Middle Eastern Peace Talks May Work This Time — Here's Why
The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are beginning anew, and pundits have kept themselves busy listing all the possible outcomes. One criticism of the peace negotiations in the past has been a wide belief in limited Israeli commitment to negotiations, due to the appeal of the status quo. But despite this popular belief, this time around, the status quo presents some troubles for Israel as well. This is due to two factors that have surfaced in the last few years, and brought the Israelis to the negotiating table: An increasing international push for Palestinian statehood, and the Arab Spring.
Palestinians have begun an aggressive push to gain international recognition, and they've made it clear they'll do it with or without Israeli permission. When the Palestinians took their bid for statehood to the UN, Israel and the U.S. announced it would jeopardize the future of peace negotiations and called for the international community not to go through with the vote. However, the Palestinians won over an overwhelming majority of votes in 2012 and gained their new status as a non-member observer state at the UN. Despite the Israelis' warnings, nine months later the new peace talks began. It seemed that the Palestinian UN efforts not only failed to “jeopardize” the peace talks, they actually catalyzed them.
How? These efforts brought the Palestinian Authority legitimacy on the international stage. Elevating the Palestinians' status from an observer “entity” to an observer “state” may not have granted them a sovereign state, but it provided international recognition of its push to become one. It also allowed the Palestinians to join and engage further in other various UN bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC).
This provides the Palestinians with options they can pursue should the peace negotiations fail, including restarting a UN statehood bid or taking legal action under international law such as referring Israel to the ICC for war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. One Palestinian official explained, "If we see that whatever is happening on the negotiating table or on the ground is not going to benefit our people, we are free to use the other tools. If Israel tries, as they did in the past, to use the negotiating process as a smoke screen to hide more and more crimes, you can make sure that we are going to resume our UN path."
In addition to the UN, the international community’s support for a Palestinian state continued with the European Union’s decision to ban funding to Israeli settlement areas in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Bearing this in mind, if the Israelis choose to pursue further settlements while peace talks are taking place, they could become more isolated and lose friends in the West. And for a country with so many foes in the Middle East, this may not be an appealing option.
This brings us to the second factor, the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring had several implications for Israel. In his analysis "Political Islam and the Arab Spring," Prof. Moshe Ma’oz explains that the Arab Spring uprisings “ignited disputes between different schools of thought about the directions and goals of the Muslim parties and movements that gathered strength and came to power.” Israel’s uneasiness about the future of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty after the revolution, especially with regards to the security of the Sinai Peninsula, heightened under the Islamist government of former President Morsi, despite Morsi's promises that he would leave the treaty intact. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood might have brought the Israelis momentary relief, but the future of Egypt remains highly uncertain.
These “disputes between schools of thought” are not only among governments, but also among societies. The most important question regarding the Arab Spring aftermath is still the direction Arab governments will take when the dust settles. The Israelis generally have a very negative outlook, believing, as Netanyahu said, “the trends are Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, and anti-democratic.”. In this prediction, Israelis weren’t entirely correct, but they weren’t entirely wrong either. Although the governments that emerged weren't violent against Israel, the Arab Spring allowed radical groups to gain power and voice their hostility against Israel. Like Egypt, Jordan is also a country that has a peace treaty with Israel, and although Jordan didn’t have its own Arab Spring, it was affected by Syria’s. Today, Jordan struggles with the overt presence of jihadist groups as a spillover effect of the Syrian crisis. Netanyahu also mentioned that his “worries over Iran played directly into his Palestinian decision-making”, referring to the prospects of a more assertive U.S. role in his efforts against an Iranian nuclear threat.
As the region continues to transform, Netanyahu has stated that for Israel, "resuming the diplomatic process at this time is important for the state of Israel ... given the complex reality in our region, especially the security challenges from Syria and Iran." As opposed to his early remarks somewhat scorning the Arab Spring, Netanyahu has begun to view it as an opportunity and accepted the central role of the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the unrest shaking the Middle East. It is now more than ever in Israel’s national interest to try and resolve the conflict and mend its relations with the Arab nations.
We should be careful about viewing these negotiations through rose-colored glasses. Israel expanded its list of settlements in the West Bank only days after the negotiations began. According to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1994, the Israeli settler population has tripled in the West Bank and doubled in East Jerusalem. The negotiations in 2010 failed due to settlements. Throughout these years Israeli authorities further antagonized the Palestinians through house demolitions, land confiscations, and revocation of identity cards. Most Palestinians living in these areas today oppose the negotiations in light of these Israeli policies.
So no, none of the factors above necessarily indicate that the negotiations will succeed this time around. But they have certainly helped in bringing the two sides to the table, and if acknowledged by policymakers, may even have the power to change the dynamic of the Middle East.