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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

The violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas (which is still taking place as of this writing) is another tragic milestone in the annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of the series of failed attempts to settle it. The confrontation erupted after a period of violent escalation following the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers (June 12, 2014) – according to the Israeli government – by Hamas activists. After Netanyahu’s announcement that “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay,”21 Israel launched a broad operation against Hamas infrastructure and activists in the West Bank. The shocking murder and burning of a Palestinian teenager by a small group of revenge-seeking Jewish youth (July 1, 2014) ignited violent demonstrations in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods. Rocket and mortar fire from Gaza increased. At first, the bombardment was mainly at the hands of dissident organizations that do not accept Hamas’s authority, but the escalation gradually drew Hamas into the aggression, and into a comprehensive confrontation with Israel (Operation Protective Edge, July 8, 2014). Hamas began lunching numerous rockets at Israeli towns and cities, including Tel Aviv and even north of it. The Iron Dome system achieved a rocket interception rate of 90%, and almost completely prevented Israeli civilian casualties. When Hamas refused an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Israel – in addition to its punishing aerial strikes – opened a ground campaign (July 17, 2014) that continues as of this writing.

The security deterioration is taking place a year after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his failed attempt to broker an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Under pressure from Kerry, who made achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians a high priority, peace negotiations were restarted on July 30, 2013, with the goal of reaching a permanent agreement within nine months. As part of the process leading to the renewal of talks, Israel agreed to a four-phase release of Palestinian prisoners who had been held since before the Oslo Accords. Israel acceded to this Palestinian condition in order to avoid alternative conditions the Palestinians laid down: acceptance of the principle that the border will be based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps, or an announcement of a construction freeze in the territories. The talks ran into significant difficulty, including changes to their defined objective. Before negotiations even began, the Americans attempted a breakthrough by first reaching agreement on the subjects of borders and security, while deferring the sensitive core issues (Jerusalem, refugees) for later in the process. In this spirit, President Obama stated during his visit to the region (March 2013): “The core issue right now is how do we get sovereignty for the Palestinian people, and how do we assure security for the Israeli people? And that’s the essence of this negotiation. And that’s not to say settlements are not important. It is to say that if we solve those two problems, the settlement problem with be solved.”22 The Israeli side had reservations about this approach, which were based on concern about losing, at the first stage of the talks, its most significant “card” – territory – and then being left with weakened bargaining power vis-a-vis Jerusalem and the refugees. Secretary Kerry was persuaded and stated that the goal of the negotiations would be to achieve a full and permanent agreement within nine months. After it became clear that this goal was too ambitious, the Americans announced that they would work toward a framework agreement. But it soon became apparent that this goal was not achievable either. It was agreed to move to indirect talks with U.S. mediation, and Kerry announced that the United States itself would draft a framework paper that reflected its understanding concerning the desired meeting point between the parties on the principles for a permanent agreement. The two sides, who were supposed to accept this document as the basis for continued talks, did not rush to embrace it and the United States was forced to allow them to express “certain reservations” to be dealt with in detail during the final status negotiations. Despite the significant energies Secretary Kerry and his team invested, the United States did not succeed in bringing the sides to common ground in three main problematic categories: the phrasing of the final status principles in the American document; the manner in which the sides would be allowed to express their reservations; and “rules of conduct” (mainly – Israel’s policy of building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem) that would have bound the two sides had they in fact agreed to extend the timeframe for negotiations.

From the outset, the task Secretary Kerry took upon himself was not at all simple. Israeli demands, such as the stipulation (to which the United States was party)23 that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, the very long-term presence of the Israeli army in the Jordan Valley, and renunciation of the Palestinian right of return inside Israel, etc., provoked fierce Palestinian opposition. Similarly intense Israeli opposition was provoked in response to Palestinian demands, such as the recognition of East Jerusalem as their capital, that the Israeli army withdraw from the West Bank within 3-5 years, that a certain number of Palestinian refugees be absorbed in Israel, etc. The more the United States insisted on expressing the framework principles in clear and precise language, the more it encountered opposition from both sides, threats that they could not continue with the talks, and demands to articulate more sweeping reservations to the principles they opposed. The more the United States allowed the sides to express sweeping reservations, the less significant the document it was drafting would have been.

