Is The Middle East Conflict Getting Even Tougher To Solve?

Aug 14, 2013
Originally published on August 18, 2013 8:23 am

When the Israelis and Palestinians signed an interim peace agreement on the White House lawn in 1993 amid soaring optimism, the Jewish settlers in the West Bank numbered a little over 100,000.

As renewed peace talks open Wednesday in Jerusalem, the settlers now total more than 350,000. Their number is growing rapidly, a point driven home when Israel announced Sunday it was ready to build a new batch of houses in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — a move that angered Palestinians.

Two decades after those initial peace talks, all the core issues remain unresolved and the settlement question is one of several that appear even more intractable than when the negotiators first sat down to the table.

So have the two sides been moving closer to, or further from, a peace agreement over the past 20 years of frustrating, on-and-off talks?

"Many Israelis are doing very well, but they are living in a bubble and have gone into a sense of denial about the conflict. They no longer see it or hear it, and they can even pretend it doesn't exist," says Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "On the Palestinian side, their ability to influence the Israelis is really very limited. It's not a good place for either side to be."

In 1993, the recent end of the Cold War gave rise to the notion that major political shifts were underway and long-standing disputes were ready to be re-examined. The Israelis and Palestinians did appear close to a deal in 2000. But the talks collapsed and gave way to years of violence. Despite periodic efforts, the two sides haven't been able to replicate the mood of the 1990s, when a breakthrough seemed possible.

Still, many changes ushered in during the 1990s have not been undone, says David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Before the peace talks began, Israel considered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his cohorts to be terrorists. The idea of setting up a Palestinian proto-state was taboo," says Makovsky. "Despite all the violence and terrorism since then, this idea of a negotiated solution has not been rolled back. This is the new normal."

And even in failure, countless rounds of negotiations did establish the outlines of what a deal would look like, says Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and former State Department official.

"There are two schools of thought: They've been at it for 20 years, haven't gotten anywhere. The second view, to which I subscribe, is that a lot of important work has been done," Danin says. "There's been a great deal of exploration and refinement to the positions on each side."

As this new round of talks begins, here's a look at how several key issues have evolved since the negotiations began.

Settlements: Israel says the fate of settlements should be resolved in negotiations and has continued to expand them even when peace talks are taking place. One widely discussed option is for Israel to retain the largest settlements and compensate the Palestinians with an equal amount of territory that is currently part of Israel. The Jewish state would also withdraw settlers from the smaller, more remote locations.

But this summation glosses over a thousand contentious details. The size and scale of the settlements today pose a staggering logistical challenge when it comes to creating a viable Palestinian state while relocating some portion of the existing settlers.

"Clearly the settlement issue has changed for the worse," says Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine.

Jerusalem poses a similar conundrum. The Palestinians want the eastern part for a future capital, but Israel claims all of the city, and some 200,000 Israelis now live in the eastern sector.

Palestinian Leadership: Arafat was the undisputed Palestinian leader two decades ago. If he cut a deal with the Israelis, it was assumed he could persuade a solid majority of Palestinians to support it. But since Arafat's death in 2004, the Palestinian leadership has become bitterly divided. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, controls the West Bank, but the Islamic group Hamas runs the Gaza Strip. Even if Abbas could work out a deal with Israel, he currently has no ability to make it stick in Gaza.

Israeli Politics: The Israeli public has steadily grown more conservative and wary of peace negotiations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a lifelong security hawk, says he supports a two-state solution. But he has never been enthusiastic about negotiations and his coalition government includes parties and government ministers who take an even harder line than he does.

If Netanyahu proposes the kinds of concessions that would be required for a peace deal, his hard-line partners could defect, bringing down his government.

Arab Uprisings: The upheavals in the Arab world have made Israel reluctant to make any big moves. To the north, Israel sees Syria embroiled in a nasty civil war, with refugees spilling out and threatening to destabilize neighboring countries, like Lebanon and Jordan.

Meanwhile, Egypt's crisis makes Israel nervous about its southern border. In this unsettled environment, many Israelis are inclined to see how these upheavals play out before they consider major concessions to the Palestinians.

Is there anything that's gotten better over the past 20 years?

Ibish points to improved security conditions. Israel and Hamas periodically trade fire along the frontier in Gaza, but the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has developed an effective security force, and attacks on Israel have been rare in recent years.

"There is now a Palestinian security force that is professional and coordinates with the Israelis," says Ibish.

Makovsky of the Washington Institute says that some things have changed so much that they are easily overlooked.

"The idea of a two-state solution has become more of a reality for everyone. You have majorities on both sides who support it," he says. "There will come a tipping point when the politics will make it too difficult. But I still think there's a chance."

Greg Myre, the international editor at, reported from the Middle East for more than a decade and is the co-author of This Burning Land: Lessons from the Frontlines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

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