Israeli-Palestinian Talks Just Began, and the Hardliners Are Already Pulling Out
Since taking office this year, Secretary of State John Kerry has made putting a final end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has ravaged the region for decades one of his top priorities. So far, there have been some positive developments, with meetings taking place between top negotiators Tzipi Livni of Israel and Saeb Erekat of the PLO. Kerry has also held talks separately with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, presumably paving the way for direct negotiations between the two for an agreement. Despite encouraging signs, many observers, including PolicyMic's Miriam Elba and Saad Asad, have justifiably expressed pessimism as there have been numerous failed negotiations in the past and tensions are still high. One additional obstacle to the peace talks that must be overcome to achieve the goal of "two states for two peoples" is the hard-line factions within both the PLO and the Israeli coalition governments. Even before deciding on the nitty-gritty details of a two-state arrangement, such as borders, Palestinian refugees, and prisoners, there is a need for both Netanyahu and Abbas to tame extremist parties and leaders within their own establishments.
Last Wednesday, it was reported that all factions in the PLO except the Abbas' own Fatah refused to lend their support to the ongoing talks. Fatah, founded by Yassir Arafat, is the largest among factions composing the PLO, which effectively controls the Palestinian Authority, the body set up after Oslo accords in 1993 and given some control of West Bank and Gaza. Previously these territories were under military rule by Israel. Alongside Fatah there are several smaller parties in the organization that we do not frequently hear about nowadays. Three of them cited by media sources, People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the People's Party, all profess Marxist beliefs. Some of the parties once had violent confrontations with both Israel and Fatah and some do not accept Israel's legitimacy as a country at all. In particular, PFLP was known for high-profile terrorist attacks including hijacking airliners in the 1970s. Last month, PFLP held a protest against renewed negotiations but was quashed by force. A Palestinian oversight committee that includes heads of different parties of PLO was planned to be advising the negotiators through the process but is yet to be convened. Judging from the rejectionist attitude of these parties one worries if the committee can be formed at all, and Abbas' mandate in the talks may be damaged. It will be up to him to convince his junior partners in PLO to cooperate, as Arafat tried to do in 1999, in negotiating with Israel towards a two-state solution, so any final agreement with Israel will have legitimacy at least within PLO.
While many Israeli leaders, most notably Livni, believe that attempting to rule more than two million Palestinians who do not have a state of citizenship in the West Bank is unsustainable for the future of Israel, and Netanyahu himself also said he did not want to "govern the Palestinians," other Israeli factions and parties disagree. These include ones inside Netanyahu's government coalition and even inside his own Likud party. Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the religious nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party, opposes a two-state solution and threatens to pull out from government if negotiations proceed. He said, "Habayit Hayehudi ... will not, even for one second, be part of a government that is party to negotiations based on the 1967 borders." He and other ministers in the party also work to further expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which will impede negotiations as many settlements are built on territories where Palestinians would like to incorporate in their future state. Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister and the newly elected central committee chairman of Netanyahu's own party, also rejects a two-state solution and instead favors annexation of parts of West Bank. Netanyahu and Livni will have a lot of work to do to coax the likes of Bennett and Danon to go along with the peace talks lest they successfully undermine a historic opportunity. Alternatively, they could pull in the opposition Labour Party in the event where hardliners' exit breaks up the coalition, but a government re-shuffling may be difficult in the middle of an already arduous process.
Ultimately, it is possible that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas will get his own houses in order enough to see a final status agreement implemented. For decades, individuals and groups in power have failed the common people yearning for peace and justice and opted for endless conflict and rejectionism to maintain their power. It should be noted that in both Israel and the West Bank, and even in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, youth movements have emerged to demand more accountability from their respective government institutions in recent years. Israelis led by Daphne Leef took to the streets calling for social justice in Israel, while Palestinian youth protested against economic hardship under Abbas. On the surface, domestic concerns voiced by the protest movements are unrelated to the peace process. But political leaders who have more sympathy towards their own people's plight are probably more willing to make peace with other peoples, as violence only brings more death and destruction to innocent people regardless of nationality. If negotiations fail again, we can only hope that the people themselves on both sides can throw out their irresponsible politicians, sideline extremist factions, and put in place leaders who genuinely represent their aspirations for peace and freedom.