Postcard from Jerusalem and Ramallah

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

July 12, 2010

On a June 24-30, 2010 visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah, during which he met with the top Israeli and Palestinian leadership, Martin Indyk sensed a shift in mood, which could well signal a growing ripeness for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Ramallah looks like a boomtown.  The West Bank economy continues to grow at a robust 11 percent, fuelling a Palestinian desire for normal life after a decade of intifadah-inspired suffering.  There is no appetite for a return to violence among West Bank Palestinians; a sentiment that appears to be shared by their counterparts in Gaza, where the easing of Israel’s closure holds hope for a new beginning.  

Strangely, the Gaza flotilla crisis seems to have bolstered the sense among the West Bank leadership that it is time to try to strike the deal with Israel.  Abu Mazen, buoyed by his meetings at the White House and with American Jewish leaders, appears to be ready to move into direct negotiations with Bibi Netanyahu.  He is flexible about the necessary fig leaf to make this possible – he is just looking for a credible explanation he can give to the Arab League, which mandated his participation in the current “proximity talks.”  If Israel were to permit Palestinian police to resume control of “B Area” villages (where the Israel Defense Forces retain overall security control), and declare that there would no longer be IDF incursions into “A Area” cities (where the Palestinian Security Forces are supposed to have full responsibility) that would probably do it.  He intends to continue a campaign of public diplomacy designed to convince Israelis and their American Jewish supporters that they have a Palestinian partner for peacemaking.  He is even ready to address the Knesset.

In Israel, the public mood is in flux.  While Prime Minister Netanyahu was preparing to depart for another meeting with President Obama in the White House, twenty thousand Israeli citizens were marching on his residence to demand that he negotiate the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit with Hamas.  The price for that deal is well known: the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners including 425 Hamas terrorists some responsible for the worst attacks on Israeli civilians.  The Israeli people seem to want their leader just to get on with it. 

The Israeli public also knows the price for peace with the Palestinians: the relinquishing of all the West Bank, save the settlement blocs, shared sovereignty in Jerusalem, and a deal on Palestinian refugees that compensates them for their suffering but denies them the ability to return to Israel.  Until now, Israelis have shown little interest in pressing their leaders to make that deal.  They felt there was “no partner” on the Palestinian side, so there was no point.  But that was before the advent of an American president who defined the U.S. national interest as requiring a settlement of the Palestinian problem.  And that was before their government bungled the interception of a flotilla bearing aid for Gaza, triggering a wave of international condemnation. 

Suddenly, Israelis feel alone in the world and fear for their future.  They have always lived with a sense of existential dread, but in recent years, as the intifadah waned and the Israeli economy rebounded from the global recession – beaten only by China – Israelis began to enjoy their newfound prosperity and calm.  This growing sense of security has now been punctured, driving them at first into a collective crouch, and an instinctive rallying behind their embattled government. 

But as they contemplate their circumstances, the public is becoming impatient.  They sense that their ship of state is no longer on an even keel.  In recent times both the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces have bungled straightforward operations, doing great harm to Israel’s strategic relations with Turkey and its reputation in the Arab world. If Israel faced such international condemnation from intercepting a flotilla, how will it fare if it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, or bombs Lebanese infrastructure in retaliation for Hezbollah rocket attacks?  Israelis are now contemplating these questions and wondering whether dependence on deterrence and force alone is enough to secure their future.  Perhaps their prime minister needs to take the diplomatic initiative?

That is certainly what his more moderate advisers are urging on Netanyahu.  President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, feel that Israel can no longer remain stalled and on the defensive even though they have a good deal of sympathy for Netanyahu’s political circumstances.  They are all convinced that he must find a common way forward with President Obama. Last week’s White House meeting was critically important in that regard because Netanyahu seems to have succumbed to their arguments and proposed a series of gestures toward the Palestinians that should be sufficient to generate direct negotiations and perhaps avoid another argument about extending the settlements moratorium when it expires in September.  Did he also indicate to Obama that he knows what he has to do on West Bank territory?  If the President’s effusiveness after their one-on-one meeting is any indicator, he may well have done so.

Can Netanyahu make peace while maintaining his right-wing coalition?  The latest effort to secure more peacemaking running room by bringing Kadima into a broader governing coalition seems bound to fail.  Tzipi Livni appears keen to join the government if Netanyahu is serious about making peace, but Bibi is apparently fearful of the zero sum nature of the deal: if Livni is in, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will likely leave and that will render Netanyahu dependent on Livni for the survival of his coalition.  He apparently prefers not to rock the boat.  And that means, even as he enters direct negotiations, he will continue to be constrained by coalition partners who do not believe in the two state solution.

Lieberman portrays himself as a follower of that camp, announcing on the eve of George Mitchell’s last visit that there is no chance for a peace agreement with the Palestinians in the next two years. But Lieberman is unlikely to leave the government if Netanyahu proceeds into direct negotiations with Abu Mazen, if only because Bibi will then have no choice but to bring Kadima into his coalition, leaving Lieberman to languish in opposition.   Nevertheless, he too understands the need to do something that can get Israel out of the corner.  Consistent with his lodestar of separation from the Palestinians, he has launched his own initiative to have the EU replace Israel as the provider of water and electricity to Gaza.  Another sign of his recognition of the Israeli mood-shift is that Lieberman has publicly resurrected his proposal for including Arab villages from Israel’s Galilee in the land swap required by the two state solution. 

Interestingly, Iran is not preoccupying Israel’s leaders for the time being (Bibi apparently put it aside during his meeting with Obama to focus on the Palestinian issue).  This is in part because they are satisfied with the new UN sanctions and the unilateral steps that the U.S. and Europe are now taking to give them some real teeth.  They have also taken note of Obama’s toughening rhetoric (“I am determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”) and his rejection of the Brazil/Turkey initiative to head off sanctions.  And they see the Iranians struggling with their centrifuge enrichment program: Ahmadinejad’s announced target is 15,000 centrifuges operating in 10 sites to produce 10,000 tons of low enriched uranium (LEU).  So far only 3,000 centrifuges are operating in two sites and they have only produced 2,000 tons of LEU.  In the Israeli assessment, the Iranians will need a robust breakout capability to make the risks of acquiring nuclear weapons worthwhile and they don’t have it – at least for the time being.  This is why some Israelis speak about combining tougher sanctions with more robust covert efforts to slow the Iranians down.

In summary, Israel is now focused on the Palestinian issue, there is public support for a diplomatic initiative, and Abu Mazen also seems ready to engage in direct negotiations.  Even in the Middle East, a crisis can sometimes produce an opportunity.