Worldview: Lagging peace talks cast a shadow over Israel's future

JOHN OVERMYER / newsart.com
JOHN OVERMYER / newsart.com
Posted: October 31, 2010

JERUSALEM - On the Mamilla Mall, on a balmy fall evening, a group of Israelis and tourists swayed to the piped-in beat of a paso doble, dancing on an open-air walkway lined with chic shops selling jewelry and clothing.

Families with strollers watched, young people flirted, intellectuals perused books in nearby Steinmatsky's or sipped cappuccino in Café Café. Yet a five-minute walk away stood the Jaffa Gate entrance to the hotly contested Old City, and 10 minutes distant were the East Jerusalem neighborhoods that Palestinians want for their capital. The towns of the occupied West Bank, once 20 minutes by car but now fenced off by the "separation wall," might as well have been on another planet.

Can this Israeli status quo last if peace talks with the Palestinians end?

In the short term, yes. In the medium term, I doubt it. And I believe the long-term consequences to Israel, the region, and the West will be enormous. So let me offer five reasons the success of Israeli-Palestinian talks is crucial - and five reasons they will probably fail.

1. Demography. If Israel keeps control of the West Bank and Gaza, Arabs will eventually comprise the majority of the population living in Greater Israel, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Then Jerusalem will have to choose: Will it remain a democracy and give the Arab majority full citizenship, thus losing its Jewish character, or will it keep the bulk of the Palestinians disenfranchised? Either way, a one-state solution guarantees endless civil war.

2. Again demography. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza fuels discontent among Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population. Islamists are making headway among young Israeli Arabs already alienated by discrimination. In the last week, Israel's parliament demanded loyalty oaths and enabled small Jewish villages to bar Arabs. This problem is bound to grow.

3. No more peace process, no more moderate Palestinian leaders. As talks falter, support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah movement plummets and Islamist Hamas hopes to pick up the slack. Already, the Palestinian public labels the security forces of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as collaborators for helping Israel fight Hamas on the West Bank. How long before those forces collapse if peace talks fail?

4. A dying peace process will accelerate the end of the old Arab order. Moderate Arab leaders want a peace deal in order to isolate Iran and counter Islamists in the region. They back a 2002 Arab peace initiative that calls for all Arab states to recognize Israel once a Palestinian state is established. But Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah are aging; once they die, that Arab consensus on accepting Israel will vanish.

5. U.S. influence in the region is waning, and Iran's is rising. The death of the peace process, in which President Obama invested so much, will accelerate both trends.

Yet, despite all of the above, a week here convinces me that the peace talks will go nowhere. Why so?

1. Many Israelis do believe the status quo can last. This is easy to understand when driving around the West Bank, where Jewish settlements sprawl across the hilltops with a permanent, fortresslike appearance. Suicide bombers no longer blow up Israeli buses and cafés. Israel's economy is doing well, and most of its citizens can ignore what goes on behind the separation fence. So why take risks for peace?

2. After 17 years of failed talks, Israelis don't believe peace is possible; they and their leaders have moved rightward. This week marks the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish terrorist opposed to the Oslo peace process, but the annual memorial ceremony on Saturday was supposed to be the last because attendance had been dropping. A recent cartoon in the Israeli press showed a workman taking down signs for the memorial and saying: "Next year the demonstration will be for Yigal Amir" - the man who shot Rabin.

3. After 17 years of settlement expansion, Palestinians no longer believe, either. Their leadership is weak and divided. And they are too busy with the travails of life under occupation - like the two hours it can take to get through the Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and the West Bank town of Ramallah - to think about an unlikely peace.

4. The gap between the two sides on key issues that once seemed bridgeable has grown impassable. Example: Israeli leaders now insist on keeping all of Jerusalem, while Palestinians leaders, under growing pressure from Islamists, say they must control the holy sites.

5. America's influence in the region is waning as Obama fails to advance the peace process, while Iran's influence is rising. Some Israelis think it's necessary to hit Iran first, and then the Palestinians will fall in line. This reminds me of the belief in the Bush White House that the road to Jerusalem peace ran through Baghdad.

If the peace process tanks, those who will cheer the loudest are Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, who will feed off this failure. The dancing will continue for now at Mamilla Mall, but the tears will come later, I fear.


E-mail Trudy Rubin at trubin@phillynews.com.

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