Israeli and Palestinian extremists are attempting to sabotage negotiations before they begin

I suppose it was to be expected, but the brazenness with which extremists on both sides are trying to sabotage upcoming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is simply breathtaking. The far more serious effort is on the Israeli side, in which activists, and even members of the government, to the right of PM Netanyahu are trying to destroy the key to the talks, which was a private understanding between Netanyahu and Pres. Obama that after the “settlement moratorium” expires on September 26, Israel would largely restrict building to the main settlement blocs, Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem and other areas generally understood to be the subject of a future land swap. The difficulty here is that this was merely a private understanding, although a clear one, between two political leaders, not an agreement between governments or states, and certainly not anything public. In fact, the whole idea hinged entirely on it not becoming public — the point was that while the settlement issue has proven itself to be toxic for both the US-Israel relationship and the process of getting peace negotiations started again, Israel simply cannot be allowed to continue to change the strategic landscape with further expropriations in the West Bank or projects in Palestinian areas of occupied East Jerusalem. Therefore, the way out was not to renew the ?moratorium,? and in fact probably not say anything at all other than some vague comments from Netanyahu about the resumption of building, and that from then on Israel would be judged by what it did rather than what it said about settlements.

This understanding was that the heart of the American-Israeli quid pro quo achieved during the lovefest at the White House earlier this summer. The Israelis got in return new weapons sales, reiterated commitments to its security, assurances on Iran and the protection of its own nuclear arsenal, and a promise of direct talks without preconditions. Both the Americans and Netanyahu were satisfied, but obviously several of his cabinet partners and Likud party activists were certainly not. The strategy to sabotage this understanding, which also means by definition sabotaging the negotiations, began in earnest a few days ago when Interior Minister Eli Yishai, head of the hardline Shas party, bitterly complained in public that in all likelihood Netanyahu’s policy was going to be to only build in the large settlement blocs after September 26. At the time, the most obvious explanation for this outburst was that he was preparing his own constituency for this and protecting himself politically by registering his disagreement. However, in recent days his comments have begun to look much more like the opening salvo in a campaign by the Israeli right to sabotage the understanding, and therefore the talks, by making it public and therefore politically untenable. The most recent additions to the chorus of objections have been FM Lieberman, who has made very strong statements about the need to start building in earnest (as if Israel has been doing otherwise in the past 10 months) after September 26, and a group of Likud party hard-liners who used the occasion of Netanyahu’s absence from the country to hold a meeting in order to plot major settlement expansions beginning at the end of next month.

As the Israeli extremists are attempting to make it very difficult for Netanyahu to live up to his understanding with Obama, Palestinians, being confronted with all this bellicose rhetoric from the Israeli right about settlement building, have been placed in a position of having to take their own strident positions about a settlement freeze being a precondition for negotiations, something we had gotten beyond only a few days ago. Now, and at considerable diplomatic cost to the Palestinian interest and especially relations with the United States, Palestinian leaders and politicians are finding it politically expedient, and maybe even necessary, to make their own bold pronouncements about settlements in response, suggesting that they will walk away from the talks if settlement activity resumes in earnest, among other things. As a consequence, the effort by the Israeli extreme right to sabotage the talks is developing a momentum of its own and is starting to look like it may spiral out of control and actually work.

I think it’s extremely important for their own sake that Palestinian leaders immediately shut up about the settlement issue and leave it to the United States to ensure that the prime minister of its ally and client Israel lives up to his private commitments to the American president. For them to be pushing the issue only makes it more difficult for the Americans and damages Palestinian-American relations without achieving anything except maybe promoting the nationalist credentials of the various political figures involved. It certainly only has a counterproductive diplomatic effect, and reinforces the idea that the settlement issue is where the battle is to be fought, thereby encouraging the Israeli right in its campaign, and the whole thing becomes a vicious circle that is not likely to play out in a manner beneficial to Palestinian interests. In other words, the only way they’re going to win this fight is if the Americans do it for them, and they need to make life easier for the United States in that regard, not, as they are doing, more difficult.

