Stakes High as Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process Gets Push to Resume

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget. Paris, France, November 30, 2015. (Martin Bureau/Pool/epa/Corbis

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) broke down in April 2014 after they had been re-launched by US Secretary of State John Kerry a year earlier; since then, there has been near radio silence. Just recently, a French initiative to convene an international peace conference in Paris next summer to jump-start a new round of negotiations was rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in light of the fact that the French government said it would recognize Palestinian statehood if the conference initiative failed.

Mr. Netanyahu’s statement came just hours after France’s Ambassador to Tel Aviv officially presented Israel with its plans for the conference, which would be similar to the one held in Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007. The idea for the conference was floated by former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in a formal speech to the diplomatic corps at the Quai d’Orsay on January 29th. Despite Mr. Fabius’ recent resignation and replacement by former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, pushing a peace conference remains French government policy, but may soon also be endorsed by the European Union (EU).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he supported the initiative while with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his official visit to Tokyo a few weeks ago. He further called for the establishment of an international mechanism to end the Israeli occupation in accordance with a defined timetable, and for an effective method of monitoring the implementation of the agreement, having learned harsh lessons from the mistakes of the Oslo Accords and of the Quartet’s Road Map. Mr. Abbas said he is also working with the ad-hoc Arab Ministerial Committee to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution on the illegality of the expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, as well as on Israel’s obstruction of the two-state solution.

According to Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the representatives of the Quartet–the United States, Russia, the EU, and the United Nations–met on the margins of the 2016 Munich Security Conference in February and agreed to work on a joint report which will include recommendations for a re-launching of the two-state vision. This is to be done in coordination with the United Nations Security Council and with the main regional actors–Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar–on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. Ms. Mogherini stated that this Mitchell Commission-style report would be compiled in coordination with the two sides, and stressed that both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas had confirmed their willingness to engage in this new process.

However, the Prime Minister’s office has denied that Mr. Netanyahu has agreed to cooperate. Indeed, both leaders have not held an official meeting in over five years, and they were last photographed together in November 2015 shaking hands on the sidelines of the climate change conference in Paris, an image that astonished many across the divide due to the continuing violence. Despite the handshake, Mr. Netanyahu continues to blame Mr. Abbas for the “incitement” that has motivated young Palestinians to perpetrate attacks against Israelis since October 2015.

The latest polls from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) show that 67% of Palestinian citizens support the current wave of stabbings and vehicular attacks on Israelis, and believe that another armed intifada would be more beneficial than negotiations. The Israeli domestic security service Shabak has registered more than two hundred attacks so far and doesn’t foresee an end to them. More than 170 Palestinians and over 30 Israelis have been killed since October 1, numbers which are starting to worry both Israel and the PA, even though the Second Intifada had twice those numbers in the first months between October 2000 to February 2001, when 58 Israelis and 320 Palestinians died.

Even though the statistical frequency and intensity of the attacks seems to be fading, violence spiked on February 14, with eight attacks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank over the space of only 12 hoursthree attempted stabbings, three shootings and two homemade explosives devicesthough none caused Israeli casualties. Israeli Security Forces killed five Palestinian perpetrators and critically wounded one.

According to a recent Shabak assessment that was leaked to the Israeli media, there are a number of factors which act as catalysts for the eruption of violence. Among them: the lack of a political solution on the horizon; the sense that the Abbas era has come to an end and a new leadership is not yet ready (with his possible successors Marwan Barghouti still sitting in an Israeli jail and Mohammed Dahlan still in political exile in the United Arab Emirates); frustration with the never-ending occupation; and a sense of alienation between the public and the PA. But the most interesting findings point to the rise of a younger generation that was not around during the First Intifada and barely remember the second. A generation that is fed up with the family hierarchy, with the Israeli occupation, and with its own political leaders; defies parental authority and champions civil rights; also feels they have nothing to lose, and admires what their Arab compatriots have done in Tunisia or Egypt within the last five years in the framework of the Arab Spring.

The main reason why the current wave of violence has not developed into a proper intifada has been the coordination between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF), which is enhanced by the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) and the EU Police Mission (EUPOL COPPS) on the ground, as well as by the Quartet at the political level. There are also two intertwined factors that play an important role in keeping the security situation under control. First is a firm stance by Mr. Abbas against a new armed intifada—he believes the second one ultimately was counterproductive to the Palestinian national interest—and the second is his fear that any subsequent chaos could be used by Hamas to gain popularity and win the next elections (whenever they take place), and/or eventually try to take over the West Bank cities (Zone A) by force as it did in the Gaza Strip in June 2007.

The collapse of the PA constitutes a nightmare scenario for Israel, as the IDF would have to reoccupy the metropolitan areas and expend time and resources that it can ill afford to police and administer Zones A and B. Therefore, both Israel and the PA see security coordination as key to keeping the West Bank from falling to extreme elements like Hamas or terrorist groups like ISIS. However, if the peace process is not re-launched soon, it could appear to Mr. Abbas that he is running out of peaceful options.