It’s hard to find anyone with a positive word to say about this latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and with good reason. Having just spent a week there meeting with senior intelligence, military and diplomatic officials, as well as Palestinian negotiators and Arab-Israelis, I can say categorically that these talks will fail.
What you will almost never hear from the western media, however, is that the fault for this pending collapse cannot be laid at Israel’s door. Forget settlements; forget the wall; forget East Jerusalem; the biggest reason why these talks will fail is that Mahmoud Abbas – who nominally leads the Palestinian Authority – is not capable of getting his own house in order. He knows it, and the Israelis know it.
The fact is that a peace agreement is only crested paper unless those who sign it are actually in a position to implement it on the ground. But Abbas is in no such position with respect to the Palestinians. It’s not just that he has no control over Gaza – which instead takes its lead from Hamas, an outfit whose charter states explicitly that “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it” – Abbas has very little real control in the West Bank itself.
Those who believe that Abbas can command the loyalty of Palestinians in the West Bank are wrong. His Fatah party has largely failed to reform and revitalise itself since its spectacular electoral rejection and military ejection from Gaza in 2006-2007, and senior sources on both sides believe that were Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, exactly the same thing could happen again.
Moreover, even if Abbas could by a miracle produce a deal that would be acceptable to ordinary Palestinians, he cannot control the Islamist militants who still reject any negotiations with Israel, still more a peace agreement, as anathema. For Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, the problem is not so much Israel’s presence in the West Bank; it is Israel’s presence.
And unfortunately for Abbas, he will not be able to negotiate a deal that will be acceptable to ordinary Palestinians. There is no question that the best terms offered to the Palestinians since 1948 came at the Camp David Summit in 2000. According to Israel’s then prime minister, Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat was offered all of Gaza; more than 90% of the West Bank, with further compensation for Palestinians from pre-1967 Israeli territory; Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem; Palestinian control over half the Old City of Jerusalem; and the establishment of a massive international relief fund to help pay for the rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees into their new state.
To his shame, Arafat walked away. Had he accepted, the larger-than-life Yasser Arafat might just have carried his people along with him. Abbas enjoys nothing like the same authority, and neither are the Israelis offering him what they offered his predecessor at Camp David.
That Abbas could sign a deal for less and persuade his people to accept it is utterly inconceivable. Abbas will not sign. Indeed, hard though it may be to believe, it is highly unlikely that Abbas wants a deal at all at the present time, because he knows full well that such a deal could very well be the end of him, and he’d rather the rest of us didn’t find out.
This then brings us to the Israeli side, and it is worth trying to view the situation from their perspective. Above all else, Israel’s primary concern is security, and it will not accept any deal that cannot offer at least that much. In Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli are confronted with a negotiating partner who cannot control either his people or his territory, and who therefore cannot be trusted to implement his side of any peace agreement, even if he wanted to. How, therefore, can they be expected to take these negotiations seriously, and to offer genuine concessions?
There are plenty who argue – Abbas among them – that not until Israel dismantles the settlements, pulls down the wall and withdraws from the West Bank will security improve, but this is a fallacy. It is unbelievable how quickly it seems to have been forgotten that Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led not to an improvement in security, but a rapid deterioration. Between Israel’s commencement of its withdrawal in August 2005 and the completion of Hamas’s forceful takeover of Gaza in June 2007, rocket attacks on Israel increased by 650%, from an average of 15 per month to 102 per month. This figure spiralled higher, to more than 360 attacks per month – until Operation Cast Lead, in December 2008, succeeded in dramatically reducing these attacks to pre-disengagement levels.
The highly unpalatable but statistically indisputable reality is that Israel’s security measures work. There is no question that the security fence is not a long-term solution, but the fact is that since its construction, suicide attacks from the West Bank have decreased to zero. Were the Palestinian Authority in a position to guarantee Israel peace and reconciliation if it withdrew militarily from the West Bank, then the continued existence of the wall; Israel’s presence in the strategically vital Jordan Valley; and its insistence on the demilitarisation of any future Palestinian state would be unjustifiable.
Because Abbas is in no position to give such an assurance, and because Israel views these measures as vital for its security until such time as he can, there is no chance that Israel will accede to Palestinian demands in this regard. Meaningful negotiations are impossible if one of the captains cannot control his team.
Perhaps the best summation of the present situation was provided by my taxi driver en route to Ben Gurion airport: “Israel will give a lot for peace, including East Jerusalem and most of the settlements, but if by giving so much she cannot even expect peace in return, then why should she give at all?”
George Grant, the global security and terrorism director at The Henry Jackson Society.