Have the Mideast Peace Talks Become a Game Show?

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Ahmad Gharabli / AFP / Getty Images

Palestinian laborers work on a new housing project at the Israeli settlement of Har Homa in east Jerusalem

The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been suspended for nearly twice as long as they went on, a lengthy intermission made diverting by the spectacle of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's juggling. First the renewal of settlement construction; then the request that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state; occasional challenges to President Obama's authority — so many balls have been in the air for so long that some in the audience have forgotten the story line.

"There is a big difference between the appearance of a peace process, for which our politicians show virtuosic capabilities, and producing the real thing," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, who is pretty sure he knows what he's been watching: "This is a tragedy."

Or perhaps a game show. Sunday brought word that Netanyahu had extracted a promise from the U.S. that cast Obama as Monty Hall in Let's Make a Deal. "You can trade what you have in your hand right now — the right to build on the West Bank for the next three months — for what's behind door number one: 20 F-35 fighter jets, a deal valued at $3 billion."

"Stealth military aircraft in exchange for an end to Netanyahu's evasive tactics," was how columnist Aluf Benn put it on the front page of the daily Haaretz. To the right-wing cabinet of the right-wing coalition Netanyahu must persuade to agree, the deal seems to offer a visible boost in what Israel craves most: security.

But there is security and there is security. The last war Israel fought against a conventional army was 28 years ago. What has most threatened Israelis since then is terror. Between 2000 and 2008, the years of the Second Intifadeh, more than 700 Israelis lost their lives, the largest share from suicide bombers who crossed into Israeli cities from Palestinian territory ruled by militias. The security fence typically gets credit for the striking decline in terror attacks, but it is not the barrier it appears to be. Scores, if not hundreds of Palestinians scramble over the soft points in the fence every day to find work on the Israeli side. A bomber could too.

The greater security accomplishment was getting Palestinian moderates to join with Israeli intelligence and military to roll up terror cells. Since 2007, the Palestinian Authority has undone militias and placed a heavy bet on smartly uniformed, professionally turned-out security forces trained by the United States, encouraged by Israel and answering to Palestinian Authority prime minister Salam Fayyad.

The Palestinian effort, backed by nightly Israeli military raids on houses, has suppressed terror attacks from the West Bank against Israel for some two years, not least by jailing without trial hundreds loyal to Hamas, the fundamentalist militant group. "Today, three and a half years after we started, almost 500 fighters are out of the circle of terrorism," boasts a senior Israeli intelligence official.

But the effort is fragile, the official cautions. "In order to keep the legitimacy of the Palestinian security forces we need real progress in the peace process. Everything is connected to the progress we will have or we will not have in the peace process."

Everything, the official made clear in a lengthy briefing to foreign reporters, takes in a matrix of threats to Israel that, in the end, come together in the standing of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. As the U.S.-favored successor to the late Yasser Arafat, the white-haired, grandfatherly Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, has forsworn terror in favor of negotiating an end to the conflict with Israel.

The negotiations are meant to end with statehood for Palestine, and with that the eventual pullout of Israeli troops and settlements from most of what is now the West Bank. Such an outcome — ending an occupation that dates to 1967 — would undercut persistent support for Hamas, which controls the 1.5 million Palestinians who live on the Gaza Strip, and remains strong on the West Bank as well. That realization, the Israeli official claims, has guided Hamas attempts to use terror — shooting Jewish settlers on the West Bank on the eve of the talks — in hopes of derailing a process that holds such potential for validating its rival. "They were planning a wave of very big attacks in Israel," the official said of Hamas. "They wanted to use those attacks to foul up the peace process."

In 90 minutes, the intelligence official made no mention of the political sideshows that have held center stage since Sept. 26, the date Abbas ceased negotiations because Israel let expire a moratorium on settlement construction. Charged with offering sober threat assessments to elected officials, starting with Netanyahu, he was matter-of-fact.

On the question of negotiating with Hamas, which after all won a 2006 election in Gaza, the official demurred. Aside from the group's dependence on Iran, he judged as sincere its leaders' commitment not only to destroying Israel but to uniting the globe's Muslims under a restored caliphate — a reference to a popular Israeli reading of the Hamas Charter (which, however, uses the term "Islamic Caliphate" only as a reference to the moribund Ottoman Empire of the Turks). "I don't think Hamas can make a real shift in their ideology," the official insists, "because if they were to shift they will not be Hamas any more."

That leaves only Abbas, a proud man with dubious public support and no clear successor. And the two sides face each other across facing a deep reservoir of mutual mistrust. The 1993 Oslo accords collapsed into waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli military incursions after the disappointment of the 2000 Camp David talks. They are talking again because, as the intelligence official repeated again and again over 90 minutes, no other option exists. "I believe each side doesn't believe the other enough," the official said. "Without this basic trust, it's going to be very difficult to remove the challenges between us and the Palestinians in the peace talks."