At the moment, the Middle East peace process appears to have descended into a bizarre impasse, more akin to farce than tragedy. Both sides are announcing demands and possible concessions, none of which seem to last longer than a single news cycle.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses a renewal of the settlement freeze, then says it might be renewed in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians hint that they may be willing to recognize Israel as such, and soon after declare that it will never happen. Then they publicly declare that only a return to the ’67 borders will satisfy them, something that, given the facts on the ground, is impossible, as they are well aware.
Now, there is the controversy over Netanyahu’s issuance of building tenders in Jerusalem, which would normally not be a problem, but in the current atmosphere is generally being considered as yet another shot across the bow of the Palestinians.
This tit-for-tat bickering is not particularly dignified for either side, but it is more or less to be expected, considering that neither Israel nor the Palestinians were particularly interested in negotiations in the first place. Politically, economically, and psychologically, the time could not be less ripe for serious talks of any kind, let alone talks dealing with the most sensitive final status issues essential for any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The talks, and the farce now surrounding them, are wholly the creation of the president of the United States. Barack Obama’s sudden push for direct talks between the two parties, motivated mainly by electoral considerations, has had its predictable effect. Thankfully, it appears unlikely that anything worse than embarrassment will result from Obama’s ineptitude, but this is not entirely certain. Certainly, the two sides are now more alienated than they were beforehand, and positions are being taken by both sides that are considerably more hardline than before. When and if serious talks begin again, they will likely be even more difficult and protracted than if Obama had simply left well enough alone.
Obama’s failure in this regard is not merely the result of the fact that he pushed for negotiations when conditions were far from ideal. In fact, Obama sabotaged the peace process from the outset, largely through his own incompetence. By opening his presidency with a demand for an Israeli settlement freeze, including in Jerusalem and its environs, he pushed both parties into a corner. Netanyahu could not agree to such a freeze without endangering his governing coalition, and Abbas could not negotiate without it. As a result, demands on both parties were too high before negotiations even began. The impasse at which we now find ourselves is the inevitable outcome.
The short-term consequences of the current malaise, however, are not particularly sanguine for Israel. Thus far, Obama has demanded next to nothing of the Palestinians, and he seems unlikely to do so in the future. As such, his next step will likely be to further pressure Israel for concessions of some kind. Netanyahu, however, has conceded all that he can without toppling his own government, and since pressure from Obama serves only to strengthen the prime minister’s support among the Israeli public, he has no motivation of any kind to acquiesce to it.
A great deal, of course, depends on the November midterm elections in the United States. If Obama is handed a truly epochal defeat at the polls, he may moderate his stance toward Israel in the face of a hostile Congress and for fear of further alienating Jewish voters. On the other hand, and this seems more in keeping with Obama’s character, he may well react defensively to defeat, and return to his political base with renewed fervor. The president, after all, is not a man who reacts particularly well to proof of his own shortcomings. If this does prove to be the case, Obama and Netanyahu may be headed for another in their long series of confrontations.