The question why there is no peace progress offers a good opportunity to review the obstacles to peace that have emerged in the course of the past two and a half years. During that time, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama took office, and the Olmert-Abbas peace talks ended in failure.
There is no peace process because neither the Israeli nor the PLO leadership wants one. And there is no peace process because the Obama administration is not prepared to use real muscle to make one happen. Each of these actors has its own rationale for avoiding a serious process.
The Netanyahu government in Jerusalem is not prepared to make the territorial concessions necessary to enable a process to succeed. It also has security demands, such as a long-term Israeli armed presence in the Jordan Valley, that are incompatible with peace. Whether or not these security demands are sincere or are simply a tactic for evading territorial concessions, there are clear and persuasive alternatives to a long-term Israel Defense Forces deployment in the Jordan Valley that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refuses to consider. In addition, some elements in his government object to the emergence of a Palestinian state on religious-ideological grounds and/or because they fear such a state would be non-viable and would fall into extremist hands. They represent a minority of Israeli public opinion but a majority of Netanyahu’s coalition.
In recent years, Israelis have elected hawkish leaders not because Israelis reject peace but in reaction to extreme and seemingly irrational acts of violence by our neighbors: suicide bombings; rocket attacks from territory unilaterally evacuated. Yet the government we ended up with under Netanyahu in March 2009 is clearly incompatible with a genuine two-state solution.
Still, Netanyahu has dissembled very successfully: he embraced a two-state solution, however ambiguously; and he invited the PLO to negotiate within the same no-preconditions format as his predecessors. Or did he? Last September, he apparently informed Abbas that negotiations had to begin with his demand that the IDF remain in the Jordan Valley for 40 years. And his negotiators have reportedly refused to accept a document outlining Palestinian positions. Meanwhile, Netanyahu builds and expands settlements, and contemplates a unilateral gesture or two that will in any event be deemed "too little, too late".
PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and many of those around him have effectively refused to negotiate for the past two years. Faced with the opportunity ostensibly to "call Netanyahu’s bluff", Abbas has refused to enter negotiations in accordance with conditions and positions that represent a considerable step backward from where negotiations ended with Olmert. Yet it is he who has always insisted that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", thereby enabling Netanyahu to renew talks from whatever point he chooses.
Further, the Palestinian drive for international recognition of statehood, energized by solid state-building accomplishments on the ground in the West Bank, appears to derive its principal rationale from an understanding that negotiations have become pointless. Everything has been discussed over and over, and very little agreed. With Olmert, Abbas reached a point where the gaps involved "only" four percent of the territory and 100,000 settlers, along with the fate of the Jerusalem holy basin and the right of return. These remain huge differences, and Abbas knows there is not the slightest chance of narrowing them with Netanyahu.
Nor can he negotiate or sign an agreement on behalf of the Gaza Strip, or hold elections there to strengthen his mandate to negotiate. He has little chance of restoring PLO control over Gaza in the near future. So Abbas exploits every opportunity to avoid being dragged into another hopeless round of negotiations, particularly when it would spoil his chances of further isolating Israel through a statehood initiative at the United Nations in September–an initiative that will also look hollow for lack of PLO rule over Gaza.
Finally, US President Barack Obama has made nothing but mistakes in the Israel-Arab context since taking office. A policy of "engagement" and gentle persuasion doesn’t work in Damascus, Jerusalem or Ramallah. Peace envoy George Mitchell’s fabled patience is not the right tactic. You don’t give presidential "vision" speeches in Cairo and Ankara without giving one in Jerusalem. The settlement freeze demand had no chance of succeeding unless accompanied by serious and even brutal pressure on Israel, the kind once practiced by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (reassessment) and even President Ronald Reagan (holding up vital arms supplies). Now, with American presidential elections barely a year and a half away and so many more urgent crises to deal with in the Middle East, Obama has apparently shoved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner.
Hence, the only Israeli-Palestinian arena worth paying attention to in the coming year is the United Nations. If Israel and the US were free of political constraints and capable of creative thinking, they could turn this Palestinian initiative into a win-win situation for Israelis and Palestinians. But they are not. And in any case, given the pace of sudden and cataclysmic events in the region, something may well happen in the next six months to once again change the parameters of Israeli-Palestinian peace.