Meanwhile, although with somewhat less impact, Palestinian extremists on both the left and right are doing their best to also sabotage the negotiations and raise the political cost to the PLO leadership as much as possible, in the hopes that it will ultimately prove unbearable. Hamas’ rhetoric on the issue simply couldn’t be more overwrought: they’ve called the talks ?illegal? and said that they will ?eliminate? the cause of Palestine. Left-wing factions in the PLO opposed to Fatah and Pres. Abbas tried to hold a well-publicized meeting in the West Bank to denounce the whole concept of the direct negotiations. Worse still, the meeting was broken up by thugs, apparently affiliated with Fatah, which will do nothing to enhance the reputation of Fatah, Abbas, or the PLO, no matter who was responsible for ordering it. It’s an ugly throwback to the of authoritarianism of the Arafat era which many parts of the PA government have been moving beyond rather rapidly over the past couple of years. Obviously, there’s still quite a long way to go. We knew that already, but this was a fairly depressing reminder. And, of course, it only serves to bolster the case the ultra-left-wing factions were trying to make that the negotiations are bad and calling the PA and PLO leadership into question.

What’s really interesting in the big picture is that very few of the extremists on both sides are actually categorically opposed negotiations as such, they are tactically and strategically opposed to THESE negotiations, for their own various reasons. Yishai and Lieberman are probably not opposed to negotiations in principle, although it’s hard to imagine either of them agreeing to an arrangement minimally acceptable to the Palestinians. What they’re upset about is the prospect of limiting settlement activity. Because that is essentially the condition that produced the dual American-Israeli and American-Palestinian quids pro quo that allowed the direct negotiations to be agreed, they’re willing to sabotage the talks in order to defend major settlement expansion. They do not believe that an agreement is either possible or necessary, but they think settling the occupied territories is both.

For Hamas, I think it can be assumed that if they ever seize control of the Palestinian national movement, they will be not only ready, but possibly even eager, to negotiate with Israel as the focus most of their energy on the project to ?Islamize? areas under their control, which seems to be what they care about the most. Their main political aim is the defeat and marginalization of the PLO, and to secure their own control of the Palestinian national movement. It’s certainly possible to argue that as long as they are driven by the agendas of their fellow Muslim Brotherhood parties regionally and by their patrons in Damascus and Tehran it’s hard to imagine them seriously negotiating with Israel. However, should they ever secure power, they probably won’t have much choice unless they consciously decide to place the Palestinian national cause in the service of regional Islamism or Iranian foreign policy, or both, and completely abandon any form of Palestinian nationalism. There are certainly some figures in Hamas one can imagine doing this, but others who might actually want to govern a Palestinian theocracy that has some kind of long-term modus vivendi with Israel, and one can see the prototype of that in the Cold War that now exists between Gaza and Israel. Hamas is completely addicted to the rhetoric of armed struggle but, with the utmost hypocrisy, deeply and indeed violently opposed to it in practice under the present circumstances, at least in Gaza. In the West Bank, where they don’t have to pay the price or have any responsibility for the consequences, they are all for it.

So I think it’s fair to say that most people in both sets of extremist camps who are attempting to unravel the negotiations before they’ve even begun are not actually opposed to negotiations in theory, but are playing political hardball over domestic issues and putting their own ideological considerations and political power in front of national interests in a most repulsive and irresponsible manner. And, naturally, one of the things all of these extremists are most animated by is the idea that the talks could eventually actually succeed at the expense of their narrow ideological or political agendas. If, over the long run, there wasn’t any real possibility of successful negotiations, none of these detractors would be kicking up this kind of fuss. They must not be allowed to get away with it, for if the direct negotiations can be killed or severely wounded before they even begin, they are more vulnerable than we ever thought and both the likelihood and the consequences of a spectacular failure will be much higher than even the most concerned skeptics have been imagining.