American diplomacy did not succeed in squaring this circle by the agreed-upon deadline. According to the Americans, both sides contributed to this failure: Israel by not fulfilling its commitment to release the fourth group of prisoners (March 30, 2013) and by reissuing the tender for the construction of 708 housing units in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem (April 1, 2014); and the Palestinians in their decision to submit requests to be accepted into 15 international conventions that are open to states (April 2, 2014), and in signing a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas (April 23, 2014). According to Israeli sources involved in the negotiations, even the United States contributed to the lack of success by imposing goals at the outset that were too grandiose, and by not reaching understandings with each side as to the rules of the game during the talks, and the conditions for extending them.

Alongside the American criticism of the sides, Martin Indyk, Kerry’s representative during the negotiations, also praised their readiness to compromise on significant issues: “I’ve seen Prime Minister Netanyahu straining against his deeply-held beliefs to find ways to meet Palestinian requirements. I’ve seen Abu Mazen ready to put his state’s security in American hands to overcome Israeli distrust of Palestinian intentions.”24 At the same time, the Americans admit that Abu Mazen “shut down” at a certain point and provoked their anger when he did not respond to the bridging formulas intended to allow for the completion of the paper of principles presented to him by Secretary Kerry (February 19, 2014) and by President Obama (March 17, 2014). Signing the reconciliation agreement with Hamas was portrayed as additional important evidence that the Palestinian leader had lost interest in talks with Israel.

The relative weakness of Hamas explains its inclination to hurry and sign the reconciliation agreement. Hamas had pinned its hopes on its mother movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and when it was ousted from power and declared a terrorist movement, Hamas, too, was declared an enemy by the Sisi regime. Accused of anti-Egyptian terrorist activity, its operation in Egypt was outlawed (March 4, 2014). Prior to this, Hamas had lost its base in Syria because of its support for the rebels, a stance that undermined its relations with Iran, which is struggling to keep Assad’s regime in power. Egyptian security forces destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip, which exacerbated its political isolation, the security blockade, and the decline in economic aid. All of this undermined Hamas’s position. Against this background, the organization was cautious for a while about confrontations with the IDF and the majority of violent activity originating in Gaza was carried out by the Iran-supported Islamic Jihad (for example, the firing of some 70 rockets on Israel on March 12, 2014), as well as other jihadist organizations.

The particular timing of Abu Mazen’s decision to sign the reconciliation agreement – five days before the end of the nine-month negotiation period and precisely when the fragile Israeli-Palestinian dialogue on extending the negotiations was in full swing and approaching its climax – raised questions about the Palestinian leader’s goals. The accession to the UN conventions and entering into an agreement with Hamas while simultaneously negotiating with Israel shows that Abu Mazen did not believe that reaching an agreement with Israel was an attainable goal (various pundits have claimed that Abu Mazen was surprised at the speed with which Hamas agreed to his terms). The possibility that he would be blamed for sabotaging the negotiations seems not to have been a central factor in his deliberations. It appears that Abu Mazen, who is approaching the end of his career, chose to simultaneously conduct additional strategic negotiations to advance his goal: transferring the decision about the Israeli-Palestinian issue to international forums and moving toward intra-Palestinian unity out of concern for his legacy.

The Fatah-Hamas agreement prompted an Israeli decision to suspend the negotiations, which, according to senior Israelis, were close to reaching a continuation formula (that included the release of Jonathan Pollard). As per the reconciliation agreement, a technocratic government headed by Abu Mazen and with a mutually agreed upon membership was announced on June 2, 2014. It is supposed to pave the way for presidential and legislative elections, and revamp PLO institutional leadership within six months of taking office. Abu Mazen made it clear that the new government would recognize Israel and condemn terrorism. He even declared that he, himself, would be authorized to continue conducting peace talks with Israel, though Israel demands that Hamas, as a party to the agreement authorizing the new government, accept the Quartet’s framework. Netanyahu’s answer to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was included in his response to the statement the Palestinian president made on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in which he referred to the Shoah as “the most terrible crime against humanity in modern history.”25 Netanyahu replied: “Instead of declarations intended to placate international public opinion, Abu Mazen should choose between an alliance with Hamas – a terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel and that denies the Holocaust – and genuine peace with Israel.”26

