On February 16, 2012, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings hosted a luncheon discussion with Khaled Elgindy, Saban Center visiting fellow, Natan Sachs, Saban Center fellow, and Aaron David Miller, distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The speakers discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of the Arab awakening and gave their assessments of Palestinian, Israeli, and American views of the current impasse between the two parties to the conflict. Daniel Byman, senior fellow and director of research at the Saban Center, moderated the discussion.
The peace process between Palestinians and Israelis has failed not because the two parties differ significantly on the issues but because the process itself has been flawed. The Middle East Quartet—the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia—and the current peace process is too imbalanced and too detached from realities on the ground. The Quartet is imbalanced because, although on its face it seems like a multilateral effort, in reality it is dominated by the United States. Further, the Quartet has not applied equal pressure to both parties, but rather has micromanaged the affairs of one of the parties, the Palestinians—a misstep that has only served to make the process less credible and less effective. The reaction of the United States to recent reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah—in which the Obama administration insisted that Mahmoud Abbas should remain president and Salam Fayyad should continue as the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority—is an example of this micromanagement of Palestinian affairs.
American, Israeli, and sometimes European policymakers assume that the Palestinians are only seeking statehood, when in fact their ultimate goal is freedom. The Arab Spring has shown that many Arabs see their governments as illegitimate. For Palestinians, legitimacy is not measured only by how well a state governs, but also whether the government is representative of the people’s aspirations. Therefore, Palestinian discontent with two decades of failed negotiations, and with a more fragmented West Bank and a more impoverished Gaza Strip, is part of broader dissatisfaction with their leadership and its strategy. The Palestinians’ support for the recent UN bid is an outcome of that discontent. The United States’ vehement opposition to the UN bid proves what some have long said—that the United States is more interested in the process than in achieving peace. Given the failure of the Quartet and the peace process itself, it is time to find creative alternatives to the current approach.
Almost all breakthroughs in the peace process came when the likelihood of “pain” was high and when there were incentives to make changes. Although the Arab Spring has undoubtedly had an effect on the region, it may not alter the current state of the peace process. The peace process is “comatose,” and there are few incentives for both parties to change course. The Israeli leadership does not have a clear-cut strategy and is merely reacting to events rather than shaping them; in this time of uncertainty, it is loath to take the necessary steps to change the status quo. For Israelis, favorable conditions do not exist today for taking risks, as the only source of stability around Israel is Jordan, and even the situation there is uncertain. The Arab Awakening has brought to the fore long-held fears in Israel of who will replace the region’s authoritarian rulers. The Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendance in Egypt worries Israelis, since the Brotherhood may view Israel as ideologically and religiously foreign to the Middle East. In addition, the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon or of an Israeli strike on Iran has become the main focus of Israelis.
The Palestinian Authority, as a consequence of the Arab Spring, is more focused on internal affairs and is not willing to engage in bilateral negotiations. External actors have not helped move the parties any closer to peace. In particular, there has been a leadership deficit in the Arab world, and the United States has not been feared, loved, or respected in the region for some time. For these reasons, the short-term prospects of reengaging in negotiations and finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are bleak.
Many events in the coming years will have important implications for the peace process: the outcome of the Syrian crisis, the 2012 presidential election in the United States, parliamentary elections in Israel, and possible changes in the Palestinian leadership. If the Israel-Egypt peace treaty survives, it would be a momentous signal, since it would be a popularly elected parliament and president in Egypt that had upheld the treaty. In addition, if Islamists in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza, model their behavior on the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the shift would be beneficial to Israelis and to relations between Israel and its neighbors.