The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not always a zero-sum game. Sometimes both sides win, and this is one of those times. It must be admitted that this is a somewhat counterintuitive idea, especially since most observers of the peace process seem to think that the breakdown in negotiations between the two parties is an unmitigated disaster for all involved.
In fact, it is a disaster only for the Obama administration, and both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas have the right to claim something like a victory.
The reason for this is a simple one: It is in the interests of both these leaders to preserve the status quo. Therefore the Obama administration’s insistence on renewing negotiations was a threat. That threat, for the moment, has been alleviated. Indeed, over the last several months, the entire negotiating process amounted to little more than pantomime, with both sides making the necessary gestures at progress while supplying the necessary obstacles to ensure that progress would not actually happen.
It is tempting to see this as a corrupt and debased way of dealing with a serious situation. Yet both sides have very good ideological and political reasons for adopting it. Netanyahu’s political reasons are clear.
In order to make concessions to the Palestinians, he would have to place his governing coalition — and, possibly, his entire political future — at risk. He would have to do so, moreover, to reach an agreement with an enemy he does not trust, which has already shown a willingness to abandon negotiations in favor of terrorist violence.
Netanyahu’s position is no better ideologically. While he has stated publicly that he would accept a Palestinian state with limited sovereignty, it is clear that the prime minister is unenthusiastic. For most of his political career, he has seen peace with the Palestinians — certainly with Fatah — as highly unlikely, if not impossible. The Palestinians’ refusal thus far to recognize Israel as a Jewish state can only harden that view. For Netanyahu, there is little point in destabilizing both his government and the current security situation by entering into serious negotiations.
Abbas has a less obvious — if in some ways more perilous — dilemma. His most dangerous enemy at present is not the Israelis (who, along with the United States, are propping him up with arms and money), but the Hamas regime in Gaza, which represents a serious popular threat to Fatah rule.
In order to reach an agreement with Israel, Abbas would have to make highly unpopular concessions on issues such as refugees and borders, likely destroying whatever remains of his legitimacy and opening the door to a Hamas takeover. Even if Abbas managed to survive, such a threat could expose the Palestinians to civil war. And to prevail in a showdown, Abbas would have to rely on American and Israeli aid, further solidifying his image as a puppet.
What’s more, it is not at all clear that some of Abbas’ misgivings are any less ideological than Netanyahu’s. Though Fatah has been politically rehabilitated as the preferable alternative to Hamas’s violent and theocratic ideology, it remains a resolutely anti-Zionist organization. Abbas makes a show of pragmatism for peace with Israel, but his sincerity remains very much in question. Case in point: his rejection of the very idea of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
Most importantly, the current situation remains in stasis because there is precious little to motivate either side to change it. The truth is that the status quo is not, at the moment, a bad one. The West Bank is experiencing impressive economic growth, and the Israeli economy remains surprisingly stable despite global financial upheaval. Violence is at a minimum, security services are cooperating, and both sides have a common enemy in Hamas.
Something like peace, in other words, is taking shape in Israel and the West Bank, though neither side may be willing to call it that. It is now quite possible that drastic moves toward a formal agreement would cause more violence than they would prevent.
That said, there are long-term pressures on both parties that will not go away. For Israel, there are the settlements, and the looming demographic problem they represent. For the Palestinians, there is the powder keg of Islamic radicalism and the refugee issue.
Sooner or later, domestic pressure will begin to build on both Netanyahu and Abbas to deal with these problems. Abbas’ recent moves toward requesting international recognition of a Palestinian state may be one such reaction. Nonetheless, at the moment, both men seem to believe that the status quo is the best they can make of a bad situation. As a result, both have struggled, in a quiet but stubborn manner, to preserve it.
Despite the best efforts of a president desperate for a breakthrough and seemingly indifferent to the possible consequences, they appear to have emerged victorious.