By Prof. Irina Zvyagelskaya, vice-president of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies
The Palestinian-Israeli deadlock, which continues despite new accents in the U.S. approach and efforts by Russia and other members of the quartet to resume negotiations, at an international meeting or otherwise, is an outcome of many factors.
Above all, it is caused by a high degree of mistrust between the sides and their unpreparedness for sweeping turns. Few believe now in a just peace between the two peoples. The Palestinian and Israeli leaderships feel more comfortable with the existing problems (despite their declared desire for peace) than with a drastic adjustment of their positions. Israel will have to evacuate its settlers from the West Bank and solve the Jerusalem issue, while the Palestinians will have to abandon the principle of return and agree to abbreviated territory. This means adoption of a new course, the negative effects of which on political elites can be easily foreseen. At the same time, the question of how justified these steps will be remains open.
Nor can public sentiment in the region be dismissed. Hamas, with its positions slightly weaker in Gaza now, has a substantive base in the West Bank, some observers say. In this context, public pressure on the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, who are ready to enter negotiations, will increase, and a tougher approach and more convincing results will be demanded. It makes no sense to hold negotiations for their own sake, because they will only undermine the authority of the Palestinian leadership. It was no accident that in November 2009 Mahmoud Abbas said he would not run in the next election.
Many Israelis believe that peace would be a more vague and dangerous business than the preservation of the present status quo. Netanyahu and his cabinet, whether or not they recognise the “two peoples, two states” principle, still appear to be sceptical of this concept. The coalition government includes forces that in principle refuse peace with the Palestinians, since this peace requires Israel’s withdrawal from the territories held. Other forces in the government support peace but do not consider its achievement possible. They are still building new settlements and expanding existing ones.
Public opinion in both countries views the continuing confrontation as part of the struggle to maintain cultural identity, protect national values and survive. In this “value context” most tend to back leaders who demonstrate a firm intention to stick to their guns in defending the interests and symbols that historically arise during confrontation and are its product.
In the ultimate analysis, many Palestinians who see no way leading to a viable state of their own become increasingly attracted by the idea of a binational state, which is absolutely unacceptable to Israel.
The Iranian factor is also playing a growing role in the Middle East conflict. On the one hand, Iran’s aid to radical organisations and its links with the Syrian leadership have made it a key player in the area, and taken out of this context any attempts at settlement can prove inefficient. Of course, one can argue about the level of Iran’s influence on Hezbollah and Hamas, which have their own agenda, and yet the view of Iran’s policy in the region as the main destabilizing factor is widespread in Israel and not only there. On the other hand, Iran’s prospects for developing nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles of its own are, Israel believes, a threat which, compared with the Palestinian issue, becomes a marginal one from the national security standpoint.
In the existing situation the Israeli leadership is focusing on social and economic measures in the West Bank. Such an approach could have its reason if better living standards and measures to guarantee security and strengthen political leadership in the West Bank and enlarge its area of responsibility were to go hand in hand with negotiations on the final status. Creating pre-conditions for a statehood in the West Bank must not leave out Gaza, where the Palestinian population lives in much harsher conditions.
The Arab initiative still provides a framework for negotiations, and the international conference remains a triggering mechanism for their launch and maintenance.
The problem is that this construct is impossible to assemble out of the available bricks. The Palestinian issue has been going round and round in circles in recent years. The latest ceasefire is followed by new shelling, or operations in Gaza and/or southern Lebanon, taking their toll on life, but changing nothing at all, or by recurring talks.
And still a resumption of the peace process is dictated by the need for the Middle East to close this page as it faces new threats. Cultivation of contacts between quartet brokers and regional states and political forces, and the existence of identical approaches and estimates make one hope that the peace process will resume, become uninterrupted and help bring about and consolidate interim results that can stop another rollback.