This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
The Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA)
have agreed to engage in direct peace talks on September 2 in Washington.
Neither side has expressed any enthusiasm about the talks. In part, this
comes from the fact that entering any negotiations with enthusiasm
weakens your bargaining position. But the deeper reason is simply that
there have been
so many peace talks between the two sides and so many failures that
it is difficult for a rational person to see much hope in them.
Moreover, the failures have not occurred for trivial reasons. They have
occurred because of profound divergences in the interests and outlooks
of each side.
These particular talks are further flawed because of their origin.
Neither side was eager for the talks. They are taking place because the
United States wanted them. Indeed, in a certain sense, both sides are
talking because they do not want to alienate the United States and
because it is easier to talk and fail than it is to refuse to talk.
The United States has wanted Israeli-Palestinian talks since the
Palestinians organized themselves into a distinct
national movement in the 1970s. Particularly after the successful
negotiations between Egypt and Israel and Israel’s implicit long-term
understanding with Jordan, an agreement between the Palestinians and the
Israelis appeared to be next on the agenda. With the fall of the Soviet
Union and the collapse of its support for Fatah and other Palestinian
groups, a peace process seemed logical and reasonable.
Over time, peace talks became an end in themselves for the United
States. The United States has interests throughout the Islamic world.
While U.S.-Israeli relations are not the sole point of friction between
the Islamic world and the United States, they are certainly one point of
friction, particularly on the level of public diplomacy. Indeed, though
Muslim governments may not regard Israel as critical to their national
interests, their publics do regard it that way for ideological and
Many Muslim governments therefore engage in a two-level diplomacy:
first, publicly condemning Israel and granting public support for the
Palestinians as if it were a major issue and, second, quietly ignoring
the issue and focusing on other matters of greater direct interest,
which often actually involves collaborating with the Israelis. This
accounts for the massive difference between the public stance of many
governments and their private actions, which can range from indifference
to hostility toward Palestinian interests. Countries like Pakistan,
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all prepared to cooperate deeply with the
United States but face hostility from their populations over the matter.
The public pressure on governments is real, and the United States
needs to deal with it. The last thing the United States wants to see is
relatively cooperative Muslim governments in the region fall due to
anti-Israeli or anti-American public sentiment. The issue of Israel and
the United States also creates stickiness in the smooth functioning of
relations with these countries. The United States wants to minimize this
It should be understood that many Muslim governments would be
appalled if the United States broke with Israel and Israel fell. For
and Jordan, facing demographic and security issues of their own,
are deeply hostile to at least some Palestinian factions. The vast
majority of Jordan’s population is actually Palestinian. Egypt struggles
with an Islamist movement called the Muslim Brotherhood, which has
collaborated with like-minded Islamists among the Palestinians for
decades. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are infinitely more
interested in the threat
from Iran than in the existence of Israel and, indeed, see Israel
as one of the buttresses against Iran. Even Iran is less interested in
the destruction of Israel than it is in using the issue as a tool in
building its own credibility and influence in the region.
In the Islamic world, public opinion, government rhetoric and
government policy have long had a distant kinship. If the United States
were actually to do what these countries publicly demand, the private
response would be deep concern both about the reliability of the United
States and about the consequences of a Palestinian state. A wave of
euphoric radicalism could threaten all of these regimes. They quite like
the status quo, including the part where they get to condemn the United
States for maintaining it.
