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    Middle East
     Dec 23, '13

All rocky roads lead to Palestine peace
By Victor Kotsev

It is hard to believe but it seems true: for the first time in years, there is a genuine opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a development that would profoundly transform the Middle East. Though daunting obstacles remain, refuseniks on both sides are on the defensive, and there is just a chance that domestic and international circumstances will finally align to permit the settlement of a conflict that has in many ways defined the region for decades, and thereby to redraw the political map of the Middle East.

The signs are unmistakable: when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said when marking the passing of the late South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela that he does not support boycotting Israel (only "products of the settlements" should be boycotted, he added), pulling the carpet from under the feet of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) activists and other pro-Palestinian radicals, this was just the latest in a series of events that suggest significant progress is being made at the ongoing peace talks.

True, the talks have officially stalled, with the Palestinian negotiators submitting their resignations several weeks ago and loudly accusing Israel of negotiating in bad faith. But veteran negotiators such as Gershon Baskin, who brokered the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas in 2011, say official pronouncements are likely misleading, and the most important part of any successful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians must be conducted far away from the public eye.

It is also true that the number of violent incidents in the West Bank and the Gaza strip has risen sharply recently, and several Palestinians have died in shootouts with the Israeli army just in the past few days, sparking fears of spiraling violence. But the hopeful signs for now far outweigh the bad omens.

The continuing prisoner releases, says Baskin, are another sign of progress. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spearheaded the talks, has announced that the third such release of long-serving Palestinian prisoners will take place on December 29. [1]

Moreover, the United States is widely expected to present a draft framework agreement to both sides in the next few weeks. [2] Both Israelis and Palestinians are expected to cry foul - the Palestinians already rejected recent American security proposals for the West Bank - but tacitly they might even welcome the pressure to fall in line. [3] In fact, the chief Palestinian negotiator last week said that it was still possible to negotiate precisely such a framework agreement with the Israelis by April. [4]

Besides, in the midst of a region torn apart by turmoil, both Israelis and Palestinians have much to benefit if they convincingly manage to present their corner of the Middle East as an island of stability. "Unprecedented" financial and political benefits recently offered by the European Union to both sides in the event they strike a deal already have Israeli analysts raving, [5] but this is only a fraction on the opportunities that will present themselves to both parties.

"Following a peace treaty with its Palestinian neighbors, Israel's economy could easily reach the same 7% [growth rate] that followed Oslo," Baskin wrote several months ago in a Jerusalem Post column, arguing that a peace deal would usher in investment that would solve many of Israel's financial and social woes. "At today's GDP, 7% growth would add more than $17b. to the GDP annually. That is what is called a 'breakout'." [6]

Writing for the New Yorker, the prominent Israeli intellectual and peace activist Bernard Avishai recently published an economic analysis with similar conclusions to Baskin's, arguing that Israel suffered greatly from the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) in the 2000s and pointing to, among other opportunities, that of "Israeli businesses, with Palestinian partners, building customer networks in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates." [7]

Indeed, if the Palestinian Authority hopes ever to shrug off its perpetual economic dependence on foreign donors and to transform itself into a sovereign country, peace would be the high road to accomplish that. Both countries would see countless new trading opportunities open up and would have a chance to integrate simultaneously in the Middle East and on the periphery of the European Union, serving as a bridge between the two continents.

Not to mention that, as the American representatives have reportedly pointed out time and again recently, mutually agreeable solutions are known to practically all the "core issues" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a separate blog post, Avishai detailed some of these solutions, as well as the history of the talks that led to them. [8]

An important note is due: the hopeful vision of the two-state solution is seen, by Avishai and others, not as imposing artificial boundaries on the closely entangled communities on the ground, but as a prelude toward a confederation of sorts, a large interconnected urban sprawl inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians. "In effect, this must become one big system: two nations, yes, but one urban infrastructure," Avishai wrote in a separate article in The Daily Beast. [9]

The truth is that not only the political map of Israel and Palestine, but also that of the entire region, stands to be redrawn. There is some tragic irony in the fact that this moment of opportunity was made possible in large part due to the spiraling chaos and violence all around in the region, but it is also true that a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help just about everywhere else.

Even Iran would be able to claim credit for the breakthrough - thanks in part to a string of Israeli prime ministers, from Yitzhak Rabin to Benjamin Netanyahu, who drew a clear link between the Iranian nuclear program and the peace talks [10] - and the Iranian regime would be in a position domestically to offer greater concessions in the negotiations with the West. These negotiations are likely to extend beyond Iran's nuclear program and to cover also regional crises such as the civil war in Syria.

Also if the Iranian negotiations fail, Israel stands to win much from a peace deal. That situation would likely see it firmly integrated into the emerging Sunni camp in the Middle East, comprising some 80% of the region's Muslims. For the first time in its history, the Jewish State would have a reason not to see itself surrounded by a sea of enemies.

Even Israeli hawks would have a reason to rejoice, making it less likely for them to mobilize sufficiently to torpedo a deal: if all else fails, Israel would enjoy widespread regional support and freedom of military action against the Iranian nuclear program.

On the Palestinian side, President Mahmoud Abbas would get a chance to finally establish himself as the unchallenged leader of all Palestinians, as his main rival movement, Hamas, which is already facing unprecedented international isolation due to the recent course of events in Egypt and Syria, would face unprecedented pressure to fall in line or leave power. Hamas is already feeling some of this pressure, as evident from its recent calls for reconciliation. [11]

But while most analysts doubt that the rival Palestinian movements will be able to bridge their differences in the near future, some within Abbas's party, Fatah, are reportedly dreaming of a joint Egyptian-Palestinian operation to remove Hamas from power in Gaza. [12] Such an idea might be received far more sympathetically by the international community with a peace treaty with Israel in place (and at stake).

Even in the most propitious circumstances, a peace deal is far from certain. Many difficult challenges remain to be resolved, and there are many opportunities where even relatively weak spoilers could derail the process.

On the other hand, most observers agree that this may be the last opportunity to save the two-state solution and that, if the effort fails, a new wave of large-scale bloodletting is likely in store. Ironically, the brightest sign yet for the peace talks could be the shockingly high price each side is projected to pay if they fail.

1. Kerry: Next group of Palestinian prisoners to be released as planned at end of month, Ha'aretz, December 13, 2013.
2. Officials: Americans to present framework agreement in weeks to Netanyahu, Abbas, Ha'aretz, December 12, 2013.
3. Abbas rejects US plan for permanent Israel troop presence, Agence France-Presse, December 13, 2013.
4. Israeli-Palestinian talks might take a year to complete: Erekat , Reuters, December 18, 2013.
5. EU set to offer massive aid to Israel, Palestinians for peace deal, Ha'aretz, December 13, 2013.
6. Encountering Peace: The Israeli economic breakout, May 1, 2013.
7. Envisioning a Peaceful Israel, Scientifcally , New Yorker, November 5, 2013.
8. Olmert and Abbas: Round Two, Or Is It Three?, Bernard Avishai dot com, May 26, 2013.
9. How The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process Became The World's Greatest Bore, The Daily Beast, April 16, 2013.
10. US security guarantees can reassure Israeli public on Iran, al-Monitor, December 11, 2013.
11. Hamas PM calls for unified Palestinian government with PA, Ma'an, December 19, 2013.
12. Egypt and Israel spar over Gaza as Sinai crisis escalates, al-Monitor, November 20, 2013

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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