The New Middle East of 2013 presents many new challenges for Israel: the jihadists on the Syrian border in the north and on the Egyptian border in the south; the threat of more weapons falling into Hezbollah’s hands and upsetting the delicate balance of power in the region; terrorism on the Lebanese border; Hamas tunneling at the Gaza border. The list goes on.
But some developments — such as the rise of the new regime in Egypt, new tacit understandings between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the ongoing efforts to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities — have also created potentially positive opportunities.
It is still too soon to determine if the new presidency in Iran offers one of those opportunities. On the one hand, Tehran continues its race for nuclear weapons (though at a slightly slower pace than before); on the other, Hassan Rouhani’s victory indicates a shift in the Iranian public’s interests. The Iranian people want to live normal lives even if it means abandoning their nuclear program.
There is at least one potential opportunity — a major one — that Israel is opting not to talk up: the possibility of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Members of the right-wing Jewish Home party have lost plenty of sleep over that prospect, and outdid themselves this week by harshly criticizing the decision to release a second batch of Palestinian prisoners made by a government of which they themselves are a part.
That something positive could be happening in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority may comes as a surprise after the overwhelming pessimism expressed by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders before the current round of talks began in late July. But there are quite a few reasons to suspend disbelief and skepticism.
Late Tuesday night, the 26 Palestinian prisoners were released according to the agreement between Israel and the PA and despite public outcry in Israel. At the same time, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not stopped construction in the settlements, his government has limited building permits primarily to the large settlement blocs and the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem which are expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty in any future deal with the Palestinians.
American, European, Palestinian and Israeli sources have all described the negotiations as being very serious and proceeding surprisingly quickly, beneath the media radar. Israel is under the impression that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has come to talk business this time and is willing to exercise intellectual flexibility. And a senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel this week that Abbas is “optimistic.” This is almost completely contradictory to the opinions voiced when the talks began.
In the West Bank, there is talk of the growing political power Abbas has accrued. More of the Palestinian people view him as an authoritative leader who cannot be ignored, bolstered by the release of the long-term prisoners.
All 21 prisoners from the West Bank, interviewed as they arrived at the Muqata late Tuesday night, expressed gratitude and appreciation for Abbas. Abbas himself spoke confidently at the festive event, and made new promises: “Our brother Karim Yunis (an Israeli citizen and the longest-serving prisoner in Israel), you shall soon be released as well.” Various Israeli sources insist Netanyahu has no intention of releasing Israeli Arab prisoners. We shall see.
Abbas went on to attack Hamas, for claiming he had reached as deal with Israel according to which he would concede to building in the settlements in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners. And he ended with one more promise, hard for Israelis to stomach: “I declare right here that there shall never be a peace agreement with Israel until the last of the prisoners have been released.”
Just a few months ago, the PA and Abbas seemed to be losing popularity and political authority among the Palestinian public. The Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt, and the Brotherhood axis seemed set to dominate the region. Then Mohammed Morsi was ousted in Egypt, and the Brotherhood’s position throughout the Middle East quickly deteriorated. As a result, Hamas began to weaken significantly as the PA grew stronger.
Surprisingly, the new Palestinian prime minister has had something to do with this shift. Salam Fayyad (who is not a member of Fatah) had frequent disputes with the labor unions and officials in the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which resulted in the closure of endless public services. His successor as prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, has managed to create a dialogue between the government and the unions, stabilizing the Palestinian economy and administration.
Israeli officials also talk up the increased presence of the PA security forces. Earlier this year, the Israeli security forces feared that their Palestinian counterparts had eased up and were allowing the area to become increasingly heated. But recent weeks have shown new attempts to restore order throughout the PA and particularly in Jenin, Askar and Balata, the most problematic refugee camps. A recent PA military operation in Jenin did not have any particularly dramatic consequences, such as the arrest of wanted terrorists, but it did send a clear message that the PA and its leaders are determined to prevent the situation from deteriorating to the point reached during the days of the Second Intifada.
Several Jenin residents arrived in Ramallah on Tuesday to welcome the released prisoners. One, Asad Sadiki, said he too had been a prisoner in Israel and was released a month ago. He said there was little, if any, chance of these newly released prisoners resuming terrorist activity. “Trust me, I was in jail with them and they’ve gone through a lot during the 20 years that they sat there in prison. Their mindset has changed, they’re older now and want nothing but to get married and have children. They have no interest in terrorism.”
Sadiki interrupted the interview to take a phone call from Zakaria Zubeidi, the former commander of the Jenin branch of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Zubeidi was in Ramallah but could not come to the Muqata. “He’s being held by the PA in Beitunia”, Sadiki explained. Once a symbol of the Second Intifada, Zubeidi has been held for months at the Palestinian security forces’ headquarters because of the possibility of his public presence increasing hostility towards Israel.
Not everything is idyllic in the West Bank. It often seems that one PA hand is extended in peace while the other is busy instigating war. Although the PA security forces are fighting terrorism and continuing to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad members, other Fatah activists and PA leaders fiercely incite against Israel.
The Palestinian Authority’s anti-Israel diplomatic attempts have continued as well, though its campaigns tend to focus more on boycotting the settlements than on delegitimizing the State of Israel. It can leave that second task to a multitude of international groups, many of whose members are current or former Israeli citizen.
But the bottom line is that as much of the Palestinian public becomes more concerned with economic issues, the degree of hostility towards Israel has lessened, giving Abbas some room for flexibility in the negotiations with Israel.