Fear of Failure Could Prove Critical in Upcoming Mideast Peace Talks

Fear of Failure Could Prove Critical in Upcoming Mideast Peace Talks

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While U.S. media heap praise on Secretary of State John Kerry for his efforts at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, more critical still are recent developments across the region. Four factors, specifically, have proven decisive in enticing the two sides to the negotiating table.

The real question now is whether an agreement can be reached before the window of opportunity closes again.

The Palestinians have been urging peace talks for years. Surprisingly, a new round of negotiations began Monday in Washington D.C. after a three-year hiatus, when Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat met with President Obama. The meeting was preceded by the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

Kerry, who in the past five months has made six visits to the Middle East, told reporters at a press conference that another meeting would be held in the next two weeks in either Israel or the Palestinian Territories.

What has brought Israel’s hard line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the peace table? One factor involves a recent decision by the European Union (EU) to boycott Israeli products produced by Israeli settlers. The economic sanctions sent a clear message: the EU considers the Israeli occupation illegitimate.

In barring Israeli imports, partnerships and other forms of business from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the EU is effectively enforcing a policy of rejecting the 1967 occupation; the EU is declaring the Israeli occupation a violation of international law.

The boycott has also exposed two rarely discussed United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 242 and 338. Over four decades ago these resolutions stipulated that Israel should withdraw from the Occupied Territories in the context of a regional peace settlement.

For Israelis, the EU boycott evokes fear of association of their occupation with the sobering 1980s transformation of South Africa. The stigma of the Israeli occupation is neither new nor hidden, for Israel’s strong critics have repeatedly labeled the Zionist occupation a form of “apartheid.”

After the United States, Europe is the second most important friend and partner of Israel. Israel got the boycott message: if EU sanctions gain acceptance internationally, the cycle of diplomatic isolation of the Jewish state could escalate. U.S. public opinion would no longer be an exception. President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (General) Dempsey have all already warned Israel that the occupation is bound to “hurt” and “isolate” the occupier. The EU boycott has suddenly given Israel pause.

The second relevant event relates to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Hezbollah, one of Tel Aviv’s most threatening adversaries, has increasingly become entangled in that unfolding tragedy as it seeks to rescue the Alawite-affiliated regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus. Hezbollah’s military diversion from Israel to Syria may have given Netanyahu’s cabinet a sense of security, calculating perhaps that Syria will prove to be the burying ground for its longtime foe. The EU’s designation of Hezbollah’s militant wing as a terrorist organization last week may also have added to Israel’s confidence, encouraging a reluctant government to come to the peace table.

The third key ingredient involves the unanticipated toppling of President Morsi in Egypt. Egypt’s military-led post-Morsi regime now seems keen on limiting the power of Hamas, which has ruled Gaza and has long been viewed as a direct threat to Israel’s security. The new government in Cairo has in recent days closed the majority of secret tunnels that link Gaza with Egypt.

Today, like Hezbollah, Hamas is weak: abandoned by a troubled Syrian regime and an insecure Egyptian government. With Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention Syria and Egypt, facing serious obstacles, Israel has never been safer militarily. By accepting offers to negotiate some level of withdrawal from the 1967 borders, the Jewish state may be seizing a moment of military superiority, ironically paralleled by diplomatic isolation, to offer some level of concessions. Whether the concessions will be historic and strategic or tactical and insignificant remains to be seen.

Finally, there is a fourth factor informing Tel Aviv’s change in tune: Iran. The new moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, assumes power in August. Israel wishes to face what it considers a nearly nuclear-ready Iran with maximum diplomatic strength. By going to the Palestinian peace table, Israel partially frees itself, at least momentarily, from the moral burden of being an occupier-in-denial. By being, or appearing to be, totally committed to diplomacy, Israel feels it could better influence the next critical round of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

If, on the other hand, this latest round of talks fails it may very well spell the end of the peace process. Fear of such failure could turn out to be the most hopeful ingredient in shaping future Mideast political compromise.

Ghassan Rubeiz is a social scientist, political commentator and the former secretary of the Middle East for the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.