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Oct 20, 2015 6:05 PM

Mediators face uphill battle in Israeli-Palestinian morass

The Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) A surprise Mideast mediation effort by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon underscores the world community's desire to stamp out the new flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But diplomacy faces an uphill battle with both sides deadlocked on the big issues and the current leaders being dragged along.

The United States and Jordan could prove especially important in determining whether the bloodshed will subside. The U.S. may be called upon to push for new talks, and the Jordanians can calm the atmosphere by negotiating with both sides about the Jerusalem holy sites over which they are the recognized custodians.

Much depends on giving the Palestinians a sense of some success perhaps even hope for a fundamental change while enabling Israelis to avoid feeling that they have bowed before terrorism.

Here's a look at where things could go:


There is a sense among observers that the U.S. administration would like to wash its hands of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. For nine months, ending in early 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry focused on a mediation effort that most locals considered to be not serious.

The effort indeed failed, and some consider it took valuable attention away from the meltdown in Syria and Iraq. On top of that, President Barack Obama has had to endure an extraordinarily heated campaign against his nuclear deal with Iran by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who even advocated against it in a March speech to Congress, a truly unprecedented affair.

After such a history, and with just over a year left in Obama's term, there seems to be little incentive for the U.S. to come charging back with a new peace plan. In the meantime, the U.S. is working on a security package to calm Israeli anger over the nuclear deal.

But Obama may have no choice but to get involved again, simply because a new peace process could potentially calm things down. The Palestinians say their main message to Kerry this weekend will be for a "serious" international effort to end Israel's control of occupied territories and establish an independent Palestinian state.

Ahead of his own meetings with the sides this week, Kerry has said he hopes to move beyond discussions about the religious site and "open up enough political space" to address broader issues. But to relaunch talks, the sides will first have to restore quiet, and it's unclear whether Kerry has any ideas on how to do so in such a toxic environment.


Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have appeared unable to halt the wave of violence in the past month, with each focusing efforts on blaming the other.

Netanyahu has accused Abbas of incitement, saying the Palestinians are falsely accusing Israel of upsetting a delicate status quo at a sensitive holy site revered by Jews and Muslims. Abbas says the violence is the natural result of decades of occupation and the lack of a political horizon. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has imposed tough security measures in Palestinian neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.

But both have stated they would like to restore calm. To do so, Netanyahu probably will not only have to declare his commitment to the status quo at the holy site, but persuade Kerry and the Palestinians that he truly is preserving it. He also may be pushed to ease some of the security restrictions in Jerusalem, particularly checkpoints and roadblocks that control movement in and out of Palestinian neighborhoods.

Abbas could come under pressure to dial down some of his own rhetoric, as well as control what other Palestinian leaders say. Israelis say that much of the violence has been fueled by incendiary videos and statements in Palestinian social media.

It remains unclear whether either is in the mood to compromise or even how much influence they have. The attacks on Israelis have come from "lone-wolf" Palestinians acting on their own. These attacks have confounded Israeli security services, and Abbas seems to have little control over them.


Jordan has a big role regarding the shrine that Palestinians call the "Noble Sanctuary." Having controlled the Old City of Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, when Israel captured it, Jordan retains a both symbolic and practical role as a custodian of the site. When similar tensions erupted last year, Jordan withdrew its ambassador from Israel and quickly helped restore calm by talking to the sides.

It is not clear if King Abdullah wants to get involved this time. He has other challenges with his own brittle country hosting almost 1 million Syrian refugees. But he has invited Abbas for talks later this week. And Jordan, as a credible outside party trusted by Israel, could in theory take steps to mollify the Palestinians. That could involve a fact-finding mission to Jerusalem and stated assurances that Israel is not planning to alter the status quo.


Palestinian attacks against Israel come in two variants that are often confused and conflated.

One model occurs when Israelis and Palestinians seem on the verge of deals to partition the Holy Land into two states, necessarily involving a territorial compromise on each side. This motivates Palestinian rejectionists, such as the Hamas militant group, to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks in hopes of scuttling the process. Such a wave of suicide bombings occurred in the mid-1990s that brought the Israeli right, in the form of Netanyahu, to power.

To a far lesser extent, the Jews have their own version of this: Settler Baruch Goldstein's massacre of 29 Palestinians in a West Bank shrine in 1994 very much contributed to the unraveling of the peace process, as did ultranationalist Yigal Amir's assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the next year.

While many Israelis see all Palestinian violence as a ceaseless rejection of their presence in the Holy Land, the current wave of attacks belong in a second category: they genuinely appear to be coming from desperation and anger at the fact that the current situation Palestinians stateless and occupied in the West Bank, under siege in Gaza and living as second-class citizens in Israel is seemingly permanent. Netanyahu, who returned to office in 2009 and was re-elected in March, has emerged as, in effect, a risk-averse proponent of the status quo.


Netanyahu's fundamental proposition to Israelis has been that this status quo is less dangerous than other plausible options. There have been three small wars with Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007, but few Israelis are surprised by rounds of violence with the Islamic militant group.

With the Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, the situation has indeed been quiet, and Netanyahu's re-election was in part a reward for this. The unraveling of Israelis' security changes things in ways that could be difficult to predict. On one hand, waves of attacks tend to move public opinion to the right potentially further bolstering Netanyahu. But on the other hand, the Israeli public is also capable of punishing right-wing governments that seem hapless in the face of Palestinian violence. That is at least partly what happened in 1992, when Rabin defeated Yitzhak Shamir who had failed to quell the first Palestinian uprising.

One possibility is for Netanyahu to coax into his coalition Israeli moderates like Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, who warned last month that a new Palestinian uprising, driven by despair, may be coming. Such a government might restart peace talks with the Palestinians and perhaps seek creative solutions yet Herzog has said repeatedly that he and Netanyahu are too fundamentally apart. Elections are not scheduled until 2019, but they could come much sooner if Netanyahu alienates his hard-line partners by making concessions to the Palestinians.

A game-changer may loom as well: There are a variety of Israeli security figures ready to enter politics. Most tend toward the center-left and consider the occupation of the West Bank, with its millions of Palestinians, to be a strategic error of the highest degree.


Dan Perry is AP's Middle East editor leading text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan

Josef Federman is the Associated Press bureau chief in Jerusalem. Follow him on Twitter atwww.twitter.com/joseffederman


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