The Mideast peace talks Secretary of State Kerry staked his tenure upon have crashed; and to state the instantly obvious: Israel emerges from this debacle in a position of strength.
Does a near-term tactical advantage assure strategic success in the medium and long terms? This is the question now.Benjamin Netanyahu, who never had time for a settlement with the Palestinian Authority, was destined to run a mile from the negotiating table when a chance presented itself. As everyone knew, his political equation at home meant that either the talks or his government would have to fail.
Indeed, the Israeli prime minister was off his starting blocks as soon as Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, announced late last week a union between Fatah and Hamas, the reviled terrorist organization that governs the Gaza Strip. “Abbas chose Hamas and not peace,” Netanyahu said in an official statement. “Whoever chooses the terrorism of Hamas does not want peace.”
Exeunt the Netanyahu government, stage right.
Netanyahu and Israel stand to survive this abrupt turn well enough for now. Most immediately pressing, the prime minister has foreclosed on the demands of extremist conservatives who threatened to quit his governing coalition if he continued to release political prisoners, as he promised in an earlier round of talks, or blocked new settlement construction in the West Bank. (He promised Kerry “restraint.”)
More broadly, Netanyahu managed Israel’s cancellation of talks such that international reaction is likely to be muted. In the blame game between the Palestinians and Israelis, Netanyahu’s arguments quickly found some sympathy.
He claims his refusal to release prisoners was in response to the Palestinians’ earlier refusal to maintain negotiating momentum; that Abbas’s decision two weeks ago to apply for Palestinian membership in 15 international organizations was a precipitous breach; that uniting with Hamas is a non-starter toward a settlement.
All these assertions are questionable, but the Obama administration has quietly backed them, playing the blame card against Abbas, and in this it is unlikely to stand alone.
The regional environment is also a factor. As the Saudis and Qataris line up with Israel in response to Washington’s opening to Iran, the Middle East constellation is in fundamental flux. Reaction in the Arab world is therefore likely to be more muted than when talks have collapsed in the past.
There is, finally, the economics of the piece. For its vitality and sophistication, Israel’s economy is rivaled in the region only by Iran’s. And with the sponsorship flap concerning SodaStream, Oxfam, and Scarlett Johannson some weeks back, it is evident that the anti–Israel “BDS” movement—boycott, disinvest, sanction—has its fissures.
What’s not to like, one may ask. Considering how calamitously a collapsed negotiation with the Palestinians could have played out, Netanyahu has managed a crafty bit of diplomatic choreography. It has been rather quiet since he declared “Game over!” last Thursday.
Yet, what Netanyahu has handed Israelis and the rest of us is a brittle arrangement that is by definition a holding pattern, prone to sudden breakage, and based more or less entirely on opportunistic interests. Is this a horse worth wagering on?
True enough, the PLO and Hamas have attempted unity pacts before, and none has come to much. But circumstances differ, one try to the next. It appears more plausible now that (1) West Bank Palestinians may pull Hamas over on the question of recognizing Israel, at least in principle, and (2) the West Bank leadership has more reason now to assume some of Hamas’s tougher stance.
However it is cast in Israel, Western capitals, and the international media, Abbas and his negotiators consider themselves victims of a profound betrayal in the round of talks begun last year. Netanyahu’s political obligations, now so highly visible, are critically against Israel’s interests.
In addition, we are seeing progress in the West’s talks with Iran, as The New York Times just noted in an editorial. Success here suggests that U.S. relations with Israel could realign in ways heretofore unthinkable (as predicted in this space when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed the U.N. last autumn).
The Middle East’s dramatic flux stands to work for Israel one day and against it the next.
Finally, there are those boycotts. Having worked in the anti-apartheid movement long years ago, I attest: This kind of thing does not go away. Once launched, a grinding war of attrition ensues.
If anything, the BDS folk stand to gain momentum. Too much of the world is watching, and too little of it has a pecuniary interest in business with Israel as opposed to a perfectly practical interest in a world ridding itself of irritants contributing to terror and the insecurity of all of us.
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