Preparing for a Showdown in the Middle East This Fall

by William Galston | July 8, 2010

In his session with the press after an Oval Office discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Obama said, “We expect ... proximity talks to lead to direct talks, and I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such ... talks.” Indeed it is, without further ado and without preconditions. But it takes two to tango, and the Palestinians have steadfastly refused to initiate such talks unless Israel agrees to a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Responding to the meeting, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that “Netanyahu must decide if he wants peace or settlements. He cannot have both.” Last year this was Obama’s view as well. As he said in his Cairo speech, “The U.S. does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” For his part, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beitenu, which controls 15 vital seats in Netanyahu’s coalition, has declared unequivocally that the current partial freeze will not be extended when it expires in November; the settlements will grow. Several smaller right-wing coalition partners have said the same thing.

For the reasons stated in my column last week, I do not think that the prospects of replacing the current Israeli coalition with one more forthcoming on the settlement issue is likely to succeed. Arithmetically, Likud, Kadima, and Labor would produce a solid 68 votes in the 120-seat Knesset. But there’s a problem: even if Netanyahu wanted to bring his Likud party into such a coalition, he probably couldn’t. There’s no evidence that a majority of Likud MK’s would go along, and splitting Likud would destroy Netanyahu’s political base. There’s an outside chance that Shas, which represents Sephardic Orthodoxy, could be bribed with yet more state funds for its educational and social institutions. (It has worked before.) But recent developments within Shas have brought it closer to the pro-settler camp, and there are other obstacles as well.

There’s one remaining possibility, articulated today by my Brookings colleague (and former U.S. ambassador to Israel) Martin Indyk after his trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah last week: Obama’s perceived even-handedness has emboldened Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, to move into direct negotiations and to try to strike a final deal with Israel. If Indyk is right, substantial Israeli concession on West Bank security issues would give him the “fig leaf” needed to make direct negotiations possible, even if settlement activity continues.

Indyk has a thousand times more experience in these matters that I do, and I very much hope that he’s right. But somehow I doubt it. The settlements are as visceral for the Palestinians as they are for pro-settler Israelis, and I find it hard to believe that Abbas could so easily set aside or explain away his previous position. If Netanyahu is serious about squaring this circle, he’ll probably have to put his cards on the table and answer some questions about the shape of a final settlement, including borders, Jerusalem, and mutual security. Whether he could do this without blowing up his coalition is anyone’s guess. And I haven’t even mentioned Hamas or questioned the willingness of either party to enter an agreement that doesn’t include it. My best guess: it will take some brave steps on both sides and skillful U.S. diplomacy plus an ample helping of luck to avert a crisis this fall. I am not optimistic.

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