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Israelis do not have high hopes in peace talks

Negotiations with Palestinians are back on, but the issues separating the two sides appear insoluble. But the common threat of Hamas terrorism may provide the impetus for an interim agreement.

September 03, 2010|By Yossi Klein Halevi

"The peace process is back," my friend said with bitter sarcasm, after four Israelis were killed in a terror attack just before Palestinian-Israeli negotiations got underway this week. The irony may have been lost on outsiders but not on Israelis. The Oslo peace process of the 1990s was accompanied by waves of attacks by Hamas jihadists, which Israelis believe were tacitly orchestrated by their negotiating partner at the time, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. Then, in September 2000, just as Israel accepted a Palestinian state and the re-division of Jerusalem, Arafat responded by launching a four-year terror war.

But there is one crucial difference between this week's deadly terrorism and the terror assaults of those years. Today, when leaders of the Palestinian Authority condemn violence against Israeli civilians, they mean it. Where Arafat used Hamas terrorism as psychological pressure against the Israeli public, his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, is himself a target of Hamas.

For Israel, facing a negotiating partner who isn't instigating terrorism while feigning moderation is already significant progress.

Still, the mood among Israelis is anything but hopeful. The issues separating Palestinians and Israelis appear insoluble. How can the two peoples share the same capital city when their leaders can scarcely share the same negotiating table? How to resolve the Palestinian demand that Israel resettle descendants of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, when Israelis across the political spectrum view that prospect as a demographic mortal threat to the Jewish state?

And if Abbas lacks Arafat's subterfuge, he also lacks his authority. Arafat was the uncontested leader of the Palestinian people. Abbas, by contrast, represents at best half the Palestinians. Even if he manages to negotiate an agreement, he'll be undermined by Hamas, which claimed responsibility for two terror attacks against Israelis this week, aimed at destroying the negotiations even before they begin in earnest.

If the goal of the current talks is a "final status" agreement, ending all grievances, then failure is guaranteed. But for the first time since the Oslo talks ended in suicide bombings, there may be a chance for an interim agreement that could end the occupation over most of the Palestinian population and still maintain Israeli security arrangements, deferring a resolution of more intractable issues like Jerusalem and refugees.

The reason for the change is not an outbreak of goodwill but a convergence of fear. The most acute danger facing both Israel and the Palestinian Authority is radical Islam. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly regards a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to the Jewish state. And if Israel launches a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities — a real possibility should international sanctions against Tehran fail — it will need the support of its friends. Progress on the Palestinian front could ease Israeli diplomatic and military isolation.

As for Abbas, he is engaged in a life-and-death power struggle with Iran's ally, Hamas. That is why he approved an unprecedented level of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

There is more good news on the ground. Thanks to the responsible fiscal policies of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, along with Netanyahu's initiative in lifting hundreds of Israeli army roadblocks in the territories, the West Bank is experiencing a building and investment boom. Last year's growth rate was over 7%. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank offer the Palestinians a stark choice: Opt for jihad, and the result is siege and economic devastation; choose negotiations, and the result is relative prosperity.

For nearly a year, Israel has frozen new construction in West Bank settlements. Though Netanyahu received scant credit from the international community, the gesture marked the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War that no Israeli housing starts were initiated in the territories.

Now that one-year settlement freeze is about to end, and pressure within Netanyahu's coalition to resume building is intense. Netanyahu will likely give the go-ahead in the "settlement blocs," areas close to the 1967 line that will almost certainly be retained by Israel in any future agreement in exchange for territory within Israel proper. But Abbas has insisted that any resumption of settlement building will lead to a suspension of talks.

President Obama's first challenge in managing the negotiations will be to keep Abbas at the table. There is ample precedent for Palestinian leaders negotiating with Israel despite settlement building. Abbas himself negotiated with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who allowed extensive building in the settlement blocs. A quiet understanding restricting building to the blocs will allow negotiators to try to reach an interim agreement.

In the Middle East, pessimism is almost always warranted. But if expectations are kept modest and the focus holds on the common jihadist threat, Palestinians and Israelis may yet surprise themselves.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

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