Perspective 64. Israeli-Palestinian Relations: Hopeless?
The current Israeli government is illogically stitiched together of eight parties from an Arab party on one end of the spectrum to three right-wing parties on the other. Whatever else it might be able to do, all the supposed sages (including myself) presumed that it would be paralyzed on Palestinian issues. Is this gloomy premonition justified?
Maybe not. At least not entirely. Recent initiatives by key figures have shown some recognition that Israel has an interest in what happens among the Palestinians. In particular, Israel has an interest in strengthening the Palestinian Authority versus Hamas.
In perspective, both sides have always had great potential impact on internal developments of the other, though they've seldom tried to exert this influence in a positive way. Back in 2005 one observer wrote that "perhaps the 'winner' in the Arab-Israeli conflict will be the first party to realize how much power it has to influence the internal dynamics of the other side and to use this power effectively."
Well, OK, that was me, frustrated at the time by the lack of attention to the impact of one's own policies and actions on the politics of the other side. But little in the interim has done much to counter this frustration.
Now comes Benny Gantz, Israeli Minister of Defense (not an unimportant position in any government), and arranges several well-publicized meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Gantz even invited Abbas to his own home in Rosh Ha'ayin, marking Abbas' first formal visit to Israel since 2010.
To be sure, coalition guidelines preclude formal negotiations with the Palestinians. But, says Gantz, maintaining a "diplomatic horizon" is within Israel's interests. And a weakened PA, versus Hamas, is not.
Gantz represents a centrist party in the government, and his initiative was not welcomed by right-wing coalition partners. But he has been joined by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who as Alternate Prime Minister (only Israel could invent such a position) is slated to take over from Naftali Bennett in another eighteen months (should the government survive that long).
Lapid recently met with Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh to discuss ways to strengthen the Palestinian economy -- and thus also the position of the PA. Lapid has also met with the head of Palestinian intelligence services to improve coordination of mutual security concerns (have I mentioned Hamas?).
None of this means that peace is imminent. Diplomacy on basic issues remains frozen, even though Lapid has said that he would try to alter coalition guidelines so serious talks could resume.
Despite the improvement in Israel's relations with some Arab states -- the "Abraham Accords" -- the Palestinian issue remains central for Israel. As Gantz put it, "our relationship with the Palestinians is critical for our security, the future of our children, and what our country will look like."
Amidst all the doom and gloom, it is helpful to point out a slight ray of positivity!
Israeli leaders have been using the metaphor of the horizon when speaking about the Palestinians, and they know why. After all, the horizon is only an optical illusion, and not a real location. What is nice about it is that the closer you get to it, the farther it moves from you. So the Palestinians are invited to imagine the "diplomatic horizon" which will never be reached. Bennett proudly announces that he will not be negotiating with the PA, and Lapid has responded by promising that, if and when he becomes Prime Minister, he will not be negotiating with the PA either. So this is the horizon.