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At Mideast peace talk, a lopsided table

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By Hussein Agha and Robert Malley
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Israelis and Palestinians will be sitting at the same table on Thursday, but much more separates them than the gulf between their substantive positions. Staggering asymmetries between the two sides could seriously imperil the talks.

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the head of a stable state with the ability to deliver on his commitments. Celebrations of supposed institution-building notwithstanding, Palestinians have no robust central authority. Their territory is divided between the West Bank and Gaza. On their own, Palestinians would find it difficult to implement an agreement, however much they might wish to. Israel controls all material assets; Palestinians at best can offer intangible declarations and promises.

Netanyahu operates within a domestic consensus. On issue after issue -- acceptance of a two-state solution; insistence on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; rejection of a full settlement freeze including Jerusalem; refusal of preconditions for negotiations -- his stances resonate with the Israeli people. Neither the right, from which he comes, nor the left, whose peace aspirations he is pursuing, denies him the mandate to negotiate. Netanyahu is heading on his own terms to negotiations he has demanded for 20 months; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is being dragged there without any of his preconditions having been met.

The Palestinian leadership has never been more vulnerable. Participation in direct talks was opposed by virtually every Palestinian political organization aside from Fatah, whose support was lethargic. Abbas's decision to come to Washington is viewed skeptically even by those who back him. Netanyahu's is supported even by those who oppose him.

Palestinian views are well known. There is little to no distinction between their public, opening and final positions. Yet no one truly knows the Israeli stance. Netanyahu can start with maximalist positions and then climb down, exuding flexibility next to what inevitably will be couched as Palestinian obstinacy. Palestinians are likely to be frustrated, and the atmosphere poisoned.

Palestinian negotiators have logged countless hours on final-status questions since the 1990s. The reverse is true on the Israeli side. From Netanyahu down, only one leading figure has seriously tackled permanent-status issues, and it is unclear what role Defense Minister Ehud Barak may play. This disparity should favor the Palestinians; the experienced trumps the novice. But they will also be prisoners of their well-worn outlook, whereas the Israelis will be free to introduce new ideas. Yet again, Palestinians will confront the maddening task of beginning from scratch a process they have undergone on multiple occasions.

Neither Israel's mounting isolation nor its considerable reliance on U.S. assistance has jeopardized its ability to make autonomous choices, whereas the Palestinian leadership's decision-making capacity has shriveled. Most recent Palestinian decisions have been made in conformity with international demands, against the leadership's instinctive desires and in clear opposition to popular aspirations. Despite such deference, Palestinian leaders cannot count on international support. They feel betrayed by Arab allies and let down by Washington. In contrast, Israel has defied the Obama administration without endangering close ties to Washington. Palestinians will have to take into account the views of Arab and Muslim states; Israel can negotiate by and for itself, without reference to an outside party.

What happens should negotiations fail? The status quo, though sub-optimal, presents no imminent danger to Israel. What Israelis want from an agreement is something they have learned either to live without (Palestinian recognition) or to provide for themselves (security). The demographic threat many invoke as a reason to act -- the possibility that Arabs soon might outnumber Jews, forcing Israel to choose between remaining Jewish or democratic -- is exaggerated. Israel already has separated itself from Gaza. In the future, it could unilaterally relinquish areas of the West Bank, further diminishing prospects of an eventual Arab majority. Because Israelis have a suitable alternative, they lack a sense of urgency. The Palestinians, by contrast, have limited options and desperately need an agreement.

In any event, Abbas will return to a fractured, fractious society. If he reaches a deal, many will ask in whose name he was bartering away Palestinian rights. If negotiations fail, most will accuse him of once more having been duped. If Netanyahu comes back with an accord, he will be hailed as a historic leader. His constituency will largely fall in line; the left will have no choice but to salute. If the talks collapse, his followers will thank him for standing firm, while his critics are likely in due course to blame the Palestinians. Abbas will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Netanyahu will thrive if he does and survive if he doesn't. One loses even if he wins; the other wins even if he loses. There is no greater asymmetry than that.

Hussein Agha, a senior associate member of St. Antony's College at Oxford University, has been involved in Israeli-Palestinian affairs for four decades. Robert Malley is Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group and was special assistant to the president for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001.


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