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Israel & Palestine: Can They Start Over?

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Petra/Xinhua/Sipa Press
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah in Amman, August 20, 2009

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
—Winston Churchill

There’s no success like failure, and … failure’s no success at all.
—Bob Dylan

1.

The idea of Israeli–Palestinian partition, of a two-state solution, has a singular pedigree. It has been proposed for at least eight decades. Jews first accepted it as Palestinians recoiled; by the time Palestinians warmed to the notion in the late 1980s, Israelis had turned their backs. Still, its proponents manage to portray it as fresh, new, and capable of leading to peace. International consensus on a two-state agreement is, today, stronger than ever. Meanwhile, interest among the two parties most directly concerned wanes and prospects for achieving it diminish.

This inability to turn the idea into practice has prompted reactions that roughly divide into two types. The most common is to blame transient conditions or faulty execution. The implication is that there is no need to revisit fundamental assumptions about the goal itself: an essentially territorial deal that would split historic Palestine into two states along the 1967 borders; divide Jerusalem according to demographic criteria; find a solution to the refugee issue through compensation and resettlement outside of Israel; end the historic conflict; and terminate all claims. What are needed are more optimal conditions, smarter implementation, and some luck.

The history of the peace process has been plagued, according to this account, by unfortunate circumstances: leaders too weak to strike a deal when they wished to or too obdurate to sign one when they could; one side ready for compromise when the other was not; divisions on the Palestinian side or dysfunctional governments on the Israeli one. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s historic mission was ended by an assassin’s bullet; Ariel Sharon’s gradual acceptance of a viable Palestinian state was interrupted by a stroke; his successor’s attempt to end the conflict was cut short by scandal.

The US figures as a central culprit. President Bill Clinton was excessively soft, President George W. Bush insufficiently interested. Washington kept Arab countries at arm’s length and paid inadequate attention to developments on the ground—Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian security infringements. It focused on interim steps rather than the endgame. Most of all, it did not pressure the parties enough, by which typically is meant that it indulged Israel too much. It’s a dispiriting list, but one that at least leaves room for optimism: in the right circumstances and with the right US touch, a successful outcome would be within reach. There is truth to all these explanations, and it is beyond dispute that ideal conditions have been missing for the last sixteen years. It is difficult to imagine a time when they will not be.

Today, people point to Benjamin Netanyahu’s complicated mix of right-wing credentials and pragmatic streak to argue that he might be the ideal salesman for a historic compromise. During his first term as prime minister, he agreed to territorial withdrawals and implicitly endorsed the overall outlook of the Oslo accords, contradicting campaign pledges and reversing personal commitments. But none of those steps came remotely close to the kind of conversion that would be required to reach a final agreement.

If political survival is Netanyahu’s overriding credo, he will seek to avoid clashing with the US, but will be at least as eager to avert alienating his coalition partners. Making a concession to the Palestinians, sparking a crisis, retreating, advancing some more, placating the US even as he defies it: such zigzagging, far more than a straight-line path toward a two-state solution, seems the likely pattern. Netanyahu knows that moves toward an inter- nationally celebrated yet uncertain destination will threaten his political survival. Meandering is the surer bet.

Some see hope, too, in Mahmoud Abbas. For the president of the Palestinian Authority, power has been an acquired taste, the acquisition as slow as it was guarded. One still senses his disdain for the rough-and-tumble politicking of the type Yasser Arafat mastered and relished. But there was something new in the way he maneuvered to pull off Fatah’s General Congress last August, its first in twenty years, sidelining opponents and elevating supporters. Throughout, he displayed a newfound pleasure in playing the political game that appears to have surprised him as much as anyone else.

Abbas’s immersion in domestic politics is at once liberating, constraining, and fickle. He will have to stay in tune with domestic sentiment, and pay greater attention to Fatah’s internal dynamics, the rhythm of Palestinian politics. The relative freedom he enjoyed when he glided above the fray may be one sacrifice. Grand diplomatic gestures might not seem so attractive now. He also is at the mercy of a swift and severe turnaround in public assessments. The fallout from the Palestinian Authority’s horrendous mishandling of the Goldstone report on the 2008–2009 Gaza war—when, under Israeli and US pressure, the Palestinian leadership withdrew it from consideration by the UN Human Rights Council—is only the latest and starkest of reminders.

