Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?

1.

During the last two years, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has suffered serious setbacks. Other than for a brief, fleeting moment, Israelis and Palestinians have had no direct political contact and there is little hope, for now at least, that this will change. Any faith Israelis and Palestinians may have in the possibility of an agreement is collapsing.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

The US, sponsor of that process, has seen its credibility badly damaged. The Obama administration was repeatedly rebuffed—by Israel, from whom it had demanded a full halt in settlement construction; by Palestinians it pressed to engage in direct negotiations; by Arab states it hoped would take steps to normalize relations with Israel. An administration that never tires of saying it cannot want peace more than the parties routinely belies that claim by the desperation it exhibits in pursuing that goal. Today, there is little trust, no direct talks, no settlement freeze, and, one at times suspects, not much of a US policy.

Less visible but equally grievous is the growing loss of interest in negotiations on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Two years ago, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was somewhat confident that, with a strong US push, Israel could be convinced to reach a historic deal. Since then, his confidence has been fading. Benjamin Netanyahu began his prime ministership in March 2009 with an ambivalent commitment and apparently little motivation to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. During the period that followed, his commitment and motivation significantly diminished. For both leaders, facing publics more disenchanted than they are, it has become a political liability to project belief that negotiations can yield something. Without genuine engagement by the leaders, progress in the talks—direct, indirect, or otherwise—will be unattainable.

The current impasse has exposed a problem that runs deeper than misjudgments and missteps. Almost two decades after the peace process was launched, little remains of the foundational principle that each side has something of value to which the other aspires and thus something it can offer in exchange for what it wants. Israel holds a monopoly over all material assets. It controls Palestinian land, natural resources, and lives. Israel’s economy is flourishing, its security for now seemingly assured. Its occupation of Palestinian territories is subsidized by Western powers that purportedly seek its end. Although not as satisfactory as Israelis would like, the status quo is not as unpleasant as their adversaries would wish. Israel has become accustomed to the way things are.

In the hope of alarming Israelis, some Palestinians toy with options they haven’t seriously considered, don’t believe in, or cannot implement. To compensate for the asymmetry with Israel, Palestinians bank on US involvement, which has constrained Palestinian maneuvering without seriously influencing Israeli actions. The lopsidedness has only been made worse.

Unless they can find a way to reclaim the initiative, Palestinians risk losing the ability to shape events.…


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