The United States does not see its relationship with Israel as
inhibiting functional state-to-state relationships in the Islamic world,
because it hasn’t. Washington paradoxically sees a break
with Israel as destabilizing to the region. At the same time, the
American government understands the political problems Muslim
governments face in working with the United States, in particular the
friction created by the American relationship with Israel. While not
representing a fundamental challenge to American interests, this
friction does represent an issue that must be taken into account and
Peace talks are the American solution. Peace talks give the United
States the appearance of seeking to settle the Israeli-Palestinian
problem. The comings and goings of American diplomats, treating
Palestinians as equals in negotiations and as being equally important to
the United States, and the occasional photo op if some agreement is
actually reached, all give the United States and pro-American Muslim
governments a tool — even if it is not a very effective one — for
managing Muslim public opinion. Peace talks also give the United States
the ability, on occasion, to criticize Israel publicly, without changing
the basic framework of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Most important,
they cost the United States nothing. The United States has many
diplomats available for multiple-track discussions and working groups
for drawing up position papers. Talks do not solve the political problem
in the region, but they do reshape perceptions a bit at very little
cost. And they give the added benefit that, at some point in the talks,
the United States will be able to ask the Europeans to support any
solution — or tentative agreement — financially.
Therefore, the Obama administration has been pressuring the Israelis
and the PNA, dominated by Fatah, to renew the peace process. Both have
been reluctant because, unlike the United States, these talks pose
political challenges to the two sides. Peace talks have the nasty habit
of triggering internal political crises. Since neither side expects real
success, neither government wants to bear the internal political costs
that such talks entail. But since the United States is both a major
funder of the PNA and Israel’s most significant ally, neither group is
in a position to resist the call to talk. And so, after suitable
resistance that both sides used for their own ends, the talks begin.
The Israeli problem with the talks is that they force the government
to deal with an extraordinarily divided Israeli public. Israel has had
weak governments for a generation. These governments are weak because
they are formed by coalitions made up of diverse and sometimes opposed
parties. In part, this is due to Israel’s
electoral system, which increases the likelihood that parties that
would never enter the parliament of other countries do sit in the
Knesset with a handful of members. There are enough of these that the
major parties never come close to a ruling majority and the coalition
government that has to be created is crippled from the beginning. An
Israeli prime minister spends most of his time avoiding dealing with
important issues, since his Cabinet would fall apart if he did.
But the major issue is that the Israeli public is deeply divided ethnically
and ideologically, with ideology frequently tracking ethnicity. The
original European Jews are often still steeped in the original Zionist
vision. But Russian Jews who now comprise roughly one-sixth of the
population see the original Zionist plan as alien to them. Then there
are the American Jews who moved to Israel for ideological reasons. All
these splits and others create an Israel that reminds us of the Fourth
French Republic between World War II and the rise of Charles de Gaulle.
The term applied to it was “immobilism,” the inability to decide on
anything, so it continued to do whatever it was already doing, however
ineffective and harmful that course may have been.
Incidentally, Israel wasn’t always this way. After its formation in
1948, Israel’s leaders were all part of the leadership that achieved
statehood. That cadre is all gone now, and Israel has yet to transition
away from its dependence on its “founding fathers.” Between less trusted
leadership and a maddeningly complex political demography, it is no
surprise that Israeli politics can be so caustic and churning.
From the point of view of any Israeli foreign minister, the danger of
peace talks is that the United States might actually engineer a
solution. Any such solution would by definition involve Israeli
concessions that would be opposed by a substantial Israeli bloc — and
nearly any Israeli faction could derail any agreement. Israeli prime
ministers go to the peace talks terrified that the Palestinians might
actually get their house in order and be reasonable — leaving it to
Israel to stand against an American solution. Had Ariel Sharon not had
his stroke, there might have been a strong leader who could wrestle the
Israeli political system to the ground and impose a settlement. But at
this point, there has not been an Israeli leader since Menachem Begin
who could negotiate with confidence in his position. Benjamin Netanyahu
finds himself caught between the United States and his severely
fractured Cabinet by peace talks.
Fortunately for Netanyahu, the PNA is even more troubled by talks.
