January 09, 2012 Edition 1 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
At best, a year of reassessment  - Yossi Alpher
First, no longer is nothing agreed until everything is agreed.

The pragmatic solution may become practically impossible  - by Chassan Al-Khatib

2012 could be a year of dramatic change  - Yariv Oppenheimer
The Israeli peace camp must again place on the national agenda the urgent need for a peace agreement.

A grim staging ground  - Ghassan Khatib
The factors driving last year's stagnation remain in effect.

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At best, a year of reassessment
 Yossi Alpher
The year 2012 will almost certainly not witness any progress toward agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. We'll be lucky if there is no serious backsliding in the form of violence or formal withdrawal from negotiating frameworks. Meanwhile, however, we can and should be making good use of this year to reassess the entire peace process and find ways to reconstitute it in a more useful format.

There are multiple reasons for a pessimistic prognosis regarding the year ahead.

First and foremost, neither the Netanyahu government in Israel nor the Palestine Liberation Organization under Mahmoud Abbas is interested in pursuing a final status agreement under the Oslo framework, with all the concessions this would entail. Netanyahu's coalition does not want to give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the contrary, it is exploiting this US election year to expand settlements. Abbas and the PLO cannot give up the right of return or recognize Jewish historical and religious rights on the Temple Mount. As long as Oslo with its "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" credo is the official basis for negotiations, these two leaders are not candidates for an agreement.

Then there are internal political factors. Netanyahu is contemplating elections in 2012 in order to fortify his status in the event US President Barack Obama is reelected. Abbas has agreed to an Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation process with Hamas that could lead to new Palestinian elections and major changes in the Palestinian political alignment, with Hamas in some way joining the PLO--hardly a congenial backdrop for serious peace negotiations based on the Oslo framework.

Mention of an Egyptian role introduces the external Arab political scene. Unfinished revolutions in Egypt and Syria and unrest in Jordan pose the prospect of Israel being surrounded by regimes based on political Islam. This in turn is unfortunately understood by Netanyahu as a mandate for caution rather than initiative. For his part, Abbas seemingly fears he may remain the only secular ruler in the neighborhood, hence his drive to accommodate Hamas.

Moving to the international scene, Obama has clearly decided to place the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the back burner until after America's November elections, lest risk-taking and failure in the Middle East hurt his reelection chances. The Europeans, while definitely not in danger of becoming irrelevant as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened, are nevertheless divided and preoccupied with their financial crisis.

If there is little or no chance of a peace process in 2012, what can we do to ensure a better prospect for 2013 and beyond? After more than 18 years of the Oslo process and two attempts at the summit level (Camp David in 2000 and Olmert-Abbas in 2008) to resolve all final status issues, this year offers a good opportunity to reassess where the process went wrong or was misconceived and to formulate a more useful paradigm for the future.

Whether intentionally or not, Abbas has shown us a possible way forward by turning to the United Nations. The PLO's UN initiative seeks recognition of the territorial and sovereign components of a Palestinian state--the "1967 issues" of contention. In so doing, it relegates the pre-1967 issues, the right of return and holy places, which have proven much more difficult to solve, to later negotiation between a Palestinian state and Israel. Accordingly, the UN initiative breaks the Oslo mold in two ways.

First, no longer is nothing agreed until everything is agreed. Now, a partial, territorial settlement becomes possible. And second, the PLO UN initiative, by creating a Palestinian state, moves the conflict and its resolution to a state-to-state basis, where it should be easier to resolve and less dangerous even if the pre-1967 issues remain unresolved. When Abbas or his successor returns to the negotiating table as president of a state of Palestine whose territory and population are clearly defined rather than as chairman of the PLO with its large diaspora constituency, the conflict should be easier to manage, to the benefit of both sides.

Undoubtedly, additional and alternative lessons can also be gleaned from a serious reassessment of nearly two decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But equally as important as the need for a fundamental reassessment is the question of who engages in it and who can benefit from it. Here again, we can expect little from either Netanyahu or Abbas in the months ahead. Nor are our Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, in a position to do much more than initiate, respectively, Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo and sterile "pre-negotiation" talks in Amman.

Only in Washington can a reassessment of the Oslo process, its failings and the lessons to be learned have potentially serious influence--if it is directed at the next administration. Washington will then still have to deal with problematic Israeli and Palestinian leaders and political realities. But it could have a better chance to register progress and move us away from a bi-national disaster.-Published 9/1/2012

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The pragmatic solution may become practically impossible
by Chassan Al-Khatib

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

2012 could be a year of dramatic change
 Yariv Oppenheimer
At first glance, this election year in the United States does not bode well for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

President Barack Obama will be occupied all year with a political struggle against a Republican nominee. Accordingly, he will have to continue appealing to the right wing wherever Israel is concerned and to avoid public confrontation with the government in Jerusalem. With the exception of the usual condemnations of settlement construction and encouragement for a slow negotiating process intended primarily for photo-ops, the US will probably not exert serious pressure on either side and will not decisively advance a genuine process. And when America is out of the picture, the two main actors, Israel and the Palestinians, are on their own with little or no incentive to bring about a breakthrough that could lead to agreement.

But even without the US elections, both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have been preoccupied in recent months with internal issues. When there is no peace process, social and economic issues emerge in Israel and monopolize the agenda. Then too, the Israeli political scene is unstable; it's generally assessed that this year will end with new elections.

On the Palestinian side, following the Shalit deal and reconciliation talks, most of the agenda is devoted to unification, integration of Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization and the struggle over leadership within the Palestinian Authority. The opportunity to create a unified leadership preoccupies the Palestinian street.

