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A Failure to Leverage: Missed Opportunities in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

By Andrew Wilson

In May, I saw an opportunity for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the sudden arrival of Shaul Mofaz and his Kadima party into Israel’s coalition government. This hope was extinguished earlier this month when Mofaz left the coalition, just as suddenly as he had arrived. Yet despite the missed opportunities from the Mofaz debacle, the peace process is not dead. Israel’s unstable and fractious politics practically guarantee that new opportunities will arise in the months to come. But, whether Israeli or Palestinian leaders will be bold and clever enough to take advantage of these opportunities remains to be seen.

Mofaz’s ability to work on the Palestinian issue would have been predicated on developing a good working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Unfortunately, Mofaz could not overcome a minor disagreement over a law to include Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish youth in the military or national service.

In abandoning a stricter version of the law—and in turn his coalition with Mofaz—Netanyahu decided to placate his Haredi allies. Ending the long-time exemption for the Haredi Jews is popular with the Israeli public. Even Avigdor Lieberman—leader of his largest coalition partner, Israel Beiteinu—strongly supports universal military service. Now Netanyahu finds himself in a politically weakened position of relying on a narrow right-wing coalition composed of the Haredi parties and the settlers in the right wing of his Likud Party—both despised by the secular Israeli center for perpetuating injustice.

Meanwhile, the settlers will make Netanyahu’s life difficult if he does not continue to play their game. After all, it was a day after settler leader Danny Danon tried to upstage Netanyahu at a Likud Party convention on May 6 that the Prime Minister welcomed Mofaz with open arms. Now that Mofaz is out, Netanyahu once again has to make his bed with the settlers, who feel emboldened to push their special interest agenda.

On July 10, the Levy Report offered a legal opinion that the West Bank should not be considered occupied land—never mind that this position flies in the face of all the principles of international law. Dani Dayan’s July 25 New York Times Op-ed piece “Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay,” boldly proclaims this settler worldview to mainstream American readers. Never mind that it contradicts the central tenet of Israel’s international position that they want a two-state solution but blame the Palestinians for not negotiating in good faith. Advocacy of a single state for Jews inclusive of the West Bank—something near to an apartheid state—does not play well among American Jews, who want to believe that Israel shares their democratic values.

Last Sunday’s orchestrated visit of Mitt Romney to Israel will do little to buttress Netanyahu’s fragile position among his own people. For moderate Israelis, the financial costs of underwriting the settlers are a growing concern. Then there are the settlers themselves: Once the extension granted by the High Court of Justice expires on August 21 and the government is forced to evict settlers from the Migron outpost, Netanyahu can expect a host of trouble from them. Although he boasts that he will last out his term, his position is by no means secure.  

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority missed an opportunity to work with Mofaz when his meeting with President Abbas, scheduled for July 1 in Ramallah, was canceled due to demonstrations. Things were handled clumsily from the outset. The protests by Ramallah residents against Mofaz could have been anticipated, given Mofaz’s military record of squashing the Second Intifada with brutal effectiveness. This suggests that the location was poorly chosen and that a venue outside of the region—perhaps in Europe—would have better served the purpose of beginning exploratory talks. 

The Palestinians have yet to learn the subtleties of Israeli coalition politics and how to use them to their advantage. Netanyahu’s desire to keep Mofaz in the coalition could have been played as leverage to exact concessions. Mofaz joined the coalition to achieve four objectives, among them the end of the Haredi exemption and a deal with the Palestinians. Once the Palestinians saw that Netanyahu needed Mofaz to cave on the issue of Haredi exemptions, they could have signaled that they would have entertained a concession to advance the peace process—a substantial prisoner release, for example—to allow Mofaz to stay and save face with his Kadima party. If Netanyahu had obliged to keep Mofaz in the government, hundreds of Palestinians might be walking free today.

In sum, the Palestinians would do well to respond with more alacrity to opportunities when they arise and to negotiate smartly with an Israeli government whose intransigence disguises deep fractures. Doing so can sometimes reap unexpected dividends.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority is correct to proceed with its effort to achieve recognition as a non-member state by the UN General Assembly. Doing so will lay the groundwork for meaningful negotiations where the deck is not stacked in Israel’s favor. While Israeli proposals for the borders of a Palestinian state are likely to be based on the route of the security barrier, UN recognition will be of a state based on the 1967 borders. Negotiating the border of a viable Palestine must take into account both positions. The Palestinians will require a border that gives its population a contiguous territory with room for natural population growth. The Israelis will want the border to encompass the larger settlements, recognizing the investment of the Jews who live there. UN recognition can help level the playing field for the negotiations when they happen, as they must.

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Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Ryan Rodrick Beiler]

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