The Palestinians are deeply divided between two ideological enemies,
Fatah and Hamas. Fatah is generally secular and derives from the
Soviet-backed Palestinian movement. Having lost its sponsor, it has
drifted toward the United States and Europe by default. Its old
antagonist, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is still there and still
suspicious. Fatah tried to overthrow the kingdom in 1970, and memories
For its part, Hamas
is a religious movement, with roots in Egypt and support from Saudi
Arabia. Unlike Fatah, Hamas says it is unwilling to recognize the
existence of Israel as a legitimate state, and it appears to be quite
serious about this. While there seem to be some elements in Hamas that
could consider a shift, this is not the consensus view. Iran also
provides support, but the Sunni-Shiite split is real and Iran is mostly
fishing in troubled waters. Hamas will take help where it can get it,
but Hamas is, to a significant degree, funded by the Arab states of the
Persian Gulf, so getting too close to Iran would create political
problems for Hamas’ leadership. In addition, though Cairo has to deal
with Hamas because of the Egypt-Gaza border, Cairo is at best deeply
suspicions of the group. Egypt sees Hamas as deriving from the same
bedrock of forces that gave birth to the Muslim Brotherhood and those
who killed Anwar Sadat, forces which pose the greatest future challenge
to Egyptian stability. As a result, Egypt continues to be Israel’s
silent partner in the blockade of Gaza.
Therefore, the PNA dominated by Fatah in no way speaks for all
Palestinians. While Fatah dominates the West Bank, Hamas controls Gaza.
Were Fatah to make the kinds of concessions that might make a peace
agreement possible, Hamas would not only oppose them but would have the
means of scuttling anything that involved Gaza. Making matters worse for
Fatah, Hamas does enjoy considerable — if precisely unknown — levels of
support in the West Bank, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah and
the PNA, is not eager to find out how much in the current super-heated
The most striking agreement between Arabs and Israelis was the Camp
David Accords negotiated by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Those accords
were rooted in the 1973
war in which the Israelis were stunned by their own intelligence
failures and the extraordinary capabilities shown by the Egyptian army
so soon after its crushing defeat in 1967. All of Israel’s comfortable
assumptions went out the window. At the same time, Egypt was ultimately
defeated, with Israeli troops on the east shore of the Suez Canal.
The Israelis came away with greater respect for Egyptian military
power and a decreased confidence in their own. The Egyptians came away
with the recognition that however much they had improved, they were
defeated in the end. The Israelis weren’t certain they would beat Egypt
the next time. The Egyptians were doubtful they could ever beat Israel.
For both, a negotiated settlement made sense. The mix of severely shaken
confidence and morbid admittance to reality was what permitted Carter
to negotiate a settlement that both sides wanted — and could sell to
their respective publics.
There has been no similar defining moment in Israeli-Palestinian
relations. There is no consensus on either side, nor does either side
have a government that can speak authoritatively for the people it
represents. On both sides, the rejectionists not only are in a blocking
position but are actually in governing roles, and no coalition exists to
sweep them aside. The Palestinians are divided by ideology and
geography, while the Israelis are “merely” divided by ideology and a
political system designed for paralysis.
But the United States wants a peace process, preferably a long one
designed to put off the day when it fails. This will allow the United
States to appear to be deeply committed to peace and to publicly
pressure the Israelis, which will be of some minor use in U.S. efforts
to manipulate the rest of the region. But it will not solve anything.
Nor is it intended to.
The problem is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are
sufficiently unsettled to make peace. Both Egypt and Israel were shocked
and afraid after the 1973 war. Mutual fear is the foundation of peace
among enemies. The uncertainty of the future sobers both sides. But the
fact right now is that all of the players prefer the status quo to the
risks of the future. Hamas doesn’t want to risk its support by
negotiating and implicitly recognizing Israel. The PNA doesn’t want to
risk a Hamas uprising in the West Bank by making significant
concessions. The Israelis don’t want to gamble with unreliable
negotiating partners on a settlement that wouldn’t enjoy broad public
support in a domestic political environment where even simple programs
can get snarled in a morass of ideology. Until reality or some
as-yet-uncommitted force shifts the game, it is easier for them — all of
them — to do nothing.
But the Americans want talks, and so the talks will begin.