Today’s developments in Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiations demonstrate why the two sides, despite the joint statement that they issued reiterating that they are both committed to peace, are in reality farther apart then ever in coming to a lasting, binding agreement. Let’s begin with the turmoil on the Palestinian side of the ledger. The much-anticipated letter from Abbas to Netanyahu was delivered by Saeb Erekat and Majed Faraj, and while there had been speculation that it would contain a threat to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and return day to day control of the West Bank to Israel, the letter reportedly did not go that far, which should be cause for optimism. This means that a small sliver of agreement and coordination still theoretically exists on which to base negotiations.
The bad news is that Salam Fayyad, who was slated to deliver the letter to Netanyahu, was a no-show. There are a number of reasons why this might be, and none of them bode well for the future. Fayyad might have backed out because he does not think another expression of Palestinian discontent is going to jumpstart negotiations, which would signal a worrying degree of frustration on his part. Fayyad is the great moderate of Palestinian politics, and he has enormous credibility with the U.S. and other international actors. He has led the effort to build up Palestinian institutions and improve the West Bank’s economy and security, and he has been largely successful. He is also the rare – or maybe even more accurately, only – Palestinian politician who says the same things in Arabic to his domestic audience as he does in English to an international audience. He has never been accused of inciting or excusing violence, does not glorify terrorists who kill civilians, called for Hamas to recognize Israel years ago, does not have even a whiff of corruption about him, and by all accounts is honest and determined. If Fayyad believes that things have degenerated to the point that this letter will accomplish nothing, the risk exists that he is at the point of abandoning his project of state-building. Fayyad does not have a natural constituency among Palestinians as he is not a career politician or a high ranking PLO member, and if he resigns as prime minister, international aid to the PA will dry up overnight and the situation in the West Bank will quickly deteriorate.
Fayyad might also not have agreed to deliver the letter because Abbas was trying to discredit him by asking him to do it. Today is Palestinian Prisoners Day, in which Palestinians express their solidarity with those in Israeli jails, and the optic of meeting with Israeli officials today is not a popular one. Abbas and Fayyad do not have a good relationship, and it was not improved with the news that the unity deal that Abbas agreed to with Hamas stipulated sacking Fayyad. Abbas might have been trying to embarrass Fayyad even further by demanding that the letter be delivered today, and Fayyad understandably did not want to do it himself. The PA’s footing is tenuous enough already, and it certainly will not be improved by more fighting between its two top figures. If the PA implodes, the party that stands to benefit the most is Hamas, and that will certainly not do any wonders for Israeli security or the prospects of a deal.
Finally, it’s possible that Fayyad did not deliver the letter himself because he does not think that negotiations with Israel are still a viable path to a Palestinian state. Fayyad is on record as being against a unilateral declaration of statehood and did not agree with last fall’s strategy of pressing the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, and if he has one way or another become so disenchanted that he now believes in institution-building for its own sake without it leading to negotiations with Israel, then Israel will have lost in a big way. In many ways, Fayyad is the perfect Palestinian counterpart for Netanyahu, as they have both expressed the opinion that improving the West Bank’s economy and security is a vital precursor to successful political negotiations. If Fayyad does not want to be a part of the PA’s current negotiating process because he thinks it is a waste of time, it would signal the death knell of true moderate Palestinian partnership.
In the meantime, while Israel and the PA held a meeting and issued a joint statement that nobody expects to lead to any real progress, 1200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons began an indefinite hunger strike to protest the practice of administrative detentions and what they allege to be abusive and humiliating behavior on Israel’s part. This more than anything highlights the absurdity of today’s peace process theater. Of these two separate and distinct events, the one that is guaranteed to hold Palestinian attention and support is prisoners going on a hunger strike in opposition to Israel rather than Palestinian negotiators exchanging letters with the Israeli government. Even if Abbas were to drop his preconditions and come to the negotiating table, and the two sides were able to make some progress, is there really going to be much appetite for talks among Palestinians at this point? With hunger striker Khader Adnan being freed today, there is a stark example of what appears to be a successful strategy for countering Israel against the backdrop of endless negotiations that have not produced much in the way of tangible gains. This doesn’t mean that it will lead to Palestinian violence, but it also does not mean that negotiations are still viewed as the only alternative to armed resistance. Of all the days in which the peace process has seemed moribund, today might have reached a new low with its hollow message of two sides working together.