It appears as if all the players have given up and decided to devote the coming year to everything but finding a permanent solution to the conflict. Yet a year seemingly characterized by leadership changes and elections is actually a critical year that will affect the region's near-term future.

In fact, domestic developments in the US, among the Palestinians and in Israel could be directed toward making 2012 a year of general transition in which the seeds of a genuine and significant peace process are sown. The Palestinian reconciliation process and the policy change announced by Hamas regarding the struggle against Israel create a new Palestinian reality that can favorably influence the views of the Israeli public. While the relative quiet of the last few years erased the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Israeli agenda and created a comfortable reality for Israelis, it is also a primary catalyst in rebuilding confidence that there is a partner on the other side with whom it's possible to deal. In joining the current calm with Israel and abandoning armed struggle, Hamas can prove that there is a single, credible partner on the Palestinian side that is ready to compromise on the 1967 lines and is capable of delivering security and internal and external quiet.

In contrast, in Israel the absence of a peace process has not caused right-left differences to disappear. On the contrary, the settler-supported coalition has managed to shock the Israeli public with a wave of anti-democratic legislation intended to serve the interests of the settlers and their representatives in the government. Elections will arrive in Israel in late 2012 or early 2013 against a backdrop of Netanyahu government frustration and anger deriving from internal Israeli struggles.

There is a real possibility of a political reversal and the emergence of a far more moderate government as a result of these elections; a lot depends on the degree of peace and quiet prevailing between Israel and the Palestinians. A quiet 2012, without confrontations, would help the Israeli peace camp gather additional strength and challenge Netanyahu's right-wing rule. On the other hand, a return to violence, rockets and terrorism would ensure a right-wing victory and an Israeli loss of faith in the chance for peace. As in past elections, this time too the Palestinians enjoy a significant capacity to affect the outcome.

Even when the two sides are busy with their own affairs, realities on the ground continue to develop and change year after year. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics summary of 2011, the number of Palestinians (including Arab citizens of Israel) and Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will be equal, at 6.3 million, by 2015. By 2020 there will be 7.2 million Palestinians as against 6.8 million Jews.

Unless they implement a two-state solution, Israel and the Palestinians face a new era in which both peoples live in a bi-national state. Add to these statistics the constant expansion of settlements in the territories by about 2,000 housing units annually (not including East Jerusalem). Thus the data show that even if the politicians on both sides seek to deal with domestic affairs, the Israeli-Palestinian problem just continues to grow and the two-state solution becomes that much more difficult to achieve.

In the course of 2012, the Israeli peace camp must again place on the national agenda the urgent need for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and an end to all settlement initiatives in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Reconciliation between Hamas and Fateh can serve as a positive incentive for progress toward peace with the PLO as long as Hamas agrees to recognize past agreements and abandon armed struggle against Israel.

A year of relative quiet coupled with diplomatic pressure on Israel regarding the settlements can pave the way for a different government in Jerusalem--one that is ready to pick up where the Olmert government left off and resume complex negotiations toward a two-state solution. Reelection of President Obama for a second term could help even more to turn the years ahead into an era of hope rather than frustration--a dramatic period of change for the better.-Published 9/1/2012 ©

Yariv Oppenheimer is director general of Peace Now in Israel.

A grim staging ground
 Ghassan Khatib
The two main Middle East-related events of 2011 appear to be continuing into the new year. One is the complete stagnation of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and the other is the roiling wave of Arab revolutions and uprisings, which also carry weighty implications for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In spite of the renewal of Palestinian-Israeli talks in Jordan, there are clear signs that the factors driving last year's stagnation remain in effect. These include Israel's conservative and extreme political positions and practices, particularly the illegal expansion of settlements, that are distant from and antithetical to the peace process terms of reference.

Another main factor is the Palestinian leadership's continued insistence that Israel halt its settlement activities and agree to terms of reference including a two-state solution on the basis of the borders of 1967 before the start of peace negotiations. Finally, there is the weak role of the third party in the room, the United States. Washington in 2012 will be increasingly busy with its presidential elections and thus less neutral in its mediation role. Europe's attempt to play a larger role through the Quartet working group on Middle East peace has not yet shown itself as strong enough to offset the near-complete absence of United States' participation.

Meanwhile, however, this stagnation is having a long-term impact. Public opinion in Israel and Palestine, in trends already quite visible last year, is continuously being radicalized. Israeli analysts in particular are seeing rightward trends in Israeli society, whether on politics or broader ideology. The outcome of this will be a further widening in the gap that now exists between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating positions and fewer opportunities for resuming a meaningful peace process.

Criticism of the Israeli government is growing, whether international criticism related to its practices (particularly expansion of settlements) or internal criticism related to governing policies. As a result, we can expect Israel to use developments in the region as a pretext to further escape its obligations to the peace process and international legality. Iran is a candidate for being drawn into that pretext, as are the Arab states in transition. In the Palestinian logic, and the logic of many other international players including US President Barack Obama, these regional developments should be an impetus in encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to move faster in resolving their problems. The ongoing suffering of Palestinians under occupation is being used by Iran and others in the region to strengthen their arguments. But Israel's government is portraying these regional conditions in a manner that serves its arguments for maintaining the occupation and thus delaying any solution.

The clear trends of radicalization in Israel, politically and ideologically, will remain the main impediment to reversing this trend of deterioration in the peace process. Israel's willingness to end the occupation and (as an indication of such willingness) stop constructing settlements is the only way to allow progress towards ending the conflict peacefully and reaching the comprehensive and lasting peace that all the people of the region aspire to and desire.-Published 9/1/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.