Russia / Mideast

Moscow foresees breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian talks

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Article Summary
Russian experts cast doubt on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and express their concerns about Israel's possible Plan B.

As the deadline approaches for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a final agreement, optimism that it will actually happen is fading in Moscow and in many other capitals, despite the energetic though unilateral efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Most Russian analysts believe the parties are not ready to resolve the many complex matters so quickly. In addition to the difficulty of resolving the key issues themselves, one obstacle to reconciliation is the tension between the Palestinians and the Israelis over Israel's very recent demand, as a precondition, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. I will not reiterate the Palestinian arguments against meeting this demand — they are already well known.

It is appropriate to note in this regard that in his last book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit called this redefinition of the Israeli nation “a new Jewish Israeli narrative.” My Israeli colleagues have hinted to me recently that, despite his declarations that this narrative is unacceptable, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nevertheless might be moving toward a recognition of the Jewish character of Israel.

In Russia, some experts fully share the Palestinians' concern that recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would only enshrine in law discrimination against Palestinians as second-class citizens, and would take the issue of the return of refugees off the agenda, even in truncated form. Other experts believe that the UN has decided to create two states anyway — an Arab state and a Jewish state, because Israel is by definition a Jewish state, so the creation of an Arab state is long overdue.

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Russian analysts also note that both the American and Israeli expert communities are debating the legitimacy of that demand. For example, in an article published on March 9 in The New York Times, Josef Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, writes about an “unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state.”

The Palestinian side has made it clear that it will not accept partial, interim solutions and expressed its willingness, if the negotiation process fails, to act independently with an appeal to the international community. Apparently, the Israeli side is also prepared to take action independently and outside the negotiations. Naturally, Moscow is studying various scenarios of steps the parties to the conflict might take in this context.

Israeli representatives talk about an alternative “Plan B,” which would start a transition period of partial, temporary solutions intended to prepare the soil for a future final resolution based on confidence-building measures. Only certain reconciliation matters would be resolved, in stages, where each new step would be taken only when the prior one is deemed successful. For example, first Israeli outposts would be evacuated, followed by isolated settlements, while simultaneously preparing Israeli public opinion for the drawing of temporary borders, etc.

Under this plan, Israel would give up a portion of the areas surrounding large settlement blocs, but these blocs themselves would remain a part of Israel. The border between them would be considered temporary only if the Palestinians express a desire to continue the negotiations on land swaps. If they rejected these negotiations, Israel would consider these borders permanent. On the settlement issue, it appears that there could be several options for a solution, given the extreme sensitivity of the issue of the potential evacuation of such a large number of residents. There is also the option of preserving some of the settlements within a newly created Palestinian state as autonomous entities, possibly even granting Palestinian citizenship to the residents. Such a bold option would likely be possible only if a final agreement is signed between the Palestinians and Israel.

Analysts in Moscow do not quite understand how Plan B takes into account the factor of intra-Palestinian relations. On the one hand, we see Israel's desire, by linking Palestinian autonomy to the implementation of the plan, to present the plan as the result of efforts by Fatah and thereby bolster its chances in its competition with Hamas. Apparently, this takes into account the fact that Hamas could be an effective “spoiler” in the implementation of the plan. On the other hand, it is possible that Israel is hoping for the further evolution of Hamas, which, compared with the terrorist groups based in the Sinai and Gaza, is looking like a less radical organization. True, we cannot yet say that Israel is ready to accept Hamas as a legitimate negotiating partner. But can we say it is moving in that direction (of course, subject to compliance with certain conditions)?

It is not clear how Israel will react to the problematic yet possible reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas, leading to the formation of a coalition government — if it keeps moving toward a peace process. Will Israel accept such a government? For its part, Moscow, as far as we can tell, is sympathetic to this possibility and may even help bring it about.

As far as we can tell from the information available here, Plan B does not mean that the two key issues will be resolved — the status of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees. Israeli representatives indicate that Mahmoud Abbas could agree to significant concessions to Israel on these issues, as long as he can “save face,” if the Israelis take very specific steps toward creating an independent Palestinian state.

According to well-informed Israeli sources, the Israeli government could accept Plan B as an alternative to the final bilateral agreement, if movement toward such an agreement has hopelessly stalled. As it appears from Moscow, Israel is using it to demonstrate its willingness to create a Palestinian state, hoping to enhance Israel's standing in the international community and help President Barack Obama achieve the goals of his Middle East policy.

Evaluating Plan B, analysts in Moscow think Netanyahu may have rejected the concept of preserving the status quo, as was thought here until now. Does this mean that he has come to terms with the need to make an agreement with the Palestinians and even evacuate a significant portion of the Israeli settlements in order to get this done? Some analysts believe he has, but that he will prolong the implementation of the agreement for a much longer time than the Palestinians have in mind (three to five years). Others do not believe in this possibility and ask themselves: Does the Israeli prime minister really need this? This is the question that one of Moscow's prominent Middle East experts asked Nabil Shaath at the meeting in Moscow.

Of course, the issue of how long Israel will maintain its military presence in the West Bank is still a highly sensitive issue, an issue that will have to be dealt with in later stages of the peace process.

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Found in: russian regional influence, russia in middle east, palestinian politics, palestinian-israeli peace process, moscow, israeli settlements, israeli-palestinian negotiations

Dr. Vitaly Naumkin is the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also professor and chair at the faculty of world politics, Moscow State University, and president of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

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