When he’s at his residence in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only has to peek through the curtains to see the crowds calling for his resignation. Even when the protesters aren’t there, they’ve glued posters to the bus stop and fence across the street with the faces of some of the hostages Hamas has been holding since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and the blunt message “Bring them home NOW” written in red.

Mr. Netanyahu sees the same when he travels to Tel Aviv to meet with his war cabinet at the country’s military headquarters. Every Saturday night, the crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem swell to tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of Israelis motivated by anguish over the suffering of the hostages – and anger at a prime minister they believe has put his own interests ahead of the country’s.

At least Mr. Netanyahu knows he’s relevant. Across the concrete barrier that separates Israel from the occupied West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spends most of his days having almost no impact at all on the war in Gaza or what might happen next.

Over the weeks of frantic negotiations to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza, Mr. Abbas has largely been a spectator as teams of U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators have tried – unsuccessfully so far – to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that had run Gaza as a separate entity since forcibly evicting Mr. Abbas and his Palestinian Authority from the strip in 2007.

There’s very little Israelis and Palestinians see eye to eye on, particularly after the Oct. 7 attacks and the seven-plus months of war that have followed, leaving more than 1,400 Israelis and 34,000 Palestinians dead.

Perhaps the only thing a majority on both sides would agree on is that genuine peace won’t be possible until both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas are gone from their posts.

The 74-year-old Mr. Netanyahu has governed Israel at the head of a succession of coalition governments for all but 18 months in the past 15 years.

He stands ideologically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state – the solution Canada, the U.S., and most of the international community stand behind. And he has been accused of seeking to extend the war to justify clinging to power, despite the protests and the criminal corruption charges against him.

The 88-year-old Mr. Abbas, meanwhile, won the presidency of the Palestinian Authority in a 2005 election and has never allowed another vote since. While he is a longtime advocate of the two-state solution, his deep unpopularity – and the personal animosity between him and the Hamas leadership – means he would stand little chance of selling a peace deal, and the concessions it would almost certainly involve, to his own people.

“Can they be the leaders delivering a peace treaty, and then we can live happily ever after? No,” said Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign affairs minister who has both worked in cabinet with Mr. Netanyahu and led her own party in elections against him. She added a bitter laugh. “There is no end of the conflict around the corner.”

Ms. Livni was one of Israel’s chief negotiators the last time Israel and the Palestinian Authority tried to resolve a conflict that has constantly simmered – and regularly boiled over – since Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in a 1967 war. The bloodshed that began with the Oct. 7 attacks is just the most recent eruption of large-scale violence since then.

Some peace efforts have been more serious than others. Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for overcoming decades of animosity to sign the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to provide a framework for a final-status deal. Such bravery seems impossible now: Ms. Livni was fired in 2014 simply for travelling to London to meet with Mr. Abbas without Mr. Netanyahu’s approval.

She said she went to London to try to convince Mr. Abbas to accept the deal on the table, even though it wasn’t everything Palestinians wanted.

She said Mr. Abbas didn’t answer her, and the negotiations shepherded by then-U.S. President Barack Obama soon collapsed, as Mr. Netanyahu approved the building – mid-negotiations – of more illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Two months later, Israel and Hamas were again trading blows in yet another Gaza war.

Ms. Livni, now 65 and retired from politics, nonetheless sees reasons to be optimistic that, once the war is over in Gaza – and Hamas is removed from the equation – it will be possible to put Israelis and Palestinians back on the path to peace.

“I think that it’s very important to make decisions – and I said this at the beginning of the war – for the day after, and the day after is here and now,” Ms. Livni said in an interview at her home near Tel Aviv.

“I think that this can turn into an opportunity. It will take time, it should be in stages, but it can create hope for all of us – Israelis and Palestinians. And I criticize the Israeli government for not being willing to do so, until now anyway.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has become increasingly frustrated with Mr. Netanyahu as the war has dragged on, going so far this week as to pause a shipment of U.S. arms to Israel over fears the weapons would be used to assault the city of Rafah.

