The diplomatic tom-toms in Washington and Jerusalem are heralding yet another “breakthrough” in the much stalled Middle East peace process. In Jerusalem on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his cabinet to support a one-time, 90-day extension of a freeze on Israeli settlement building on the West Bank in exchange for a package of fighter-jets and American security incentives that he and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hammered out Thursday in New York.
Obama officials argue that the freeze will enable the direct peace talks that broke down in September to resume, giving Israeli and Palestinian negotiators the chance to delineate borders dividing the Palestinian West Bank from Israeli territory. This, in turn, would enable Israel to expand settlements on land that is destined to remain within Israeli territory.
Naturally, grousing about the purported deal began even before its contents were disclosed. In The New York Times on Sunday, columnist Tom Friedman accused Obama of trying to “bribe” Bibi Netanyahu into doing something that was in Israel’s strategic interest – renewing peace talks which, if successful, would allow Israel to unload some 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. The alternative, he argued, was keeping the land and having to incorporate the Palestinians into the state of Israel, which would endanger either Israel’s Jewish majority or its democracy, or both. No fan of Netanyahu’s, Friedman accused Bibi of “toying” with President Obama.
So what if Netanyahu succeeds in selling the security package and the on-again-off-again talks resume. What then? While a broader peace deal is possible, few Israelis or Palestinians consider it likely.
For one thing, Israelis have greeted the latest crisis in U.S.–Israeli relations over the freeze with a yawn. Many were less riveted this weekend by the stand-off than they were by Pamela Anderson—the semi-clad celebrity who sashayed her way across an Israeli stage and television sets in her own inimitable version of "Dancing With the Stars." Many Israelis and Palestinians alike, even many peace activists in both camps. have lost faith in the process that has limped along for almost two decades. Some want what John Bolton, President Bush's former ambassador to the United Nations, writing in The Wall Street Journal, called a "Plan B.”
There is no shortage of alternatives from both sides. In Foreign Policy, Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee, discussed several "out-of-the-box" options if peace talks fail: persuading the U.N. to take over Palestinian territory now held by Israel in a trusteeship; getting the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution that would recognize the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders; or challenging Israel in the International Court of Justice or through the International Criminal Court. One way or another, she said, "the encroachment on Palestinian land and rights has to end."
Israelis, too, have floated alternatives: reviving multilateral meetings at the regional level; declaring the creation of a Palestinian state with less than full sovereignty or with transitional borders; or perhaps persuading Obama to focus on curbing Iran's nuclear-enrichment program and alleged pursuit of atomic weapons first, and only after they address the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But veteran students of the Middle East conflict dismiss these. Dan Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, says there are now “so many bad ideas floating around that there's not enough Raid in the world to spray them all dead."
The search for alternatives to the peace process, however, is fueled by deeper suspicions. For their part, many Palestinians have concluded that Israel wants to keep the land it has occupied since the ’67 war more than it wants peace with its Arab neighbors. And few think that Israel will ultimately countenance the creation of a neighboring Palestinian state. They echo Syrian Foreign Affairs Minister Walid Muallem, who asserted at a conference in Damascus Sunday that “there is no partner in Israel to make peace." He also denounced what he called "the policy of colonization (of Palestinian territories) and Judaizing Jerusalem, and the embargo on the Gaza Strip."
As for the Israelis, polls show that while a majority sees the government as corrupt, they also increasingly see Palestinians as unwilling to accept a Jewish state on what they regard as their land.
Israelis also see little penalty for standing firm. Their economy remains strong despite recession in much of the world.
Obama is perceived as weak, especially after his party's midterm election losses.
Suicide bombings and terror have largely stopped.
Hamas seems mired in Gaza, and the Palestinian economy on the West Bank is generating far more growth and employment than it once did. "There is little domestic pressure to lure us back into a process in which Israelis have lost faith," says Smadar Perry, a veteran correspondent for Tel Aviv–based Yedioth Ahronoth who has covered Israel's cold peace with Egypt and Jordan for years.
This brings us back to the American “incentive” package -- or bribe, as Friedman would have it. In exchange for Israel’s one-time, non-renewable freeze on settlement expansion, Washington has reportedly agreed to provide Israel with 20 advanced fighter jets, worth about $3 billion, one official said, in addition to the 20 jets Israel has already agreed to buy. The White House will also negotiate a security cooperation pact with Israel as Israelis and Palestinians negotiate peace. And Obama also apparently pledged to oppose a Palestinian attempt to pre-empt negotiations by asking the United Nations Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state.
Can Israel really afford not to accept such a package?
Aaron David Miller, a veteran peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, thinks not. Calling this a "sweet" deal for Israel, he says Netanyahu has "played this brilliantly," extracting key military aid and pledges from Obama while conceding little. The freeze, he notes, does not even apply to Jerusalem.
Dan Kurtzer also thinks that Netanyahu's government is likely to agree to the deal. Disputing Israeli suspicions that the Palestinians are no longer committed to peace, he argues that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad have done much of what Israel and the U.S. have pressed them to do—be it to reform the PA's security establishment and work with Israel to stop terror on the West Bank, and work "from the ground up" to strengthen the rule of law and nurture civic institutions, growth, and development. "I give this leadership high marks," Kurtzer says. The Palestinians will return to the peace table if the Israeli government agrees to extend the freeze, many experts predict.
This brings us back to the machinations in Jerusalem. Where does Netanyahu really stand? Some Israeli analysts argue that by taking a hard line on settlements in Jerusalem, (and on the possible use of force against Iran) he is seeking political cover for eventual compromise with the Palestinians.
Others doubt that the Israeli leader has either the desire or the stomach for such a fight. One Israeli analyst who knows Netanyahu well insists, surprisingly, that he is determined to resuscitate the peace talks and get a deal, though the move risks fracturing his ruling coalition. "It runs against his history, his family, his ideology, his party, his coalition," the analyst told me. "But Bibi has embraced the idea of two states for two peoples. He understands the consequences for Israel of failing to achieve that goal. He wants to do this." But, the analyst concludes, "I'm just not sure he's found a way to do it."
On one point most Middle East watchers seem to agree: even if Israel and the Palestinians return to direct peace talks, a successful outcome of the 90-day marathon session is unlikely in light of both sides' concerns, internal politics, and suspicions. Only one thing seems certain: "It will seem like a 1,000 days of root canal," Aaron Miller predicts.
Judith Miller is a writer and Fox News contributor.