In the absence of negotiations, Abbas has grasped for a unity government with Hamas. Despite previous failed agreements, notably a pact mediated by the Saudi king in February 2007, Abbas is now trying this route again. Talks beginning on May 27 were to select a new cabinet within 10 days, and though they have been delayed, they may succeed by the end of June. The plan is for that new government to rule for six months and then hold elections, but neither Hamas nor Fatah wants to subject itself to the unpredictability of the polls. For Abbas, elections might end his years of happy globe-trotting. He claims that retirement is his fondest wish, but if the Palestinian population will put up with him for a few more years, he will put up with them.
Elections aren't even the toughest challenge such a coalition would face. Security tops the list. Who would lead the Palestinian Authority's various forces? Who can expect Hamas to disarm when it has never been defeated by Fatah, either in combat or at the ballot box? Because "national unity" is widely popular among Palestinians, Abbas and Hamas will keep at it and may even briefly achieve a "unity government" -- but it won't last.
Even a short-lived unity government with Hamas would doom any chance of a negotiation with Israel, but that doesn't bother Abbas. He can't see a way to climb down from his demand for a construction freeze, and he doesn't have high hopes for negotiations in the first place. Negotiations demand compromises, and he knows that any he makes will immediately be denounced by Hamas as treason. Meanwhile, he's not in a good position for serious talks with Israel anyway. His minister for negotiations, Saeb Erekat, had a heart attack this spring, and the other old negotiating hands -- former Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and PLO Secretary-General Yasser Abed Rabbo -- are out of favor.
All this leaves Abbas simply muddling through, declaring that he will go back to the United Nations, hold elections, or insist on a new government. But he's shuffling those claims like cards in a deck -- now one on top, now another. The shuffling will continue until the United States has a new president and Abbas can decipher what, if anything, the new administration will demand of him and of Israel. The most likely outcome for Abbas is more years that look like the last three: lots of travel, occasional efforts at the United Nations, and discussions of elections and unity governments that never get beyond the talking stage.
Don't expect any initiatives out of the United States until after the presidential election either. If Romney is elected, he and his new team will need time to get settled and will likely see Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as a bottomless pit for diplomatic energy rather than as a priority. If Obama is reelected, he will have no Middle East hands to whom he can turn. Mideast advisor Dennis Ross has left; Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, departed for a post at the United Nations; and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will in all likelihood leave when a new secretary of state is appointed or a few months later.
In January 2009, Obama appointed Mitchell as special Middle East envoy on his second day in office. That kind of priority will not be assigned to the "peace process" in January 2013 -- no matter who wins.
The new Israeli coalition has some room to maneuver, but don't expect it to make diplomacy with the Palestinians a priority. It will want to make decisions on Iran first and see who will be the U.S. president for the next four years. An Israel that is worried about stability in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon and facing a growing Iranian nuclear weapons program is unlikely to take many risks in the West Bank.
That's not to say the new government can afford to ignore the Palestinian issue. Polls show that Israelis do want peace and do want separation from the Palestinians, but have little faith that much can be achieved. If Iran's nuclear program is halted, through either a bombing campaign or a negotiated deal, and Iran's ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, falls, attention may turn back to the West Bank. An Israel that has defied the counsels of restraint from the United States, Russia, China, and all of Europe by bombing Iran may well seek to patch things up by appearing in a more "moderate" and cooperative light on the Palestinian issue.
Such peace talks, however, would likely fail. If the Palestinian president could not agree to the startlingly generous offer a falling Olmert made in late 2008, nothing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can offer will elicit a yes. This would leave Netanyahu facing two alternatives: continue economic and institutional development in the West Bank without talks, or undertake a Sharon/Olmert/Mofaz move in the West Bank.
Netanyahu's government could adopt some combination of consolidating (perhaps even annexing) the major settlement blocs while unilaterally pulling settlements back to the security fence. This would allow the Palestinians more political and security sway in large areas of the West Bank, while also compensating settlers who move "back" -- mostly to other, larger settlements, not behind the Green Line.
The problem with unilateral steps is that they go unrequited. Sharon, contemplating disengagement from Gaza, said this straightforwardly to Bush. In the absence of concessions from the Palestinians, he sought and received political and ideological compensation from the United States. This came in the form of Bush's April 14, 2004, letter to Sharon, wherein the United States said that there was no "right of return" and that the Palestinian refugee problem had to be solved in Palestine "rather than in Israel." It also affirmed that "it is realistic to expect" Israel would keep the major settlement blocs, which were "new realities on the ground."