Mr. Biden has made it clear he intends to use this moment to make a new push for a two-state solution, a goal that has eluded every U.S. president since Bill Clinton. For Mr. Biden, a process to create a Palestinian state would be part of a grander pact that would also see Washington and Riyadh ink a security pact, with the Saudis finally opening diplomatic relations with Israel.

Normalizing ties with the most important Sunni Arab state, and standing together under the U.S. security umbrella against their common enemy, Iran, is clearly in Israel’s best interest.

But many Israelis doubt Mr. Netanyahu will be willing to make the compromises – withdrawing soldiers and settlers from most, if not all, of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – that would allow for the creation of a functional and independent Palestine.

Mr. Netanyahu’s hostility to the idea of a Palestinian state is such that in recent years he authorized the transfer of millions of dollars a month from Qatar to Hamas, believing the money could help buy peace in Gaza.

A secondary goal, Ms. Livni and others say, was undermining Mr. Abbas and bolstering Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative that there was no one Israel could negotiate with among the divided Palestinians.

Even if Mr. Netanyahu wanted to make a deal, it would almost certainly lead to the collapse of his government, which includes far-right religious and pro-settler parties. The four-faction coalition holds 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and any of the three smaller parties could bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s government and force new elections if they don’t agree to the direction he sets.

To appease his coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu’s government has looked away as radical settler groups have staged repeated attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, raising fears of the war spilling over into that territory.

Two members of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, have said Jewish settlers should return to Gaza, which Israel withdrew from in 2005 (while maintaining control over the strip’s airspace and territorial waters).

Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster who worked as an adviser to Mr. Netanyahu early in his career, said Mr. Netanyahu makes all his decisions with an eye to maintaining power and prevailing in the next election.

“Netanyahu is convinced – and he’s already planning to campaign in the next election on this – that the biggest threat to Israel is a Palestinian state,” Mr. Barak said, comparing his former boss to the biblical figure of Samson, who uses his great strength to collapse a Philistine temple, killing himself along with his enemies. “If he has to crumble the building on top of everyone, he’ll do it.”

The dearth of leadership is even more palpable on the Palestinian side, where the security forces under Mr. Abbas’s control seem to have no mandate at all as they watch the regular clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli troops stationed in the West Bank. The invisibility of the Palestinian Authority before and after Oct. 7 has created a leadership vacuum that has been filled by Hamas.

“People are starving for leadership, and not the likes of Abbas who are advocating for peace at any cost,” said Labib Kamhawi, a Palestinian political analyst based in neighbouring Jordan, where protesters on a recent Friday shouted pro-Hamas slogans.

The Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, Mr. Kamhawi said, had put the Palestinian issue back atop the international agenda for the first time in years, accomplishing something Mr. Abbas had failed to do.

“This is a recipe for disaster, because this means that the more extremist elements will float up to the surface and continue to be the leadership of the Palestinian people,” he said.

In the Palestinian Authority’s administrative capital, Ramallah, even members of Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party admit the octogenarian has little support. Saif Aqel, the vice-president of Fatah’s youth wing, said many Palestinians were hoping that any ceasefire in Gaza would involve the release of Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah member who has been in jail since 2002 after being convicted by an Israeli court of ordering five murders during the last intifada.

Mr. Barghouti is seen as the only leader capable of unifying and leading the Palestinians through whatever comes next.

Hamas says it put Mr. Barghouti at the top of a list of Palestinian prisoners it wants released as part of any ceasefire deal, which would also see the group release some or all of the Israeli hostages.

Tellingly, Mr. Abbas seems even more opposed than Mr. Netanyahu to releasing Mr. Barghouti. The Palestinian Authority was forced to deny reports in Arab media this week that two of Mr. Abbas’s officials had asked U.S. negotiators to remove Mr. Barghouti’s name from any prisoner swap.

Mr. Abbas – like Mr. Netanyahu – has a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that leaves both men in power, even as Palestinians and Israelis feel less safe than ever before.

The Globe and Mail, May 10, 2024