x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Palestinian issue has slipped far down the agenda

Even a full accord between Hamas and Fatah wouldn't matter very much while the Palestinians are so far down on the region's – and the world's – agenda.

Benjamin Netanyahu has his problems right now, but the Palestinians are not on the list. These days they scarcely rate a mention in the Israeli political conversation, aside from the titbit tossed to Israel's American fan base about President Mahmoud Abbas "walking away" from peace by concluding a unity deal with Hamas.

Mr Netanyahu's "peace", as his negotiators made clear in the latest round of going-through-the-motions bilateral talks in Amman, is essentially the status quo.

The boundaries of a "Palestinian state", in Mr Netanyahu's mind, are to be drawn largely along Israel's security wall, and the Palestinians would have to jump through hoops to get even that. Indeed, Israeli settlers are steadily expanding their presence on Palestinian territory, and their influence on the government of Israel.

It has now become increasingly unlikely that Israel will evacuate even the outposts built in violation of Israeli law. (Under international law, all settlement on territory conquered in 1967 is illegal).

More importantly, Israel is under no pressure to yield any territory to the Palestinians, who bring no leverage to the table. As for the international community, the US and Europe are paralysed by a refusal to confront Israel even when it violates international law and consensus, while the Arab countries are distracted by more pressing dramas. The Palestinians have slipped off the radar screen.

"Peace talks" between Mr Abbas and the Israelis is a misnomer, of course; Mr Abbas has not been at war with the Israelis for two decades. The twists of history have trapped him into administering the status quo.

The Palestinian Authority, intended to be an interim administration to prepare the way for statehood based on the 1967 lines, has become a form of authoritarian Palestinian self-government. The PA reduces Israel's friction by running some affairs and doing Israel's bidding on security matters.

Mr Abbas had naively relied on the US to compensate for the Palestinians' lack of leverage by delivering Israel to the table to make a credible deal. But America has proven itself to be bound by its domestic politics to remain in lockstep with Israel, no matter where Israel chooses to march.

Barack Obama, the president in whom so much Arab hope had been invested, doesn't even mention the Palestinians any more when he talks about Israel. (Perhaps he is ashamed of how little he has done for them, after the promises of his 2009 Cairo speech.)

Mr Abbas drew attention to this grim reality when he defied Washington to put his case before the United Nations General Assembly last September.

But not much has changed since. Pointless negotiations continue, their purpose being, apparently, to prove their pointlessness to some hypothetical foreign audience that might be spurred to act in the face of Israel's rejection of the terms for a two-state solution.

Don't bet on it. Mr Obama, having blocked Mr Abbas at the UN, has turned his attention to other matters. When he talks about Israel, he talks about a threat from Iran, never about those who live under the Israeli occupation. The Europeans gripe about Israel's settlements, but Israel scarcely takes them seriously when they have shown no inclination to break with the US on the issue.

Israel's parties of the right, in power for the past decade and likely to remain there for the foreseeable future, see no need for territorial compromise; the status quo has no downside for Israel now. The territories are quiet; the world community quiescent. The status quo is comfortable.

True, Israel is not integrated into the Middle East, but it faces no military threats that its air force and arsenal of ordnance can't obliterate. Still, their leaders whip Israelis into a frenzy over a purported Iran threat.

Israel will hold elections this year, and it's clear that Mr Netanyahu will win. He has become that rare bird in contemporary Israeli politics, the prime minister with sufficient domestic political support to see out his term if he chooses to.

His strongest opponents, Tzipi Livni's Kadima and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, are both offshoots of his own Likud party. Labor, once the "party of peace" is led by Shelly Yachimovich, who won't talk about peace with the Palestinians but only about social inequality among Israelis.

This is the context of the proposed Hamas-Fatah deal. As leaders from these parties squabble over power, they are not offering much to a people in great danger.

The strategy of armed struggle has proven to be a disaster against a better-armed enemy. Negotiations on the basis of the current power imbalance are a cul-de-sac.

"Popular struggle", in the form of non-violent mass protest action, has become a kind of rhetorical conventional wisdom, touted as much by Mr Abbas as by Khaled Meshaal. This has considerable resonance in international civil society, but is mostly exercised at a local level by communities challenging the Israeli wall or the expansion of settlements, rather than as any kind of national programme of action.

As violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinian communities continues to escalate, meanwhile, new turmoil threatens to break out on the ground.

It will matter little who holds which seats in the PA government and how or whether Fatah and Hamas agree to apportion power if they're unable to offer a strategy to put the Palestinians back at the centre of the conversation.

Right now, Mr Netanyahu is finding it all too easy to ignore them.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York.

Follow on Twitter: @TonyKaron