Gershon Baskin thinks that the task of getting Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to anything is daunting, yet with very limited expectations, it might actually be possible to get the parties talking once again.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never end without a negotiated agreement. This is something that is known on both sides of the conflict; the absurdity of no negotiations taking place for the past years is counterproductive to their national security interests. The continuation of the conflict without serious attempts to resolve it emerges from the shared belief on both sides that there is no partner for an agreement. It also emerges from the failure of negotiations until now, with each side claiming that the other side is not willing to reach an agreement. Furthermore, the failure of the peace process over the past two decades is also due, in a large part, to violations of obligations that both sides took upon themselves in the six agreements that they signed.
Growing numbers of Israelis and Palestinians have come to believe that the two-state solution is no longer viable. Some people have been searching for new ideas such as “two states in one homeland,” a set of untenable and somewhat absurd elements, while others are building on making peace with the other Arab states and only afterwards having a deal with the Palestinians. All of this wishful thinking attempts to evade the core of the conflict which is the willingness of both sides, Israel and the Palestinians, to fight, kill, and to die for a territorial expression of their identity – a place, a national home they can call their own.
The two-state solution remains the only viable solution to the conflict, but the so-called separation paradigm based on walls and fences, largely due to fears of terrorism, remains a non-workable solution because it could never create peaceful relations. Contacts and cooperation across political borders is the best recipe for transforming a peace agreement into real peace and that will be unavoidable. This fits right into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s thinking about “economic peace,” but it must go far beyond that. The broader the cooperation in the region, the more secure will be the peace that develops following resolving the political issues. That is why a multilateral approach, first based on the regional players – Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan – is better than any bilateral approach. But so far we have not yet found the way back to the table.
The recent offer by Russian President Vladimir Putin to sponsor a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu, hopefully with the participation of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, is a very positive step. The US political system is engulfed in the presidential elections circus, making an Obama initiative this late into his presidency not possible (and not desirable, at least as far as I’m concerned).
The original offer by Sisi to sponsor the meeting was very positive, but he came under too much fire from the Egypt and the Arab streets. The Russian track could actually offer some new positive dimensions that have been absent until now. According to reports from the Palestinian side, Abbas dropped his preconditions for a meeting with Netanyahu at Putin’s request, and now the ball in is Netanyahu’s court, after stating for the past few years that he is prepared to meet Abbas any time, anywhere with no preconditions. The moment of truth is upon us.
The Russian role now is very interesting because of the increased presence of Russia in the region, especially in Syria. Russia’s role in the battle against ISIS, the Russian-Turkish reconciliation along with the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation and what seems to be full coordination between the Israeli and Russian militaries in the Syrian arena provides Russia with a powerful position in the room, if Israel and its Arab neighbors come together in Moscow. It is natural for the Palestinians to wish to see the Russians taking over the American role of mediation because they view the Americans as ultimately always defending Israeli positions against the Palestinians. The Palestinian expectation is that Russia will be much more pro-Palestinian in the negotiations and will apply pressure on Israel to make concessions.
Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use military force in Syria and has developed a very good channel of communications with the IDF. It has been reported that Netanyahu has spent more telephone time with Putin in the past year than with Obama. It could be expected that Putin will understand all of Israel’s security needs and demands vis-à-vis the Palestinians and will apply pressure to the Palestinians to accept them – including a long-term continued Israeli military presence within the Palestinian state. The Russians could offer to serve as a third party, as a peacekeeping force with Russian boots on the ground, in full coordination and cooperation with Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli forces. Russia could also have a role on the Egyptian side with regards to changing the reality in Gaza – although this has not yet been discussed yet between the parties.
During the Annapolis process under president George W. Bush, the Russians had announced their intention to convene a regional peace gathering in Moscow. The Russians organized meetings of experts to determine what the Russian role could be. It was clear at that time that the Russians intended to spend more time and effort discussing their possible role than actually playing any role. The Quartet that represented the will on the international community, including Russia, was clearly an American enterprise. With a waning American role in the region, it seems that Russia may very well step into a position that it has not yet held. The task of getting Netanyahu and Abbas to agree to anything is daunting, yet with very limited expectations, it might actually be possible to get the parties talking once again.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.