Carlo Strenger
The Guardian (Opinion)
August 25, 2010 - 12:00am

Binyamin Netanyahu has scored a diplomatic victory, as many pundits have pointed out, because the US administration has shifted pressure from Israel to the Palestinians and coaxed them into direct talks with Israel. He probably assumes that the talks will fail because the Palestinians will walk out at some point, and then he will have a case for maintaining the status quo. But such a victory would be hollow.

Netanyahu's world view has consistently been that Israel, as the west's outpost in the Middle East, is likely to face threats for a very long time to come, and that any peace agreement must address all realistic threats. Netanyahu does not believe that betting on the positive dynamics of a peace agreement is sufficient to guarantee Israel's survival and the last decade, starting with the second intifada, has pushed most of Israel's electorate to endorse Netanyahu's views.

Hence there are good reasons to believe detailed proposals published this year by the hawkish Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs more or less reflect Netanyahu's position, particularly because the centre is associated with Moshe Ya'alon, his vice-prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, and Uzi Arad, his security adviser.

Their claims are as follows: the international consensus that the foundations for any peace agreement are the 1967 borders is unacceptable because it violates Israel's security needs. Hence Israel needs sto return to a security-based diplomacy in which the parameters of any peace agreement must be defined by Israel's security needs. Israel must have enough time for reserves to be mobilised in case of a ground attack from the east; hence Israel must retain control of the Jordan valley as well as of critical areas inside the territories. Israel is extremely vulnerable to air terrorism, whether through rockets or 9/11-style suicide attacks; hence it needs complete control over the whole airspace west of the Jordan and the electromagnetic spectrum.

None of the claimed security threats can be dismissed as paranoid fantasies: all the scenarios have precedents, ranging from ground attacks from the east through rocket attacks on Israel to attempts to shoot down Israelis civilian airliners. The latter scenario is particularly chilling, as the downing of single airliner would effectively shut down Israel's main physical connection to the outside world.

Let us now look at the pressures on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas: a sizable part of his constituency has not given up on the Palestinian right of return to all of historical Palestine. As many pundits have pointed out, many Palestinians prefer the scenario in which the peace process is pronounced dead. The Palestinian Authority would announce its own dissolution, and Palestinians would demand Israeli citizenship, thus effectively implementing the one-state solution in which Palestinians would soon have a demographic majority.

For Abbas to gain support for a final status agreement, he needs some sizable gains with high symbolic value. The most important would be Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem, and at least some form of international sovereignty over the Holy Basin, the area containing the Old City and surrounding holy sites. Even under these conditions, it would be an uphill battle for him to sell the final agreement to Palestinians.

If Abbas has to make concessions about borders, his task becomes well-nigh impossible. This is why he insisted that the talks need to presume some understanding about borders. Abbas has good reason to be wary, because if Netanyahu's views are more or less reflected in the presentation of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, his best offer falls far short of the 1967 borders.

Ergo, the distance between the parties is so enormous that the talks are headed for certain failure, and we had better take a clearheaded look at the likely consequences.

The most likely scenario is that failure of the talks will significantly weaken Abbas and the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Salam Fayyad. Palestinians will no longer have any horizon for attaining sovereignty in peaceful ways, and terrorist attacks will resume. Israel will react forcefully, possibly along the lines of Operation Cast Lead. This will not only create outrage in the world, but may mobilise Israeli Arabs to start terrorist attacks inside Israel. This in turn will force Israel to restrict freedom of movement of its Arab citizens and it might start censoring internal criticism of its policies, which would endanger Israel's democracy.

The scenario in which the Palestinian Authority dissolves itself and asks the international community to force Israel into the one-state solution is no more palatable. Israel will be forced to resume full control over the West Bank, but to safeguard Israel's Jewish character will not grant citizenship to Palestinians. It will then be accused of being a de facto apartheid regime, which will deepen Israel's current bunker mentality, particularly if much of the world calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The only scenario that could conceivably lead to positive results is the option that Fayyad has been working towards in recent years by improving enormously on Palestinian governance and creating a viable Palestinian security force. After the talks fail, Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state along the 1967 borders next year, and seek international recognition while implementing de facto sovereignty over the territories currently under Palestinian control.

Even Fayyad's option will only bear fruit if he succeeds in the difficult task of running Palestine without major security incidents for a few years. The question is whether this will change the state of mind of Israelis sufficiently to regain the lost belief that they will see peace in their lifetime.

Despite these caveats, Fayyad's option is the only one that offers a glimmer of hope. His uccess might wake up Israel's disempowered liberals to restate the case for peace. But both Israel's liberals and Fayyad must be aware that such a turnaround may take the better part of the coming decade. And in the Middle East, a decade is more than enough for further catastrophe.


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