October 23, 2015 / 10:45 AM / 2 years ago

Plenty of diplomacy but slim hope for new Middle East peace push

JERUSALEM/VIENNA (Reuters) - Flare-ups in violence between Israel and the Palestinians have often accelerated peace efforts - the first intifada led into the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s and the second gave rise to the Arab and Geneva peace initiatives.

Palestinians run after Israeli troops fired tear gas canisters at protesters during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron October 23, 2015. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

But the latest surge in violence, while barely a month old and less intense than past uprisings, comes at a time when the ability or willingness of all sides - Israeli, Palestinian and international partners such as the United States - to have another go at forging peace has rarely seemed more lacking.

Whereas politics has always underpinned the conflict, with its focus on land, borders and statehood, there is an added religious element to the latest turmoil that makes the situation more volatile and potentially even harder to resolve.

After three weeks in which Palestinians have stabbed or shot dead nine Israelis, and Israeli security forces have killed 50 Palestinians - half of them attackers, many of them teenagers - international efforts to quell the violence have picked up.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to the region this week, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and held further talks with King Abdullah of Jordan in Amman on Thursday.

Netanyahu went to Berlin to see German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and Kerry was due to fly to Jordan on Friday to meet Abdullah and Abbas.

The revamped Middle East Quartet - bringing together the United Nations, Russia, the United States and the EU, as well as key Arab states - was also meeting in Vienna on Friday.

But the aim is mostly just to put a lid on the current violence and reinforce the status quo at Al-Aqsa, the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City that is a root of the violence.

There is no substantive talk of launching a new, comprehensive effort towards a two-state solution - an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel - especially so soon after the last, U.S.-backed attempt collapsed in early 2014 after nine months of largely fruitless discussion.

“It is absolutely critical to end all incitement, to end all violence and to find a road forward to build the possibility, which is not there today, for a larger process,” Kerry said on Thursday, acknowledging the absence of a broader horizon.

TO THE TABLE?

The crux of any peace effort is getting the chief actors - Israel and the Palestinians - to sit down with one another. That may sound simple but there is little incentive on either side at this point and, even if there were, it is not clear that either party could deliver what is required with popular support.

Netanyahu has said he is ready to sit down with Abbas at any time, but has also accused him of inciting the current violence and dismissed him as a peace interlocutor. Relations between the two have never been so sour.

Even if he were to agree to new negotiations, Netanyahu’s government has just a one-seat majority in parliament, with ultra-Orthodox and national-religious parties holding leverage over him. Any hint of a move in a direction unacceptable to them could lead to the collapse of his coalition.

After Netanyahu and Kerry met in Berlin on Thursday, one U.S. official expressed deep pessimism about the chances of any renewed, broader peace effort.

“There’s a million reasons (why not),” he said. “Look at (Netanyahu‘s) coalition.”

Even getting Netanyahu to agree to elements that have been prerequisites for the launching of peace negotiations in the past, such as a halt on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank, would be likely to make his government collapse.

Abbas faces just as many obstacles to a return to peace talks. His popularity is rock bottom, with two-thirds of Palestinians wanting him to resign, according to a poll published last month.

When he came to power a decade ago, Abbas promised the Palestinian people he could deliver an independent state via peaceful means but he has not managed that. Part of what is fuelling anger among young Palestinians now is the sense that peace has failed and armed struggle is the only recourse.

“The (current) unrest,” said Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, “reflects a sense among Palestinians that their leadership has failed, that national rights must be defended in defiance of their leaders if necessary, and that the Abbas era is coming to an end.”

Even if Abbas were able to sit down for new talks, it is questionable whether he could deliver on behalf of all Palestinians and whether he would have a democratic mandate to do so. He was elected to a four-year term in 2005 yet remains in power 10 years on without new elections having been held.

He can speak for the Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but Gaza is in the hands of Hamas, an Islamist group opposed to negotiations with Israel.

AFTER OBAMA

For the United States - for decades the critical outside actor pushing negotiations - the outlook is challenging too. There is a little over a year left of the Obama administration and it has already had one failed Middle East peace effort.

With conflict in Syria and much of Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal just getting underway, Saudi Arabia battling in Yemen and NATO-ally Turkey facing a host of threats, there is more than enough going on in the region to demand attention.

In the past, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been something of a “legacy” issue that U.S. presidents tackle in their second terms - Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had a go. For Obama, that window is closing and the legacy is more likely to rest on the Iran deal or a domestic issue such as healthcare.

The failure of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the 2003 Geneva Initiative and the 2002 Arab peace initiative, re-endorsed in 2007, to bring permanent peace also acts as a deterrent for all sides to re-engage in peace negotiations. 

The idea propounded by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the problems of Islamist extremism had their root in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - solve one and you help resolve the wider Middle East - has fallen by the wayside as groups like Islamic State have cut a swathe across the region.

While the European Union, and the Quartet, would like to play a bigger role in shaping Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the United States remains the critical driver. But its willingness to get back in the front seat is lacking.

U.S. officials also point out the poor personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu. Netanyahu would rather bide his time and wait for the next administration.

If Democrat Hillary Clinton becomes president, he will expect a more sympathetic ear. If a Republican is elected, he would be likely to see it as an even better scenario.

Writing by Luke Baker, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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