In wake of Gaza war, is there a new opening?
Tel Aviv — Seven weeks of war have left behind large swathes of Gaza City destroyed and thousand of Palestinian casualties. In Israel, dozens of soldiers died, thousands of residents fled their homes and polls show that Israelis believe that the cease-fire reached last week will eventually give way to a new war.
But now that the guns have gone silent for a week, diplomacy is taking center stage.
In the coming weeks, Israeli and Hamas negotiators will be returning to Cairo in an effort to reach a long-term truce agreement. At the same time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization has hinted about two conflicting paths: returning to peace talks with Israel and ratcheting up international pressure on Israel through the United Nations.
Through it all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly mentioned over the last several weeks that the war had created new “diplomatic possibilities” thanks to a regional coalition that had been formed against Hamas consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Most observers seem to think that Netanyahu is focused on leveraging that coalition to keep Hamas isolated in Gaza by obstructing its efforts to rearm through tight monitoring systems and blocking trade through Hamas’ network of tunnels.
But could those diplomatic possibilities include the renewal of peace talks with Abbas?
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said it very well could, provided that the Palestinian president distances himself from Hamas. Just a few months ago, Netanyahu suspended peace talks with the Palestinians because of Abbas’ decision to form what was dubbed a “reconciliation” government with Hamas.
But since the end of the war, the Palestinian president has come out against Hamas. In criticism that echoed Israel’s statements that Hamas had gained none of its demands as part of the cease-fire and that the terror group essentially accepted the original cease-fire proposal from the beginning of the war despite thousands of deaths and Palestinians wounded.
“There seems to be some indications that President Abbas seems to be looking askance at Hamas,” Shoval said. “We have to see what the attitudes of the PA will be in fulfilling their tasks in Gaza. That will have an impact on renewing the negotiations, which we want. The prime minister said we want to renew negotiations, but we want to do this without any encumbrance with Hamas.”
Indeed, such a peace process might be on more solid footing if Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia were actively included to support Abbas. A negotiated settlement could boost the Palestinian leader while weakening Hamas.
However, the fallout from the Gaza war has had the opposite effect on Palestinian public opinion, with a surge in support for Hamas and waning of support for Abbas. Concerned about appearing feckless amid the war, the Palestinian president’s latest signals regarding stirring United Nations pressure on Israel and approaching the International Criminal Court to press war crimes accusations could be an attempt to show to the Palestinians that he is fighting the Israelis diplomatically.
Despite those signals, dovish members of Netanyahu’s cabinet have said in recent weeks that the post-war diplomacy and arrangements for Gaza should strengthen Abbas at the expense of Hamas; those include deploying forces loyal to Abbas at the Egyptian border and routing reconstruction efforts through the Palestinian Authority.
But others in the Israeli cabinet remain dubious about the potential for cooperation with Abbas in Gaza. “I’m not enthusiastic about it,” said Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz. “Even if Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre] will send 300 soldiers, armed policemen to the border crossings, those 300 people will be intimidated by Hamas. So what?”
Indeed, the majority of ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet would likely oppose the concessions necessary to re-energize a peace process. And earlier this week, the government appeared to take a step further from talks by announcing the nationalization of about 1,000 acres of West Bank land — a signal of plans to expand settlement activity in the Gush Etzion settlement block southwest of Jerusalem.
A statement from the Defense Ministry’s coordinator of government activities in the territories said the move was linked to a two-and-a-half month offensive in the West Bank following the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens hitchhiking home from a yeshiva.
“Three teenagers were murdered there,” said Ze’ev Elkin, a parliament member who heads the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, in a Monday interview with Israel Radio. “The classic Zionist way has always been to say: You are trying to get rid of us? We will build.”
The move stirred up a howl of international protest from the European Union, Great Britain and the U.S. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki released a statement that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the land move because “the steps are contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians.”
An editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper was scathing, saying the land nationalization “empties Netanyahu’s slogans of content. … Netanyahu proves every time the claims of the Palestinians that Israel has no interest whatsoever in a two-state solution.”
Dani Dayan, a former chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements, said anyone who believes the prime minister was hinting about peace talks with the Palestinians suffers from a case of wishful thinking.
“There is a Pavlovian reaction: People think that ‘diplomatic horizon’ means negotiations with the Palestinians,” said Dayan. “My interpretation is that he was talking about warmer relations with certain Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I don’t think there is any chance of renewing negotiations. There is no possibility of reaching an agreement with Abu Mazen.”
Despite the opportunities for diplomacy, the results of the Gaza war may have made it more difficult practically to re-engage in negotiations. The battle with Hamas has reminded Israelis of the risks that come with pulling Israel’s army out of the West Bank, and hardliners such as Dayan are now predicting that Israel will face attack from tunnels underneath the Green Line.
Anat Kurz, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said it will take more political will to create a real diplomatic horizon on peace talks. She said the Israeli public will be more skeptical about withdrawals, while Abbas is likely to raise his price for returning to the negotiating table.
“Theoretically, there’s a possibility to revive the peace process. It’s a matter of political will and courage. It will be even harder now to convince the Israeli voter to take the necessary risks in the West Bank, understandably,” Kurz said. “Abbas is expecting no less, and maybe more than what he expected out of the negotiations before the war, when we were still dealing with the [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry process. It’s because of his efforts to calm tensions [in the West Bank]. He really did, and he really paid the price.”
Kurz said she is not optimistic. “The diplomatic horizon is so far away. When you look at it from Israel, you keep on walking and it keeps moving farther and farther from you.”
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