Reactions in the West to the reconciliation agreement were mild in comparison to Israel’s harsh response. The European Union pointed to the opportunity implicit in the Palestinians’ coming to talks with Israel as a unified body that enjoys public legitimacy. Similar views were even heard in the American administration,27 although the official U.S. line remained critical of the reconciliation move and President Obama called it “unhelpful.”28

The chances of implementing a lasting Fatah-Hamas reconciliation were limited from the outset. Similar agreements have been signed in the past and were not carried out. Many commentators have difficulty seeing a situation in which Hamas accepts the Quartet’s terms, disarm its military forces, and surrender its weapons to the legal government. Evidence of anticipated difficulties can be found in the words of Musa Abu Marzuk, deputy head of Hamas’s diplomatic bureau: “Hamas will not allow any tampering with the brigades’ armament, under any circumstances… Hamas will not recognize Israel. This is a red line that cannot be crossed… the conditions set by the Quartet committee do not concern us one bit.”29 The development of the reconciliation process becomes even more problematic in light of the military confrontation now taking place between Israel and Hamas. Abu Mazen himself provoked Hamas anger when – in a speech (June 13, 2014) to the foreign ministers of the Islamic states in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – he responded to the kidnapping of the three young Israelis by saying, “Whoever carried out this action wants to bring destruction upon us.”30

In the wake of the failed negotiations, the United States declared a time out and has opted to divide the blame between the parties though with a clear tilt toward placing the main onus on Israel – certainly in public – as could be seen in a briefing for journalist Nahum Barnea,31 and in remarks Martin Indyk made at the Washington Institute. Secretary Kerry, before a Senate hearing, stated that both sides took a number of negative steps, “and then… when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment [that the talks collapsed].”32 He admonished: “There’s a limit to the amount of time that President Obama and I can invest in this topic with consideration to other challenges around the world, especially if the sides are not willing to show seriousness.”33

The administration’s inclination is now to lower the profile of U.S. involvement and to let the sides “stew in their own juices.” At the same time, Ambassador Indyk has rejected the possibility that the United States will abandon attempts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He expressed hope that the two sides’ leaders will overcome the difficulties that led to the crisis in the talks and promised: “When they are ready, they will certainly find in Secretary Kerry and President Obama willing partners to try again – if they are prepared to do so in a serious way.”34 One initiative the administration may take at the end of the “time-out” period is to publish the American paper detailing its permanent settlement principles. This would be intended to challenge the sides, and to invite them to renew negotiations on the basis of the paper in the future. Thus, when Secretary Kerry thinks about the various alternatives facing Washington, he has to consider the possibility of putting, at some stage, the paper of principles on the table and saying: “Here it is, folks. This is what it looks like. Take it or leave it.”35

The updated position that Prime Minister Netanyahu presented concerning Israel’s security demands (June 29, 2014) deepens the divide the Americans will have to bridge in the future. Netanyahu warned that Israel faces a growing security threat given the “forces of extreme Islam who are knocking at our door in the north and in the south.”36 He stated that in order to maintain security and to ensure the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state, the IDF must retain freedom of movement over the entire area up to the Jordan River, “Any settlement will include Palestinian political and economic control alongside Israeli security control.”37

If attempts to resuscitate the talks do not bear fruit, the Palestinian side will likely carry out its threats to launch a diplomatic-legal campaign against Israel in the international arena, and to strive to replace the “direct talks under American mediation” model with an alternative – that of “a quasi-imposed settlement under multinational sponsorship.” Such a campaign already began at the end of the nine months of negotiations when the Palestinians applied to accede to 15 UN conventions. Other applications for membership in a variety of UN agencies are ready to go. Of principal concern in Israel is the one that could lead to Palestinian acceptance to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which, if it comes about, is liable to land Israel in the dock on charges related to war crimes, etc.

In an extreme attempt to increase pressure on Israel, the Palestinians may even announce the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and attempt to hand back responsibility for the West Bank to Israel and demand a “one state for two peoples” solution, even though Abu Mazen recently said that he would not dismantle the PA and that he prefers the two-state solution.38

A diplomatic-legal confrontation resulting from the talks’ failure could eventually lead to a deterioration of the security situation, and perhaps to a third intifada, not necessarily of a character identical to the previous two. Experts believe that this time Israel would likely encounter a civilian uprising and popular violence that is not centrally organized. A troubling indication can be found in the Shin Bet summary of the scope of terrorist incidents in 2013, which reveals a sharp increase in West Bank terrorism and of attacks perpetrated from Gaza,39 and of course in the violent demonstrations that took place in Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods in July 2014.

