In the ethnic and sectarian tribalism of the Middle East, a shot fired in anger can ricochet through generations, and chaos almost always begets more chaos. So when a tribalist par excellence like stubborn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees not just danger but also opportunity, it’s worth taking note. Netanyahu’s decision to release convicted Palestinian terrorists to restart peace talks may be too little cause for true optimism. But it’s certainly enough to pique curiosity about the timing.
The conventional wisdom holds that Israel must wait until the Arab Spring smoke clears before even considering a return to talks with the Palestinians. After all, everywhere Israeli leaders look, they see mounting dangers: Islamists in Egypt; instability in the Sinai; civil war in Syria; open conflict on the Golan Heights; refugee-driven unrest in Jordan; jihadists arriving in Syria from the Persian Gulf; the Iranian nuclear program; Hamas in Gaza. History suggests that when Israelis feel insecure, they are not much interested in the “land for peace” risks necessary to reach a two-state deal with the Palestinians.
And yet there was Bibi this week, quelling a rebellion of right-wingers in his own Cabinet and sending a letter to the Israeli people to explain his “incomparably difficult decision” to release the Palestinian prisoners to kick-start negotiations. Change in places such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, Netanyahu wrote, creates not only challenges but also “considerable opportunities for us” to strike a deal with the Palestinians.
What has caused Netanyahu to channel his inner Confucius, and to see opportunity in a crisis? The most obvious possibility is the one that U.S. officials have pressed on the Israelis since the Arab awakening began: In a raging storm, it makes sense to secure safe harbor. A peace deal with the Palestinians could provide a useful anchor of stability. “It’s safe to say that Netanyahu recognizes that the unrest that has swept through the region could certainly come to the West Bank,” a senior State Department official told reporters in Washington this week on the first day of U.S.-brokered negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli officials. “There’s also a real sense on both sides that this opportunity may not come around again.”
Insiders say efforts to “delegitimize” Israel—because of his nation’s military occupation of the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza, and its settlement expansion in East Jerusalem—have alarmed Netanyahu. That campaign gained momentum in 2012 when the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to grant the Palestinians the symbolic status of a “nonmember observer state.” The European Union also banned all funding or collaboration with “Israeli entities” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, drawing a distinction between the state of Israel and the occupied territories.
“There is a new dynamic in play,” said a senior White House official, who asked to be quoted without attribution. The Palestinians have made it clear, he said, that without progress in peace negotiations, they would seek to further elevate their status at the U.N. “That could cause significant friction with Israel, so everyone wanted to avoid that train wreck.”
Never a strategist but always a cunning tactician, Netanyahu may have also recognized advantages to restarting negotiations when the region’s major players are otherwise preoccupied. Recall that earlier progress in peace talks was often derailed by spoilers, chiefly Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. (Netanyahu’s own first stint as prime minister came after Hamas bombings in 1996 interrupted the Oslo process.) As long as their close allies in the Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt, the leaders of Hamas in Gaza also felt ascendant in their power struggle with the secular Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Now Iran and Hezbollah are busy propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, and the Egyptian military has ousted Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi from the presidency.
“Up until now, all the chaos in the Middle East has had a paralyzing effect on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, because it created instincts for caution on both sides,” says Dennis Ross, a former special assistant on the Middle East to President Obama who is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The paradox is that with the other major players in the region fixated elsewhere, the chaos may create political space for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal, and also lessen the backlash against it from the likes of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. And [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas certainly feels less constrained in reaching a deal now that the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer ruling Egypt and it’s not obvious that political Islam is the wave of the future.”
While Netanyahu may have recognized the tactical advantages of restarting talks, it will take an uncharacteristic strategic vision to conclude them successfully. Predecessors such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon acquired enough foresight to see the ultimate fork in Israel’s road: a choice between remaining a Jewish state or remaining a democracy. Lately, Netanyahu has said publicly he will not allow Israel to become a “binational state” for both Israelis and Palestinians. The statement suggests at least that the approaching fork in the road is becoming clearer to him. Before it’s too late, Bibi will have to recognize that the only detour is a two-state solution.