On Wednesday night, just as US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in the region, former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin spoke at an event commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Geneva Initiative, a non-binding model for a permanent-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement that was crafted in 2003 based on past international resolutions.
Though he was considered a hawk during his term, Diskin has become somewhat of a dove since his resignation; some may say he has become a dove through and through. But he certainly cannot be accused of being one of those “leftists from Tel Aviv” that some people love to hate.
This public figure, who was personally responsible for hundreds of operations — including assassinations geared toward thwarting terrorist attacks — declared Wednesday that “the implication of this unresolved conflict with the Palestinians is a greater threat to our existence and to the future of our state and our nation than the Iranian nuclear program.”
Diskin called on the two sides to reach an agreement as soon as possible, before the two-state solution becomes unrealistic. His rationale: the size of the Jewish settler population in the West Bank has reached proportions that make evacuation almost impossible.
However logical his argument may be, and however credible he is as an analyst, Diskin’s call for progress is likely to fall on deaf ears, on the Israeli and Palestinian side. The Israeli and Palestinian leaderships give every sign of having become indifferent and disinterested in resolving this conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrative of “no partner on the other side” has become a consensus in Israeli discourse, even on the center-left.
A typical response to Diskin’s comments came only a few short hours after he made them. Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office claimed that Diskin was upset about not being appointed director of the Mossad after his Shin Bet term, and that this is why he decided to criticize the Israeli government’s policies on the Palestinian issue, as he has done intermittently since the 2012 documentary film The Gatekeepers.
So much for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. What about the other political parties? Yesh Atid is twice shy when it comes to sticking out its neck over the negotiations (having seen others get bitten); the Labor Party under the leadership of Isaac Herzog will probably take more interest in the peace talks than it did when Shelly Yachimovich was in charge, but not much more; even Meretz and its leader Zehava Galon have chosen not to make Israeli-Palestinian peace top priority.
To some degree, such disinterest is understandable considering that there is currently no political alternative to Netanyahu and that even outgoing Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh has assessed that the likelihood of reaching an agreement with Israel is almost non-existent. As for Shtayyeh’s colleague Saeb Erekat, who so far remains the chief Palestinian negotiator, he has called upon Kerry to “save the peace talks” from what increasingly appears to be unbreakable deadlock.
What is curious about this current crisis is that it started just as the first unexpected positive signs of progress in the negotiations began to appear. The Israeli negotiating team was privately said to be surprised by the Palestinians’ relatively positive approach to the talks; there were even hints, at times, that the two sides might be moving forward.
But then came the saga of the released Palestinian prisoners — which caused immense bitterness in wide sections of the Israeli electorate — and the Minister of Housing Uri Ariel’s announcement last month of tenders for some 20,000 units in West Bank. Netanyahu said he’d rolled back the settlement plans, but the announcement plainly caused harm, and the Palestinians remain as unconvinced of Netanyahu’s good intentions as he remains of their readiness to cut a viable deal.
The way Netanyahu has structured his leadership hasn’t helped build confidence. He charged Tzipi Livni with leading negotiations with the Palestinians, but he also appointed ministers from the right-wing Jewish Home party to sensitive positions from which they can almost guarantee that negotiations fail.
So as Livni meets with Erekat and Netanyahu talks to Kerry, Ariel can undermine any progress by announcing new settlement units. At any moment, the duo of Ariel and Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party, can trumpet new construction projects in the territories and goad the Palestinians into withdrawing from the negotiations.
Bennett and Ariel claim to have a Plan B. Ariel favors annexing the entire West Bank, and Bennett 60% of it, with both asserting this can be achieved without subverting Israel’s democracy or destroying its Jewish majority. Diskin is not alone in doubting this; Netanyahu himself has spoken of the imperative for an accommodation in order to keep a Jewish, democratic Israel.
There are no simple fixes. Deadlock can only weaken Israel’s already fragile international standing, and could lead to a new escalation of violence. It also empowers those on both sides who support the one-state “solution.”
The Palestinians, for their part, are giving no public signs of greater flexibility. Some reports say they have rejected Kerry’s latest proposals, though the PA officially denies this, and they are frequently resurrecting their threats to again attempt the unilateral route to statehood when this effort at negotiation is over.
Whatever Diskin’s motivations for speaking out — and he has also slammed Netanyahu’s handing of the Iranian nuclear crisis — the fact is that the nine months the Americans allocated for this round of negotiations are almost half done.
“This may be the final opportunity to reach a two-state solution. The Geneva Accord lays the right infrastructure for an agreement. We cannot live in one state between Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the conflict cannot be dismissed as just a piece of shrapnel in someone’s backside, to quote one of our new ministers,” Diskin said during the conference, alluding to widely publicized comments made by Bennett in June. “The question will be — who is the shrapnel and who is the backside?”
Netanyahu told Kerry on Thursday that “Israel is ready for a historic peace, and it’s a peace based on two states for two peoples.” What Kerry is likely asking himself, however, is where’s the sense of urgency behind such pronouncements.