Israel may also find itself facing an intensifying de-legitimization campaign ofsanctions and boycotts. Such a reality rose significantly on the Israeli public agenda when the European Commission published directives on the subject of transferring money and credits from official EU funds to bodies with ties to the settlements. According to these directives, EU agencies and funds will be prohibited from supporting or giving loans, grants, or awards to activities of Israeli entities in the settlements, and, in some cases, such as loans to Israeli bodies that operate beyond the Green Line either directly or indirectly. Against the background of these directives, the Horizon 2020 scientific cooperation agreement became the focus of tension between Israel and the EU. Without the semantic solution that was reached in the end, it would have meant the loss of 300 million euros in funding for Israeli research and development bodies, and additionally would have caused damage to Israeli science that is incalculable in monetary terms.

Recent months have seen an increase in boycott initiatives against Israel. Although the various boycotts are focused on Israel’s presence and activity beyond the Green Line, they are increasingly being applied to entities within Israel proper with interests over the Green Line, and have for the first time also been imposed by governments. The American Studies Association (ASA) decided in December 2013 to impose an academic boycott on Israel. A large Dutch pension fund (PGGM) decided to withdraw its investments in Israeli banks since they have branches over the Green Line and are involved in financing construction in the settlements. The Netherlands’ largest public water supplier, Vitens, announced on December 10, 2013 that it was severing its ties with the Israeli water company, Mekorot, because it drills for water in the West Bank and is part of a water-supply apparatus that discriminates against the Palestinians. In September 2013, another Dutch company announced that it was cancelling its contract with the Gichon Company to build a sewage purification plant because it was to be located beyond the Green Line. Denmark’s largest bank, Danske Bank, decided not to invest in Bank Hapoalim in light of its involvement in financing settlement construction. The Norwegian Finance Ministry announced on November 1, 2013, that it had instructed the country’s largest pension fund not to invest in the companies of Africa-Israel Investments, Ltd. or in Danya-Cebus because of their involvement in East Jerusalem construction. In light of the accumulation of these and other boycott initiatives, the Israeli government held a special discussion on the issue (February 9, 2014) during which the minister of strategic affairs, Yuval Steinitz, presented a 100-million-shekel plan for an aggressive comprehensive struggle against the de-legitimization phenomenon. The failure of the Israeli-Palestinian talks led European countries to intensify punitive policies toward the settlements. Seventeen EU member states admonished their citizens not to conduct business with the settlements. Warning notices were issued stating that the settlements are illegal under international law and, thus, conducting business with them carries legal risks.40 It was also claimed that “the Israeli settlements are an obstacle to peace and threaten to render the two-state solution impossible … The European Union and its member countries will not recognize any change in the 1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, unless this is done as part of an agreement between the sides.”41

Along with the threat of boycotts, senior EU officials warned (December 3, 2013) that the failure of the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is liable to have implications for the continuation of aid funds EU countries give to the Palestinian Authority. In their words, the EU finds itself “funding the Israeli occupation” and is bearing costs that are supposed to be borne by the occupying state under international law. In light of these revelations, Secretary Kerry saw fit to warn Israel of “a strengthening de-legitimization campaign” against it, adding, “There is talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusory.”42 Official Israeli spokespeople were outraged by these warnings and Minister of Strategic Affairs Steinitz responded: “Kerry’s comments about a boycott of Israel are insulting and intolerable… We cannot be forced to conduct negotiations with a gun to our head.”43 Finance Minister Yair Lapid, though, actually followed Kerry’s lead and warned too: “Europe is our main trading market. If there is no diplomatic settlement and we go into a plausible scenario – and there are much worse ones – in which there is damage of only 20% in exports to the EU and direct foreign investment from the EU stops – our exports will be harmed in 2013 terms by about 20 billion shekels a year. The damage to GDP will be about 11 billion shekels a year and 9,800 workers will immediately be laid off.”44 A similar warning came from the outgoing head of Israel’s National Security Council, Yaakov Amidror: “The failure of the negotiations with the Palestinians will only increase the trend of boycotts and of Israel’s international isolation.”45 It should be noted that simultaneous with other warnings heard from Europe, the EU’s Council of Ministers passed a resolution to grant Israel and Palestine special and unprecedented status if and when a permanent settlement is reached.

