I’ve just come back from a week of teaching, lecturing and conversation in Israel and the West Bank, and nothing I saw there has led me to change my basic view of the situation. Peace is not at hand in the Middle East because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are really willing to accept the only kind of peace they can get.
The only peace now possible is one in which Palestinians become an independent nation on most of the West Bank and Gaza with “swaps” of land (probably in the Negev) to compensate for land annexed to Israel. Most of historical Jerusalem will go to Israel; Palestinians will get a few scraps of the historical city with some sort of arrangement to cover the Islamic holy places and suburban developments that can more or less plausibly be called Jerusalem. (This is more or less what the Israelis had until 1967 on the western side of historical Jerusalem, though Jews were banned from visiting their holy places.) A few family reunifications may be possible and a handful of aged refugees may go back to pre-1967 Israel, but otherwise there will be no literal “right of return”. There may be some compensation and large amounts of foreign aid will be committed to the new state.
The State of Palestine will be lightly armed for internal security purposes only; there may well be foreign troops of some kind on its soil. Water rights and other difficult issues will be governed by treaties with Israel, Jordan and, perhaps, Syria; the Palestinian state will not negotiate those treaties from a position of strength.
Some Palestinians will be satisfied by this arrangement and others, though thinking it grossly inadequate and unfair, will choose to accept it as a way of ending the conflict. Many will accept it grudgingly for now, but would expect Palestine to seize any favorable opportunity to revise the treaty in Palestinian favor, and would want their government to probe for ways of doing that. Still others will reject it outright, consider those who sign it as traitors to the Palestinian cause, and like the IRA but on a much larger and more dangerous scale continue armed resistance both against Israel and what they will see as an illegitimate quisling government of Palestine. Given the way the Middle East works, these groups will probably be able to get financial and other support from various governments looking to stir the pot.
If many Palestinians would reject a treaty like this because it offers too little, some Israelis would reject it because it gives away too much.
There are Israelis who don’t want a Palestinian state and who aren’t willing to give up any land Israelis now hold. Their ideas for the Palestinian future include concepts like “self governing cantons” and a merger with Jordan. (Jordan was part of the original Palestinian Mandate assigned to the British by the League of Nations; a majority of its residents today are of Palestinian origin and Jordan controlled the West Bank until the 1967 war.) The most radical believe that Israel has a divine mandate to occupy all the territories assigned in the Bible to the ancient Hebrews which would include land on both sides of the Jordan. For many religious Zionists, “Judea and Samaria” as they call the West Bank are more important to Jewish identity than the coastal plain, Galilee and the Negev territories that make up pre-1967 Israel. Ironically, much of modern Israel occupies lands held by the Philistines in Biblical times; the old Jewish heartland and the sites associated with the patriarchs and prophets of Biblical times are mostly inhabited by Palestinians today.
These Israelis are by and large committed to expanding settlements as fast as they can. Some believe that God will assist them in this process; all see the current settlement process as a simple and completely legitimate continuation of the original Zionist project that built a Jewish state in the teeth of Arab and world opposition in the first half of the twentieth century. The essence of Zionism, I have heard settlers say in both the West Bank and the Golan, is Jews returning to their ancestral lands and building new homes. Their love of the land is real; their commitment to the cause is clear.
The settlement lobby does not have a majority in Israel; if it ever does, the political situation would change — and it is likely that US support for the Jewish state would be tested to the limit. (There is much more support in the US for a secure Israel in a two state solution than there is for Israeli expansionism, especially among American Jews.)
But to say that the settlers do not have a majority is not to say that most Israelis want to stop settlements now. Some Israelis believe that the growth of settlements is the only thing bringing the Palestinians to the bargaining table at all, and that if Israel freezes settlement growth the Palestinians will lose the incentive to bargain. Others just don’t want to take on the settler lobby — which opposes a freeze with all its might — until there is an agreement with the Palestinians. Politically, it is much harder to support a freeze in exchange for negotiations which may lead nowhere than to support a specific peace treaty which requires both a freeze and a dismantling of many settlements.
This is why most American negotiators, correctly in my view, have tried to focus on the shape of the final treaty rather than mandating a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks. The US does not have the power to force either the Israelis or the Palestinians to do things they fundamentally don’t want to do, and until President Obama’s mistaken intervention in the early months of his term, American negotiators understood that they should not promise what they could not deliver.
If a critical mass of Israelis believes that a proposed treaty is attractive enough, their elected leaders will take the difficult steps required to fulfill it and so, paradoxically, it is easier to get the Israelis to sign a treaty that requires them to dismantle a great many settlements than to get them to stop building a few marginal ones that almost certainly will have to be sacrificed when the treaty takes effect.
In the medium to long term many fear that that could change; pro-settler forces hope that as the number of settlers on the West Bank increases, Israel will reach a tipping point and there will no longer be a “land for peace” majority in the country. I read it differently; including the largest settlement blocs in post-treaty Israel (as all parties have done for some time) means that settler demographics will not control the politics of this issue. But there is no doubt that the longer the settlement process goes on, the harder it becomes to reverse course.
