Much has been written in the Western press about Israeli intransigence on the peace process in recent months. There are good reasons for this. Announcing new settlements in sensitive areas such as the E1 corridor – as the Israeli government did last November – is not the action of a side that has any interest in signing a peace deal.
And withholding customs revenue destined for the Palestinian Authority in the wake of Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to apply for a status upgrade at the UN General Assembly was probably a major factor in causing the resignation of Salam Fayyad last week. It gave rise to economic misery in the West Bank, which Abbas leveraged to force Fayyad out. Fayyad, for all his faults, co-operated closely with Israel, renounced violence, was a key state-builder for the Palestinians and opposed Abbas’s unilateral push to secure statehood.
So much for the Israeli peace drive. Less has been said, however, about Palestinian efforts to avoid negotiations.
Israel has made repeated offers to hold direct talks, without preconditions, and been repeatedly turned down. Abbas’s refusal to talk has been determined by his need to remain popular at home, and to avoid being accused of treachery by a host of local and regional forces.
Confrontation with Israel is popular in the West Bank - whether that means ‘softer’ steps such as taking a bid for Palestinian statehood to the UN or moving towards reconciliation with Hamas, or more aggressive moves such as encouraging violent protests – but the result is less financial aid from Israel and the international community, which in turn creates more anger on the streets.
On the other hand, co-operation with Israel opens Abbas up to severe domestic criticism and weakens the legitimacy of the PLO and Fatah. Since neither option is attractive, Abbas has done nothing. And that strategy is making no-one happy - except, perhaps, the Israeli right, because it helps them to justify continued settlement of the West Bank.
Reduced co-operation with Israel has meant Israel has seen no reason to make concessions, on issues from settlement building to the release of prisoners and expanding PA jurisdiction in the West Bank. Growing West Bank protests in recent months have filled the void and provided an outlet for dissatisfaction with the status quo. Ultimately, Abbas is not strong enough to do a deal with Israel and survive the wrath of his people, most of whom reject a peace deal that they believe would deliver nothing.
For those who are not familiar with the peace process, Hamas is left out of most discussions because there has never been any evidence that the organisation is interest in making peace with Israel. As one Israeli diplomat told me recently, “We can just hope that Hamas would acquiesce in a new (peaceful) reality once that reality has already been created – that is, a deal with the PA.”
There you have it, the anatomy of a stalemate.