Though it is much too early for optimism, groundbreaking developments related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are expected in the weeks following Israel’s Jan. 22 elections. A surprise already took place during the poll: Right-wing parties were deprived of the sweeping victory that analysts had predicted – in large part due to high voter turnout, particularly from the electorate of the center-left. And though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to return for a third term, he will face considerable domestic and international pressure to negotiate with the Palestinians. A growing number of media leaks and statements by European and Jordanian officials also suggest that a campaign of international pressure against the Israeli government is being prepared. “Before long, a two-state solution could be made impossible by facts on the ground,” said the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, William Hague, at a public lecture in Sydney, Australia, on Jan. 17. “We recognize the immense obstacles to the peace process, not least of all the role of Hamas in Gaza. But still, we believe that it must be a priority for President [Barack] Obama’s re-elected administration to launch a new effort to start the peace process, greater in intensity than anything seen since the Oslo Accords.”
A number of the newly empowered center-left parties in Israel share this outlook and have said that a serious peace push would be a precondition for joining Netanyahu’s government. “In March the world will present us with a peace plan,” Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister and a prospective Cabinet member, told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month. “Either it will be forced upon us or we come up with our own plan.”
Netanyahu would find it difficult to form a government without center-left parties. A pressing domestic issue – the military conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews (which was mandated by an Israeli High Court decision last year) – threatens to alienate ultra-Orthodox parties whose support would be needed in the absence of the center-left. On the other hand, it is common knowledge among peace scholars that the right – especially if backed by a strong center (rather than by hard-liners who are, by definition, spoilers) – is best-placed to sell a peace deal to the Israeli public. “The outcome [of the elections] shows that the hopes for peace are not crushed, and that the conditions for peace talks are improving,” said Peter Wallensteen, the director of the University of Uppsala’s Conflict Data Program.
Yet the case for optimism remains limited. “Post elections, I feel the same [...] the ball remains squarely in the U.S. court,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American intellectual who co-authored a recent op-ed in The New York Times calling on U.S. President Obama to take the lead in restarting the negotiations. “In the last few minutes of the two-state game, the U.S. must now choose to act, or prepare to enter a new game, one that it will have a major disadvantage in playing.”
“There’s no scenario in my mind that Israelis and Palestinians could succeed through public diplomacy, only through secret negotiations,” said the veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who mediated the prisoner swap deal between Israel and Hamas – a swap which led to the release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. “It is very early to determine whether the outcome of the election will help the peace process ... Knowing Netanyahu, he’s going to want to have a broad coalition with both parties to the left of him and parties to the right of him.” Furthermore, Baskin suggested that the far-right party Habayit Hayehudi (“Jewish Home”) – another prospective coalition partner – could choose to wait out any negotiations on the premise that they would fail and only quit government if a deal is reached.
Most hopes for progress in the peace process are pinned on the scenario that international pressure will make the status quo unbearable for the Israelis. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is already feeling intense pressure from several sides, including from the population of the West Bank and from his Hamas rivals in the Gaza Strip. Such a situation is known to peace scholars as a “hurting stalemate.”
Generally, it is believed that a European peace plan championed by the Jordanians will be presented to both sides sometime in the next few months. According to reports in the Israeli press, such a plan would most likely include a Palestinian state at the 1967 borders, and East Jerusalem as its capital. Much will depend on the reaction of the United States, which may choose to support the European initiative as part of the demonstrated “leading from behind” approach. In a recent article by journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (who is believed to be close to the White House) Obama is quoted as saying that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” – a statement that underscores the possibility of U.S. support for a European-Jordanian initiative.
Additionally, the nominations of Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel for the positions of secretary of state and secretary of defense, respectively – despite opposition in Hagel’s case from the pro-Israel lobby – suggest that Obama may be willing to take on Netanyahu, either directly or indirectly. As veteran negotiator Aaron David Miller has written, Hagel’s criticism of certain Israeli policies likely reflects closely the president’s own views.
To a certain extent, though, Obama’s choices may depend on the outcome of his domestic confrontations with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives over issues like the budget deficit, taxation and gun control. A number of analysts have suggested that the confrontations could “limit Obama’s second-term agenda.” In that case, it would make sense for him to try to set his legacy in terms of foreign policy.
In 2010, shortly before the Democrats lost control of the U.S. Congress, the CEO of the influential analysis firm Stratfor, George Friedman, noted that the president’s best option in case of a midterm election loss would be to turn his attention to foreign policy. Following last November’s election, Friedman argued that Obama “seems not to have the appetite for foreign adventures.” The approach of allowing others to take the lead – and perhaps intervening if a crucial moment comes – could very well fit the situation in which the president finds himself.
There are some additional indications that progress in the peace process may indeed be possible. Netanyahu, for example, is not only reputed to give in under pressure, but has also tried to seek compromises in the past – as during his first term in the 1990s, which was cut short due to the discontent of his right-wing partners. Moreover, last month, two separate polls commissioned by the U.S.-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace revealed that two-thirds of all Israelis would accept a peace deal involving a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Although the outcome of an expected peace push is far from certain – and many dangers remain – most experts agree that we can expect significant transformations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the next months. But as Sam Bahour and his Israeli-American co-author, Bernard Avishai, wrote: “Moderates on both sides still want peace, but first they need hope.”
Victor Kotsev is an independent journalist and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.