By 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.
Yariv Oppenheimer is director general of Peace Now in Israel. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT bitterlemons.org