The real question is whether Israelis and Palestinians with or without outside help can negotiate a treaty that will cause Israelis to give up settlements and the status quo. I am not optimistic. Even many Israelis who in principle support the idea of the two state solution aren’t willing to support a treaty that has fragile support among Palestinians. They fear that Hamas might win a post independence election and tear up the treaty at the first opportunity: arming, sponsoring or at least not cracking down on terror attacks. They fear that even a pro-peace government would be politically too weak to crack down on anti-Israel resistance groups. Israel would have given up land without getting peace.
These Israeli fears cannot be dismissed as fantasies. As it stands, it is clear that the Palestinian Authority now governing the West Bank cannot “deliver” a united Palestine: it cannot sign a treaty that Hamas will pledge to honor. Hamas won the last Palestinian elections; does Israel have any guarantee whatever that, after the Israelis have dismantled settlements and turned over strategic territory to the Palestinians, the Palestinian government will continue to abide by a treaty that Hamas doesn’t accept?
The answer is no. Until the answer is yes it is very unlikely that Israel will make large sacrifices for what is likely to be a bogus, temporary peace.
The core problem with the land for peace concept at the basis of both the Oslo Accords and every effort since to revive the moribund peace process is, simply, this: the process doesn’t offer enough land to the Palestinians or enough peace to the Israelis to be satisfactory to either side.
This is not because the two sides do not understand each other, or because there is something wrong with their leaders or their political processes. There are good and rational reasons why impoverished Palestinians in Gaza don’t want to sign away their right of return, and there are good and rational reasons why Israelis don’t want to make territorial concessions and dismantle settlements for an illusory peace.
Both sides, however, are compelled to fake an eagerness for peace because neither wants to look like the skunk at the global garden party. For the US, the EU and the Arab states, peace between Israelis and Palestinians on almost any terms would be a huge plus. Failing actual peace, a peace process that contains the political fallout from the dispute and allows the rest of the world to go about its business undisturbed is in the national interest of almost everyone.
The Israelis and Palestinians both know this; therefore both sides try to exact the highest possible price in aid and political concessions and assurances from outside powers before entering negotiations that, again, both Israelis and Palestinians don’t regard with much hope.
On the other hand, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want the blame for blocking negotiations or making them fail. Both sides want to keep the outside world sweet. The Palestinian Authority would be hard pressed to survive for six months without the cash it gets from Europe, the US and Arab states; Israel also cannot afford to endanger its political support in the US and elsewhere by too-obviously spurning the peace process. What both sides do is to raise as many procedural and substantive obstacles and preconditions as possible in order to keep the process at bay.
President Obama fell into a trap when he made a settlement freeze a precondition for talks. Secretly, both Israelis and Palestinian leaders are, I think, delighted that the US is now so tangled up in this demand that it has lost most of its influence over negotiations. The Palestinians are happier than the Israelis; it looks to world opinion as if it is Israeli intransigence on the settlement issue that is the chief obstacle to peace. But the Israeli government — while angry at Obama for making them look even worse than usual to much of the world — is also relieved that the settlement demand is so unpopular in Israel that Prime Minister Netanyahu pays no domestic political price for rejecting it.
As I asked Palestinians why they were so enthusiastic about Abbas’ bid for statehood at the United Nations (a step many believed he was taking for personal reasons, to create a legacy for his presidency before he steps down), one reason that came up over and over again was frustration: 18 years of negotiations since the Oslo Agreements had failed to create a Palestinian state, while the Israelis had steadily expanded and deepened their network of settlements on the West Bank. They were convinced that Israel is content with the status quo: gradually nibbling away at Palestinian territory in both Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Israel, they felt, was simply making not very convincing noises about peace while steadily creating “facts on the ground” that make a Palestinian state less possible every day.
I did talk with some Israelis who feel more or less as the Palestinians say they do: they believe it is their right and destiny to re-occupy everything promised to Abraham and they are happy to see a farcical “peace process” drag on year after year while they establish more settlements on the West Bank and strengthen the Jewish presence in what Israel regards as the eastern district of its capital city of Jerusalem.
But most of those I had this discussion with were still willing to exchange land for peace — if they could be confident that the withdrawal from the West Bank and the dismantling of settlements would actually bring peace. Instead they fear that the Palestinians would see this as the first step toward recovering more and more territory until in the end, Israel disappeared.
This is the reality and it is a bleak one. Peace is no closer than at any time since 1948 because neither side is yet willing to settle for what it can actually get. Israelis don’t want a small and insecure state with a Palestinian enemy next door; Palestinians don’t want a weak microstate that fails to solve the refugee problem. There are some people on both sides who are willing to accept peace on those terms — but not enough.
World public opinion wants good news and it wants action, and so diplomats have built the largest diplomatic cottage industry in the world around this intractable dispute. Fair enough to some extent; we wrap a wound in bandages to prevent infection and allow time for it to heal. It makes sense to wrap a conflict in processes and negotiations in the hope that conditions may change.
For American presidents, a thriving peace process is good domestic and international politics. This is one reason every US president sooner or later tries to get some kind of negotiation going, even though bringing Israelis and Palestinians together makes cat herding look easy.
