Israel-Palestine theater starts a new act
By Victor Kotsev
TEL AVIV - Shortly after he "defeated" United States President Barack Obama (to
quote prominent Israeli analyst Aluf Benn) and forced him to retract a
settlement construction freeze demand, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu started to back off. "I am prepared to immediately sit privately for
direct, continuous negotiations with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmud
Abbas] until white smoke emerges," Netanyahu proclaimed on Saturday.
In recent days, moreover, Netanyahu advanced two other controversial claims:
that he had agreed to an extension of the settlement construction moratorium,
and that he had supported the "two states for two peoples" formula for over 15
years. The latter claim, in particular, drew an angry response from Israeli
opposition leader Tzipi Livni: "Nobody believes you because you say different
things in different forums."
Also on Saturday, Abbas sounded an unusually optimistic note when he said that
a peace agreement could be possible "within two months". According to the
Americans and much of the international community, Abbas shares the blame for
the failed negotiations with Netanyahu due to his unwavering refusal to
compromise on his precondition for a full halt of settlement construction.
Still, the Palestinian leader publicly pleaded with a visiting delegation of
Israeli parliamentarians two weeks ago: "We do not want to miss this
opportunity ... Please help us not to miss it. I have eight grandchildren. I
want a peaceful life for them." In contrast with Abbas' proclaimed negotiations
enthusiasm, the Palestinian Authority just launched a diplomatic campaign
against Israel, including an initiative to condemn Israeli settlement
construction at the United Nations Security Council, against the judgment of
the American administration. 
One way to explain this counter-intuitive sequence of events is to see it as a
piece of theater: both in form and in substance. In a way, the entire
Israeli-Palestinian exchange - negotiations as well as confrontations - has
gone on for so long that it has become codified into a kind of unwritten
script: sometimes a benign farce, and sometimes a profound tragedy.
This is true on a grassroots level as well: activists on both sides, for
example, have described the demonstrations against the separation fence in the
West Bank (which drew spotlights again last week when a protestor died,
allegedly after inhaling tear gas) as a kind of show. "Most people who go there
know exactly what will happen," one observer shared. "The soldiers are waiting
with tear gas, the signal is when the Palestinians start throwing stones,
everybody knows their roles and it is like their weekly Friday afternoon
But this pattern is particularly visible on the political level. One of the
fundamental properties of the self-perpetuating story of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that it is cyclical. Both sides, moreover, have
adjusted their lives to this: as nobody truly believes that it will end,
everybody has much invested in the next cycle. Thus, while they are both averse
to compromises, they are just as afraid of a standstill.
In my earlier story,
Middle East Squeeze on Obama (Asia Times Online, October 7, 2010), I
attempted to trace how "by continuously playing brinkmanship, Netanyahu and
Abbas are not only trying to squeeze more out of each other, but also are
collectively squeezing the Americans". When they ran the peace process ashore,
they shed not only many of their own commitments, but also absolved Obama of
the responsibility to extend American commitments to both sides in order to
keep the negotiations going.
Abbas, in particular, likely feels he has much to lose. There are increasing
indications that Obama is shifting his attention from the Palestinians to the
Syrians, and considering a bid to revive the Israeli-Syrian peace track. A
report to this effect in the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai caused agitation among
analysts a week ago, and the American president's gesture to bypass the US
Congress in appointing an ambassador to Syria was also interpreted as a clear
signal in this direction. (See
Obama takes a Syrian gamble
Asia Times Online, January 5, 2011.)
Such a move, moreover, would echo the decision of Jimmy Carter (a president
with whom Obama has often been compared) to stop seeking a comprehensive
Arab-Israeli peace agreement in order to focus on a separate treaty between
Israel and Egypt. It bodes poorly for the Palestinians, who might find
themselves on the back-burner in the short term, and even more isolated among
the Arabs in the long run.
Beyond lost profits, both Abbas and Netanyahu fear internal instability. Both
governments are holding together precariously, and though few people on the
ground believe that peace is likely, the negotiations are an important argument
that each (paradoxically) uses to justify its existence internally.
A number of ministers from the Israeli Labor party are urging their leader,
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to pull out of the government if the peace process
does not resume. There are other cracks in Netanyahu's coalition, too, over
social issues (such as marriage and conversion laws) that, in the absence of
the negotiations in the spotlight, will now gain more prominence in internal
Israeli politics. Benn's conclusion that "Benjamin Netanyahu has in effect
concluded his term as prime minister"  might seem a bit extreme, but his
analysis captures a danger facing Netanyahu at the current juncture.
Abbas, in turn, is said to have recently faced a coup by the exiled Fatah
leader from Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan. The latter denied the reports, but a number
of his associates have been recently arrested,  attesting to strong tensions
inside the Fatah leadership. The Palestinian Authority is in itself under heavy
pressure from Hamas, and Abbas' popularity among the Palestinian public is
Appearing to stand up to Israel, in international forums and elsewhere, can win
him points, but ultimately he needs to extract some Israeli concessions to
improve the lives of his constituency. Histrionics aside, he must conduct a
round or two of negotiations every now and then, or at least present himself as
prepared to do so.
It's hard to avoid the fact that Israeli-Palestinian contacts never ceased.
According to WikiLeaks and other reports, including occasional interviews with
former leaders such as Ehud Olmert, the understandings established are far
deeper and closer than what is generally known to the public. The peace process
is essentially a show, and until its alternative, the show of violence, becomes
more profitable to one of the sides, it will most likely go on in some form.