The most heartfelt hope for peace has been placed in Barack Obama. The young President offers the prospect of a clean break with the past and an early start on a more engaged and sustained policy. Underpinning the faith is a straightforward logic: Israel depends on US support; no Israeli leader will dare jeopardize good relations with Washington; if the administration plays “hard ball” while proffering “tough love,” Israel will follow. Obama’s first steps have prompted doubts. By initially insisting on a comprehensive Israeli settlement freeze, then negotiating its details, then seemingly backing down and pushing Palestinians to resume their talks with Israel, the administration increased friction with Jerusalem, squandered credibility with the Arab world, and weakened Abbas.

In this last respect, Obama is only the latest in a string of American presidents who have shown few limits to the harm they can inflict on those Palestinians they purport to strengthen. By twice twisting Abbas’s arm, first to attend a meeting with Netanyahu and then to withdraw the Goldstone report, the administration unwittingly hurt him more in the space of two weeks than its predecessor had done in as many terms. The US hope was to tame Netanyahu, empower Abbas, motivate peace advocates, curtail extremists, and energize negotiations. So far, it has accomplished the precise opposite.

Obama will have opportunities to recover. But for those who remain persuaded that the US has the power to produce a meaningful peace agreement, his record so far is hardly a good omen. It fits into a larger pattern and helps make a broader point: the absence of convincing historical evidence that a sufficient degree of American pressure can be applied to persuade an Israeli government to act against its self-perceived fundamental interests. Israelis and Palestinians have their weaknesses, but they have mastered the art of saying no or at least meaning it, and then of living to wage the next fight. Possibly, this time will be different and Obama will achieve what none of his predecessors could, but nothing in his first nine months suggests he can. To harbor that expectation would be to allow the surrender of experience to hope.

2.

A second type of reaction to the persistent inability to reach a two-state settlement is to thrust aside the goal altogether. Two-state detractors offer several alternatives. The most prominent is the one-state solution, which is premised on the belief that Jews and Arabs can coexist in a democratic, multiethnic, binational state. Its proponents defend it as both ethically and practically superior to partition, an answer to the many questions that have bedeviled its pursuit. These include Jewish and Palestinian attachment to the land of Eretz Israel or historic Palestine (since members of both communities could live anywhere within it); the rights of refugees (since they could return to the land of their original homes if they so desired); Israeli security (since there would be no state of Israel to defend and no state of Palestine that might attack); Jerusalem (shared and worshiped equally by both); and closure. A single state, its advocates say, would do away with antiquated notions of ethnically or religiously based political entities, and replace them with the more modern concept of equal citizenship. To which some add that establishing a Palestinian state has become unfeasible, given the scope of the settlement enterprise and the changes that have already taken place in the West Bank.

The proposal is intellectually attractive, morally pleasing, but politically fanciful. It fails the elemental test of any proposed solution, which is to fulfill both sides’ basic needs. This is most evident in the case of Israel’s Jewish population. Their fundamental aspiration remains to establish a safe and recognized Jewish state, a goal that would be nullified by the creation of a single binational one. It is hard to imagine Palestinians finding satisfaction in this outcome either. They most probably would end up as an underclass, second-class citizens and a source of cheap labor, unable to compete for land and other resources—again, directly contradicting their desire for dignity and self-determination.

Perpetuating the status quo is a quite different alternative. It is a one-state outcome of a kind, though not of the multiethnic, democratic sort. Today, in effect, a single state reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, in which Palestinians are imprisoned in Gaza, occupied in the West Bank, or discriminated against in Israel. What the status quo has going for it is its remarkable record of survival in the face of repeated challenges and persistent predictions to the contrary. Israel managed, through its disengagement from Gaza and construction of the West Bank separation barrier, to shield itself from a Palestinian demographic threat. It also stopped security threats from the West Bank, resulting in the absence of any incentive for Israel to alter today’s realities. On that basis alone, one might assume that the current situation can endure, more or less intact and at manageable cost, well into the future.

Yet even this long run sooner or later must end. Continued suffering will alienate a growing Palestinian population and tensions almost certainly will lead to new bouts of violence. The worldwide consensus in favor of a two-state solution might be unable to produce that outcome but it puts Israel in an increasingly untenable position. Since 1948, the Israeli–Palestinian dispute has been the direct or indirect cause of nine wars, or roughly one every seven years. That alone will provide impetus to change the status quo.

3.

What is the matter with the two-state solution? To this day, it remains the only outcome that appears attuned to reality; the only one that enjoys broad support. Its rough outlines no longer constitute much of a mystery. Yet all this does not so much answer the question as it reframes it: What basic ingredients have been missing from the conventional two-state concept? Why, so widely embraced in the abstract, has it been so stubbornly rejected in practice?

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