Just about everybody who follows Israeli affairs with any seriousness these days agrees that the peace process is dead, that the two sides are too far apart for any deal and besides there’s nobody to talk to. The one big exception is the Israeli intelligence and defense establishment, which remains a stronghold of optimism that a deal can be reached in the near term. Which is weird, because they’re the ones who presumably know the inner workings and thinking of the two sides better than anyone.
When you bring this up to people who care about Israel, the usual response begins something like, “But don’t they realize that Israel’s minimum security needs require…” or “… that the Palestinians are dedicated to…” And you’re left wondering: What does this person know that Israeli intelligence doesn’t? And: Can’t you hear what you sound like?
Still, it’s understandable that the concerned observer would wonder how a peace process is supposed to square with Hamas’s refusal to accept Israel and the growing turmoil in the broader Arab world. Conveniently enough, former Mossad director Efraim Halevy (appointed by Bibi Netanyahu, 1998; succeeded by Meir Dagan, 2002) answers those questions and sketches the broad contours of a possible peace process in an important piece posted today at The New Republic, “The (Very) Quiet Peace Talks Between Israel and Hamas: The Middle East’s storm clouds have a silver lining.” His bottom line: Given enough pragmatism on both sides, the confluence of Hamas’s interest in stability, Egypt’s quiet mediation and the still-alive Saudi/Arab Peace Initiative make for “a very promising moment to forge durable agreements between Israel and Palestine.” Not a permanent end of conflict, but a viable modus vivendi.
“As Obama prepares to travel to the region,” Halevy writes, “one can fairly hope that he recognizes the value of the cards in his possession. He may not have any aces up his sleeve, but kings and queens should suffice for the moment.”
Zvi Barel, Haaretz’s impeccably cautious Middle East commentator, reports (might be paywall; here is the Hebrew original) that Hamas secretary general Khaled Meshaal has agreed to accept a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel based on the 1967 borders. This follows talks in Amman this week between Meshaal King Abdullah of Jordan. Barel cites a Saudi newspaper, A-Sharq, which in turn cited “Jordanian sources.”
He said Meshaal had authorized Abdullah to pass the new Hamas position along to President Obama.
The report continues:
The meeting is also said to have covered Palestinian reconciliation and relations with Jordan. So far neither Hamas nor Jordan has officially verified the Saudi report, but Meshal’s public statement after the meeting, in which he said, “Jordan is Jordan, and Palestine is Palestine, and any talks about relations between a Palestinian state and Jordan will only be held after the establishment of a Palestinian state,” more than hint at an essential change in Hamas’ position.
To date, Hamas has rejected the two-state solution, although it welcomed the Arab peace initiative whose core was the existence of two states based on the 1967 borders. In the past, however, Meshal has stressed that the 1967 borders are only a first step in the ultimate liberation of all of Palestine. This change in position is an extension of a previous shift in orientation in which Hamas, after fierce opposition, decided to support Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to gain international acceptance of Palestine as a non-member observer nation in the United Nations.
No official confirmation from Jordan or Hamas, but Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator with Israel, seems to take the report very seriously:
Israel’s political map is about to upended when Netanyahu and Liberman go on television at 2 p.m. Eastern time to announce a joint Knesset run. They’re apparently not merging their parties but forming a joint list. The aim is to ensure that Bibi ends up with the largest Knesset bloc after the January 22 elections, guaranteeing that he can form the next government. A Haaretz poll last week showed that if Ehud Olmert enters the race atop a new list that includes Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, he would outscore the Likud by one seat, 25-to-24, and win the first shot at forming a coalition. An earlier Jerusalem Post poll showed the Olmert superlist doing even better, beating the Likud 31-27. News 1 reports today that Bibi and Liberman could jointly grab 40 seats, guaranteeing that they bury even an Olmert superlist.
The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports today that the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).
So the 60,000 shekel question becomes: Can Haim Ramon engineer a center-left coalition that brings back Olmert atop a new list uniting him and Livni with Lapid and Mofaz’s Kadima, and work out a platform that allows them to join after the election with Ramon’s old friend and fellow dove Arye Deri? Can the various personalities bury their egos and feuds and join together to restore the peace process and two-state solution before it dies forever?
Ynet reports that Atef Salem, the newly appointed ambassador of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government, has formally presented his credentials to Israel’s President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. In the words of V.P. Joe Biden, this is a big f*!@&! deal.
Worth recalling the little-noticed passage in Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, in which he reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative promising full recognition and end of conflict with Israel in return for a mutually agreed peace pact with the Palestinians.