The Peace Process

Shai Feldman is the  Judy and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and professor of politics.
Photo by Tom Kates
Shai Feldman is the Judy and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies and professor of politics.

To begin with, the prospects for Palestinian-Israeli peace were not encouraging on the eve of the Arab Spring. The Israeli government is arguably the most right-wing in the country’s history. Most Israelis who support a two-state solution to the conflict have been inactive for some time, while the right-wing opposition to a peace deal is committed, organized and mobilized.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership is weak and has made negotiations conditional on measures — notably, a total Israeli freeze on settlement construction — that Israel is not about to accept. And its polity is divided between the secular-nationalist Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas, which governs Gaza. The Obama administration’s efforts to advance the prospects of peace — having been riddled by numerous mistakes during the previous two years — have reached a dead end.

This bleak picture has been further mired — at least in the short term — by some ramifications of the so-called Arab Spring. Egypt, a central pillar of Mideast peacemaking for more than three decades, has seen its ruling family deposed. The associated weakening of the Egyptian security apparatus and its shift of focus to internal affairs have provided a golden opportunity for terrorist cells to organize in the Sinai Peninsula to attack Israel. More broadly, Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 — largely contractual arrangements among the three governments — never translated into people-to-people peace.

Now these treaties, never popular in the first place, have come under increased pressure from the “Arab Street.” One result was the mobbing of the Israeli embassy in Cairo in early September. And with nearly all Arab governments now consumed by their own domestic situations, the odds that any would be able to help the Palestinians find their way to making peace with Israel — as these governments had attempted in the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 — are much lower.

In addition, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya were associated with massive escapes or releases of prisoners from these countries’ jails, including hundreds of would-be terrorists, some of whom have already joined groups and cells that are prepared to disrupt any serious peacemaking effort. The only silver lining thus far has been Jordan’s relative stability. Should that change, the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace could receive a fatal blow.

All these changes have made the Israeli government even more nervous and reluctant to assume the risks and costs that an agreement with the Palestinians would require. For the foreseeable future, retrenchment promises to dampen further the prospects of a positive breakthrough in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

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