The Palestinians’ UN bid last month doesn’t seem to have done anything to advance the peace process, much less secure a state. If anything, the UN stunt may have set things back.The UN announcement was never meant as an exercise in state-building — Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad is the one actually doing that work — but as a PR gambit. Frustrated by slow progress in negotiations — where Palestinian weakness has a hard time offsetting Israeli strength on the ground — the Palestinians sought to transfer the action to the UN forum where the Palestinians have more clout. It’s an understandable response to a very difficult situation, and Palestinian leaders like other people have to take their public opinion into account, but the UN can vote all it wants and it won’t get the Palestinians what they really want and need.The hard work of peace building, which requires forging a competent government and spurring economic development (as Fayyad has done in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza unequivocally does not) and the grind of compromise, is no fun. Many Palestinians believe that twenty years of negotiations since the Oslo agreements have brought them no progress. This is not true: the Palestinian Authority is a proto-state that is steadily achieving attributes of statehood, and the Israelis have made much larger offers than many thought possible when negotiations began.The road to peace — which will still be winding and long — leads inexorably back to the same negotiating table that the Palestinians walked away from in (again, understandable) frustration. At that table, Israel is the stronger party and, as has been the case in negotiations through history, the relative strength of the parties will inevitably shape the resulting agreement. Israel exists because the Palestinians and their allies have been repeatedly defeated in war, and Palestinians, like it or not, are coming to the table to reach an accommodation following strategic defeat. There is no settlement available on the terms they ‘really’ want; that kind of settlement would only be possible after Israel is defeated by the Palestinians.The basic Palestinian strategy since 1948 has been to refuse to accept the political consequences of military defeats then and in 1967 while appealing to Arab and world public opinion in the hope that global political pressure will do what more conventional weapons cannot. The basic Israeli strategy has been to hold on to the “facts on the ground” and use its military superiority to threaten the Palestinians with the prospect of more losses of territory if they do not accept what the Israelis are prepared to put on the table.Palestinians want the final agreement to be about ‘justice’ — as they see it; Israelis have their own ideas about justice, think the two sides won’t agree on that, and in any case want the settlement to be about ‘facts’. This has been the basic argument between vanquished and victor in every negotiation for thousands of years; read how the Athenians and the Melians argued during the Peloponnesian War.Now we see that Israel is welcoming, with the usual frustrating reservations, the international Quartet’s proposal to restart peace talks. From the Washington Post:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says Israel “welcomes the Quartet’s call for direct negotiations between the parties without preconditions” but said it has unspecified “concerns” about the proposal.
To go back to the table without a settlement freeze means the Palestinians accept another defeat in their strategy of mobilizing the world against Israel’s policy of ‘facts on the ground’. For many Israelis, to offer a settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations is to drop what they see as their most effective weapon in getting the Palestinians to negotiate at all.Both sides have found strategies that inflict significant costs on their opponents. Israel hates the international isolation that Palestinians have been able to create around it. Palestinians fear the settlements that the continued negotiating impasse constructs in what remains of their land. In a sense, both strategies are succeeding and failing at the same time. Israel is more politically isolated than it used to be; Palestine keeps getting smaller. Each suffers the consequences of the others success — but neither is willing to give up the fight.Both sides continue to see negotiations as a way of conducting their struggle, rather than as a way to end it. Neither side at this point thinks the other really believes in or is ready for a peace their opponents can accept; both are trying to make the international community blame the other side for the absence of an agreement.There is some chance that a lot of maneuvering and fancy dancing by the US and its partners can get both sides back to some kind of table; there is almost no chance that those talks will lead to peace anytime soon. We can manipulate both sides into pretending to negotiate by finding ways to threaten each side with the appearance of responsibility for continuing conflict; in more than a century the world has not found a way to get these two nations to agree.Despite the costs, both the Israelis and the Palestinians still seem to believe that they do better sticking to their core strategies than by giving them up. Until that changes, this conflict won’t end.