Israeli-Palestinian peace talks moderated by the US continue, with tensions high as both sides accuse one another of reneging on previous deals intended to build trust and move negotiations forward. The only consistent way towards a peace deal is for the US to act.
Israel was scheduled to release a final group of 104 prisoners, some of whom were Israeli Arabs, in exchange for the extension of talks by nine months and the release by the US of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard’s planned release is strongly opposed by US intelligence services, and its importance should not be underestimated. That the US has agreed to this shows that it is willing to sacrifice for the success of these talks, and that John Kerry probably places a high priority on the negotiations, a hard decision to make in the midst of ongoing problems in Ukraine.
However, Israel missed a March 29th deadline to release the prisoners over objections of the inclusion of Israeli Arabs in the group. This lead to Palestinian applications to various international conventions, which would add to the international recognition of Palestine as a state. Furthermore, several terrorist attacks have occurred
In response, members of the right-wing Jewish Home party, part of the government coalition, threatened to leave the coalition if the prisoners were released at a later date. This would break the coalition’s hold on a majority, and force it to find a new partner, most likely the Ultra-Orthodox party Shas, which would be more reliable in supporting peace talks, but would probably require the rolling back of reforms implemented by the government regarding the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men into the military. This would undoubtedly concern Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner. The FAR has discussed these tensions before (Link to: http://foreignaffairsreview.co.uk/2013/10/israel-politics/), and it is clear that Netanyahu is placed in a tough sport if he wishes to continue with the peace process.
Since Netanyahu is no peacenik, it will be up to those Israeli politicians and people who support negotiations to speak out strongly in their favor, as protestors against releasing the prisoners have dominated the scene so far. The current deadline for talks to end with a final deal is April 29th, and in anticipation of not finishing in negotiations in time, talks were intended to continue on Wednesday to extend the deadline. However, talks were postponed to allow a US envoy to arrive and to not have them meet at the same time as the funeral of an off-duty Israeli police officer who was shot while travelling to a Passover seder to Hebron, in the West Bank, an event which heightened tensions between the two sides. Netanyahu released a statement condemning the Palestinian Authority’s tepid response to the attack.
Despite these problems, Israeli negotiators have seemed optimistic about achieving a deal to extend talks by requiring Palestinians to stop seeking further recognition from international organizations such as the UN, and returning to the plans to release the final 104 Israeli prisoners as well as Pollard. Conversely, Palestinian negotiators claimed that the talks were far from breaking through, and appeared to be stuck. This statement was supported by the occasion of a Palestinian protest at the Jerusalem Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount holy site, which turned into violence between Israeli police and protesters. Additionally, the Israeli Defense Minister declared a portion of Palestinian land, surrounding many Palestinian homes, to be Israeli state territory, legitimizing settlement in the area in a blatant violation of international law.
So what will happen moving forward? The next few days will be key. For a deal to be reached, Netanyahu will have run the risk of calling new elections. This is not an unlikely prospect, as members of his coalition have expressed confidence in their ability to succeed electorally. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as the leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, which previously ran on a joint ticket with Netanyahu’s Likud, has said that the two parties would run separately. Polling from January showed that a unified Likud-Beytenu list would likely expand its number of seats to 46, while its coalition partners would lose seats, making reforming a coalition more likely, but also putting the peace process in the hands of a government with a more powerful conservative core.
This would seem to put the peace process in Netanyahu’s hands. He can most likely prevent the negotiations from continuing further if he wishes, or he can move forward with the peace process and either build a coalition more willing to negotiate or hold elections and consolidate his power, including over the peace process itself. It is possible that Israeli voters will speak out for peace and vote in a center-left government, but this cannot be counted on. If the US truly wishes to achieve a peace deal, it must recognize the substantial advantages it gives to Israel already, and make it clear that they will not continue unless Israel radically shifts its negotiating behavior.
The people of Israel have a responsibility to work towards peace, but so do the people of the United States. Americans should call on their government to act, and it should listen. Military aid to Israel, the lack of strong condemnation of settlement activity, and general support for Israel to the detriment of Palestinians cannot be allowed to continue as acts of US foreign policy. If Obama and Kerry truly wish to negotiate a peace, they will end the current biased policy towards Israel and act in accordance with the calls of the peace-seeking Israeli left. Nothing less is likely to suffice.