The failure of the talks postponed the need for Israel to reach decisions on the sensitive core issues. This halted a process that would have likely led to political shockwaves in Israel and to tensions among Diaspora Jews. This may be a temporary delay. The sensitive final status issues will, in all probability, reemerge in the future, at which time Israel will be required to present positions and, presumably, make painful concessions. This hiatus is likely to be relatively brief, especially if Israel is pressed to respond to the American paper of principles or an initiative of a similar nature arises in the Security Council. The principles of a permanent settlement, by definition, touch on issues of great significance to the Jewish people:

Jerusalem: There is no Palestinian or Arab party today prepared to sign a peace agreement with Israel that preserves its sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and over Islamic holy sites. The very fact of reaching an agreement based on any compromise over Jerusalem means the possibility of ceding some of the existing Israeli sovereignty over various parts of Jerusalem including the “Holy Basin.” According to this scenario, Israel will be taking a historic decision that touches the core of the identity of the entire Jewish people. The internal debate may be extremely bitter.

The settlements in Judea and Samaria: An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the two-state principle will transfer most of the territory of the West Bank to Palestinian sovereignty. Beyond the security significance of an Israeli withdrawal, there could also be substantial Jewish significance, be it in disconnecting from lands walked by the legendary figures of the Bible, and where the Jewish people has its roots (The Cave of Machpelah, Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s Tomb, and many other sites) or in the necessity to evacuate tens of thousands of Jewish settlers (some of whom are expected to forcefully resist the evacuation). The argument over the future of Judea and Samaria and the settlement enterprise is about to create a highly sensitive political, security, national and religious controversy, and the evacuation – when it is carried out – is expected to be traumatic and will likely deepen rifts within the Jewish people, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. The argument also involves the question of whether Israel should insist that the agreement enable Jews to continue living in areas of the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty.

Arab recognition of the Jewish people’s right to its own capital and state: Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed in his Bar-Ilan speech (June 14, 2009) that “A basic condition for the end of the conflict is a binding and candid public recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Even though the Palestinian leadership has responded negatively, in the end, the Israeli demand is likely to be accepted in one form or another, especially if those handling the negotiations on the Israeli side are willing to “pay a price” for this achievement. There are those, of course, who will ask how essential it is – from the Jewish people’s perspective – to insist on paying a significant price to secure this demand. (The U.S. administration’s position on this issue is interesting. On one hand, Secretary Kerry expresses support for the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a Jewish state.46 On the other, in an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he said: “I think it’s a mistake for some people to be raising it again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace, and we’ve obviously made that clear.”47

Can a peace agreement be a turning point in Jewish-Islamic relations?
The Arab Peace Initiative (Beirut, 2002), which was born as a result of a Saudi move, articulates an Arab readiness for a comprehensive peace with Israel, for the end of the conflict, normalization and good neighborly relations – on the condition that Israel withdraw completely to the 1967 lines and that a “just and agreed upon” solution to the refugee problem is found. Since 2003, the Arab Peace Initiative has been endorsed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which numbers 57 member states. Recently, this position was ratified again at the Islamic summit in Cairo (February 7, 2013). Opinions in Israel are divided as to the value of the Arab Peace Initiative and the degree to which it is wise to rely on it in advancing toward an Israeli-Arab final status agreement. Given the history of relations between Islam and Judaism, is a diplomatic peace agreement powerful enough to mark a turning point in the Islamic world’s attitude toward Judaism?

Jewish refugees from Arab lands:
Progress in the negotiations is likely to provide an opportunity to place on the agenda a human tragedy that has not received world attention – the fate of the 850,000 Jews who until 1948 lived in Arab countries and who were uprooted from their homes following the creation of the State of Israel. The injustice caused these Jewish refugees has not gained Arab or international recognition, nor have they been compensated for their suffering or for their confiscated property.

Diaspora involvement in the process of making decisions on final status issues – that is, on issues that emotionally affect Jews everywhere. Should Diaspora Jews take any part in the process of deciding these issues, and if so, how should this be accomplished? The dilemma will be a practical test of the theoretical “New Paradigm” of greater equality in Israel-Diaspora relations.