Ever since the original peace process collapsed in 1999-2000 when President Clinton bet — and lost — the ranch on getting the final deal done while he was in the White House, the US has struggled to replace the old peace process with something new. So far, nothing durable has emerged, but Plan B has had some success. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the US and the EU have poured billions of dollars and a great deal of effort in helping the Palestinians build stronger institutions and a healthier economy on the West Bank.
The concept was that this policy would have two benefits. First, by creating strong and credible institutions (including Palestinian security forces), the US and our EU associates can help Israel develop confidence that a Palestinian government exists which can carry out the terms of a peace treaty, suppressing violent Palestinian movements that will inevitably seek to torpedo peace. Second, by developing the economy, universities and civil society, the US can promote the emergence of a sophisticated and modern thinking Palestinian national intelligentsia and business class who will prefer peace to war.
These efforts have made a real difference. The Palestinian Authority was once a resistance movement; these days it is an emerging government, though often not a very transparent or effective one. I hear from both Israelis and Americans who are familiar with these matters that the US-trained security forces are good at what they do and getting better, and that cooperation between them and their Israeli counterparts is pretty professional.
As a result of all this work, we seem to be edging closer to a situation in which the Palestinian Authority might, if it could assert authority over both Gaza and the West Bank, become what compromise-minded Israelis say they want: a credible partner for peace.
But it is not still not clear that any Palestinian government could say out loud what sophisticated Palestinians have known for years: the right of return is dead, and compensation is the best that can be hoped for. When I visited Ramallah (the West Bank boom town and de facto capital city) in 2010, signs in English and Arabic all over the city proclaimed the PA’s determination to fight for the right of return. Those signs had been taken down this time, but I don’t think the idea is dead in people’s hearts.
Palestinian capacity is growing, but to some degree that increased political and social capacity makes Palestinians more frustrated rather than less. The more educated, sophisticated and experienced people are, the less willing they are to put up with fundamentally unacceptable political restraints. The Palestinians by and large are better educated than almost any other Arab nationality, but they have less control over their lives than most — and the fact that their overlords are foreign rather than homegrown does not make the lack of autonomy easier to bear.
The US has been hoisted on its own petard here; the civil society that we help to build makes Palestinians less patient rather than more patient — and forces their leaders to pay closer attention to public opinion than in the past. This makes it fundamentally harder to build a peace process that can move the ball down the field toward the ultimate (if distant) goal of peace while managing the day-to-day conflict in ways that reduce tension and make life better for people on both sides. It also ensures that Palestinians aren’t particularly grateful for America’s financial help.
Each of the last three US presidents made poor decisions that have made this tangle worse. President Clinton had good intentions and many accomplishments to his credit, but his final, foolhardy rush to peace in the closing months and days of his administration was perhaps the worst decision made by any US president on this issue since the controversy began. His goal should have been to shore up a faltering peace process rather than pushing it to a premature climax. The failure of his peacemaking effort was predictable and expensive, and the absence of a legitimate peace process has been a serious problem in the region ever since.
President George W. Bush inherited a bad situation and made it worse. On the one hand, he inflamed Arab and world opinion by a confrontational approach on a range of issues and serial failures in both the development and presentation of policy alienated friends and antagonized enemies. His record was not entirely bleak; he managed to nudge the Israelis back toward some kind of negotiating posture and his strengthening of Palestinian institutions and the promotion of a strong West Bank economic miracle helped to reduce tension. Nevertheless, the US agenda was in worse shape when he left office than when he first took the oath.
President Obama added his own contribution to the record of failed US initiatives. While I personally agree with him that an extendable settlement freeze would greatly simplify the task of getting a good peace negotiation going, in the real world to make that demand was to lose all initiative on the issue — and to miss the opportunity to get the Israelis to make less dramatic but quite useful concessions in its place. He has allowed Prime Minister Netanyahu to outmaneuver him diplomatically and in US politics more than once. The US president’s optimistic speeches about building bridges to the Muslim world fell hollow and flat after he linked that effort to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute which his own errors placed out of reach.
In fairness to President Obama, this has never been an easy issue for the United States and his two predecessors both left the situation in worse shape than they found it. But not even the President can believe at this point that his peace initiatives have had much success.
It’s doubtful at this point if the President can get much done before the 2012 election. Palestinians don’t much like negotiating during US election years as they believe that Israel’s political popularity in the US makes itself felt most strongly then. (One reason President Clinton’s peace blitz was ill-timed in 2000: his wife was running for the Senate in New York and Palestinians believed he would not force Israel to make difficult concessions while his wife was running in a state where the Jewish vote is so important and while his vice president Al Gore was in a tough race against George W. Bush. After the election, Clinton was a lame duck and the Palestinians had little confidence that he could deliver on any promises he made.)
There are no magic solutions to this problem, but as long as the US has interests in the Middle East we must keep coming back to it. Over the next few months, I hope the Obama administration — and the Republican foreign policy strategists who hope to return to power after 2012 — think carefully about how to manage this difficult process a little better. After more than a decade of failure and retreat, it is time for a deep and searching review of the assumptions and ideas that have brought so little joy to us or to the parties involved.