A senior official in the Palestinian Authority government told Al-Monitor this week that he and his colleagues were closely watching the Israeli election campaign. However, he said, “We have very little hope for a change in Israel. Even if [Labor Chair Isaac] Herzog and [former Minister Tzipi] Livni win these elections, what kind of government will be formed? Are policy changes possible? We are tired of left-wing Israelis telling us to wait for better times in your government. Since [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s assassination we have seen everything and everybody from all political colors, yet we are now further away from statehood than we have ever been before.”
This moderate Fatah official sounded bitter and grim, even when faced with the latest findings of public opinion polls, indicating a trend in favor of the Labor Party. Expressing his despair, he said, “The words interim agreement, confidence-building measures and gradual process are all excluded now from the Palestinian political dictionary.” He gave a long account, describing how at every chapter of the peace negotiations — during the Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu governments, be it with a Republican or a Democratic administration — occupation only grew deeper, movement of Palestinians in their own country was further curbed and settlement construction continued robbing Palestinians of their lands.
Uncharacteristic from his usual pragmatic temper, the Fatah official voiced a warning aimed at the Israeli center-left. He said, “Labor must know that if it comes to power, or takes part in the next government, President Mahmoud Abbas will not agree anymore to participate in ‘make-believe peace processes.’ We will demand a timeline for negotiations, a deadline for implementation and above all a freeze of settlement expansion. We have learned that the settlement policy is the ultimate test of Israeli peace policies. If these conditions are not met, we will have no choice but to act unilaterally, diplomatically and otherwise. If the center-left is in power, we will explore these conditions with its representatives. If it is again Netanyahu or [Economy and Trade Minister Naftali] Bennett, then even such an exercise as talks becomes superfluous.”
This view is typical of the pragmatic political elite in Ramallah, and it seems they are not bluffing when they say that 2015 will be a “now or never” year for peace.
According to a senior State Department source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, these perceptions are well-known to the administration. Washington, he says, will not express any policy position in relation to the period after the Israeli elections. He emphasized that no one in Israel should count on President Barack Obama’s alleged status as a lame duck, and that the president and his secretary of state are committed to retain the pragmatic Arab anti-Islamic State coalition also by reaching understandings on Palestinian issues. In this context it is clear to the administration that settlement expansion, especially in sensitive areas, meaning outside the settlement blocks and in East Jerusalem, are out of the question when hoping for any future progress. There seems to be a growing consensus on a settlement freeze demand among the international community.
The State Department source told Al-Monitor the main European capitals — Paris, London and Berlin — have made it clear to the United States in recent days that they will unequivocally demand such a freeze, and will even back it up with potential punitive economic measures against Israel if the demand is rejected. One can therefore conclude that as far as the Western powers are concerned, come March 17, settlement expansion is out. That is the main lesson the Europeans have learned from the aborted John Kerry mission of 2013-14.
Paradoxically, there seems to now be — according to recent reports from the Israeli nongovernmental organization Peace Now and its CEO Yariv Oppenheimer — a certain slowdown of settlement construction. It seems that when there is no two-state solution process on the horizon, there is apparently also less of a need for such provocations. Yet, this is not an omen for the future. Netanyahu and Bennett share a tacit agreement that the next government will continue to do its utmost to prevent a two-state solution, or in Netanyahu’s campaign language, preventing a “Hamastan” in the West Bank. And what better way than settlement expansion.
In many ways this is the key issue of the upcoming elections: to settle or not; a two-state solution or a binational state. All other topics stem from this issue. According to Israeli daily Calcalist, in 2012, the Israeli government spent an average of 3,300 shekels (about $850) on each settler and only 1,900 shekels (about $490) on each citizen within the green line. Peace Nowestimates in its report that the cost of settlements, traceable in the actual budget, reaches some 2 billion shekels (close to $514 million). Given also the economic repercussions of settlement construction on European investment, there is no doubt that settlements are not only a peace and security issue but also a socioeconomic burden on every Israeli citizen.
This comes on the background of two devastating reports concerning the state of poverty in Israel issued by the TAUB Center and the nongovernmental organization Latet (Giving). These reports indicate that about one-third of all Israeli children live under the poverty line.
At the end of the day — that day being March 17, 2015 — Israel needs to choose between a poor binational state, internationally isolated and caught up in a regional conflict, and a more prosperous state neighboring a state of Palestine and in good relations with the region and the world.
Ambassador Uri Savir has spent his professional life on the strategies of peacemaking in Israel. In 1996, he established the Peres Center for Peace and is currently the Center’s honorary president. In 2011, Savir founded the Yala Young Leaders online Peace Movement.