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Why the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks might just succeed

It's been almost 20 years since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed the Oslo peace agreement – the last time there was any real optimism that the conflict over Israel's creation might be resolved.

While the world's attention was focused on the White House lawn that day in September, 1993 – watching Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shake hands in front of U.S. president Bill Clinton – I chose to spend the day in Gaza, watching the reaction of people with the most at stake. They were deeply divided.

All that morning, and into the afternoon, the mood was sombre and the air filled with plumes of black smoke as followers of Hamas, the militant Islamic resistance movement, burned tires in protest of a deal the group considered to be a sellout. The PLO, Hamas said, was giving up the land from which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had fled during fighting in 1948 and to which they and their descendants hoped to return.

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Sharply at 2 p.m., by an odd agreement between the two Palestinian movements, Hamas withdrew its protesters and doused its fires, as followers of Mr. Arafat flooded onto the streets in loud celebration. They believed the PLO had brought Palestinians to the threshold of an independent state. Those people still are waiting.

Since that moment, and especially since the 1995 murder of Mr. Rabin by a Jewish religious-nationalist fanatic, efforts to complete the peace process and establish a Palestinian state have failed.

Yet this week, with preparatory talks in Washington launching yet another attempt to negotiate a solution – and garnering yet another chorus of skeptical responses – I find myself, against all odds, taking wagers that these talks might just succeed where others have failed.

There's lots of reason to doubt this notion.

Diana Buttu, the Canadian-born Palestinian of Israeli citizenship who has advised the PLO and its leader Mahmoud Abbas in past negotiations, points out that the number of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank has tripled in the two decades since Oslo to some 600,000. Far from establishing a Palestinian state, she says, the peace process was used by Israel as cover for its real expansionist plans.

At the same time, Israel received benefits from participating in the peace process, she notes, including a peace treaty with Jordan, associate membership in the European Union, and a booming economy.

"For Palestinians, the experience was the exact opposite," Ms. Buttu says: "more settlements, checkpoints and movement restrictions; the political division of the occupied Palestinian territory between the West Bank and Gaza Strip; the inability to go to Jerusalem; the need for permits to travel to and from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the concomitant decline in the Palestinian economy and the subsequent dependence on donor aid."

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"I fear that these new talks will do the same," she says: "entrench Israel's presence in the West Bank (including east Jerusalem); continue the siege on the Gaza Strip; lead to more Israeli settlements and settlers and further entrench all of the restrictions on Palestinian movement (with the concomitant impact on the economy."

She makes good points, yet I detect among Israelis some real concern about their country's increasing international isolation. The growing number of high-profile artists and academics that are boycotting Israel, as well as the European Union that recently drew a legal distinction between Israel and the territories it occupies, are some of the examples Israelis point to. For the first time since the embargos of the 1970s, many are worried about losing some of their political and economic gains. And that kind of fear might create a political will in Israel to see this peace process through.

Certainly that is the kind of issue that motivates someone such as Finance Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the new Yesh Atid party, the supporters of which hail from Israel's worried middle class. Last Sunday, Mr. Lapid and his party's other cabinet ministers all voted in favour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal that 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners be released as a gesture to Mr. Abbas for agreeing to enter negotiations. Such a release was criticized by many Israelis since those to be freed include many convicted of killing Israeli civilians.

Mr. Netanyahu had settled on a prisoner release over two other possible concessions that had been demanded by the Palestinians – a freeze on settlement construction and a declaration that the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state would be based on the 1949 Green Line that separated the two sides at the end of the 1948-49 war (aka "the 1967 borders"). U.S. pressure persuaded Mr. Abbas to drop those demands for the moment.

Haaretz political analyst Uri Misgav believes that how the Israeli cabinet voted this week on the prisoner release provides a guide as to how the peace process might unfold if and when it reaches a stage where government approval is required.

Including the Prime Minister, 13 members of cabinet voted for the prisoner release, seven opposed it, and two ministers abstained.

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In addition to Mr. Netanyahu and the five Yesh Atid ministers, supporters of the release included the two ministers from Tzippi Livni's Hatnuah party (Ms. Livni is Israel's chief negotiator on the Palestinian issue), the two ministers from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, and three ministers from Mr. Netanyahu's own Likud party.

Significantly, four Likud ministers voted against their leader's proposal, along with the three ministers from the arch-settler Jewish Home party. Two other Likud ministers abstained.

If push comes to shove, this is probably how a vote on territorial or other concessions in peace talks might turn out.

The problem for the Prime Minister is the very right-wing nature of his own party's caucus. (Mr. Netanyahu is, arguably, the Likud's most left wing member of the Knesset.) Should his caucus rebel against some negotiated concession, Mr. Netanyahu would be forced to split his party, taking supporters with him and trying to form a new government without the Jewish Home party and the majority of Likud MKs.

In this event, he would likely be supported by the Labour Party's 15 members, and even by the 11 MKs of Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party. Party leader Aryeh Deri, who is back at the helm after serving time in jail for accepting bribes, has always been willing to put people's lives and peace ahead of occupied land, especially if it means getting government favours for his constituency.

This week's prisoner vote suggests Mr. Netanyahu has the numbers to follow through on a peace initiative. It remains to be seen whether he has the will.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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