace by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there a demand during coalition negotiations for renewed negotiations; U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel is approaching, while in the background the calm of the status quo is weakening and a third intifada looms more threateningly than usual.
No matter what the next coalition looks like, the Netanyahu government will seek a way to renew talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The unrest in the territories and the international pressure both point in that direction.
But let’s assume that the negotiations will be renewed; what will the negotiators discuss? The old land-for-peace formula seems as distant as ever. Netanyahu opposes any territorial concessions, saying that any land from which Israel withdraws will immediately become a base for Iranian terror. He also insists that the Israel Defense Forces continue to retain a presence along the Jordan River and control the Palestinians’ border. The Arab Spring revolutions and the danger of the Jordanian government’s possible collapse appear to strengthen his argument that now is not the time to take risks.
Evacuating settlements doesn’t seem like a convenient starting point for Netanyahu either. If he followed that approach, his coalition would have a hard time functioning, members of his party would revolt and the Palestinians would in any case respond unenthusiastically. Netanyahu will head in that direction only if he is forced into it by an American dictate (as happened to Ariel Sharon in 2003, leading to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, according to his adviser Dov Weissglas).
If there is no withdrawal and no evacuation, what’s left? One thing: negotiations over Israeli and American recognition of a Palestinian state, in a follow-up to the United Nations’ decision in November to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member observer state. Such talks could lead the parties to settle on a formula that would allow Netanyahu and Obama to effectively retract their “no” vote and accept Palestine as an independent state and a partner to future discussions about a final status agreement with Israel. In such a case, the negotiations would center on words, not land.
Negotiations over the recognition of a Palestinian state would buy Netanyahu some time and some quiet, and would extricate Israel from its international isolation. Abbas would rack up a victory and leave behind a legacy as the first president of an independent Palestine. Obama would justify the Nobel Peace Prize he received. The Europeans would be able to say that America was once again walking the path it had already paved. And Netanyahu’s right-wing partners would grumble, but wouldn’t overthrow him.
An examination of Netanyahu’s past public comments indicates that he does not reject this route. His opposition to the declaration of Palestinian statehood in the United Nations was procedural, not substantive. He opposed the unilateralism of the Palestinian move, not the flag-waving itself. Last week Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to the Bar-Ilan speech, in which he called for two states for two peoples a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. From his perspective, if this result can be achieved through negotiations rather than international coercion, then that’s the path to take. This way he would be able to say he was implementing the pledge he made in his Bar-Ilan speech.
Netanyahu would require something in exchange, both from Obama and from Abbas: an American step of some kind against Iran and a Palestinian agreement not to bring Israel before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He could find himself facing a demand to freeze settlement construction and attempt to deflect it with a proposal to suspend his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. An obstacle for an obstacle.
Abbas would have a hard time refusing negotiations on recognizing a Palestinian state in talks that defer discussion of borders, the territories, Jerusalem and refugees. He accepted UN recognition of a borderless state and would find it difficult to explain why he was demanding more than that. Netanyahu and Obama can tell him that they are just fulfilling his request.
There are a lot of problems with a proposal like this. It could give rise to an Abbas-stan of sorts in a few isolated enclaves, surrounded by IDF checkpoints and Israeli settlements. But essentially, it wouldn’t change the situation on the ground. The struggle over the land will continue in full force even after Israel recognizes Palestine. Under the present circumstances, though, recognition would give all the involved parties a convenient starting point and would bestow a shared legacy on Netanyahu and Abbas.