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Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?

1.

During the last two years, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has suffered serious setbacks. Other than for a brief, fleeting moment, Israelis and Palestinians have had no direct political contact and there is little hope, for now at least, that this will change. Any faith Israelis and Palestinians may have in the possibility of an agreement is collapsing.

Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

The US, sponsor of that process, has seen its credibility badly damaged. The Obama administration was repeatedly rebuffed—by Israel, from whom it had demanded a full halt in settlement construction; by Palestinians it pressed to engage in direct negotiations; by Arab states it hoped would take steps to normalize relations with Israel. An administration that never tires of saying it cannot want peace more than the parties routinely belies that claim by the desperation it exhibits in pursuing that goal. Today, there is little trust, no direct talks, no settlement freeze, and, one at times suspects, not much of a US policy.

Less visible but equally grievous is the growing loss of interest in negotiations on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Two years ago, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was somewhat confident that, with a strong US push, Israel could be convinced to reach a historic deal. Since then, his confidence has been fading. Benjamin Netanyahu began his prime ministership in March 2009 with an ambivalent commitment and apparently little motivation to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. During the period that followed, his commitment and motivation significantly diminished. For both leaders, facing publics more disenchanted than they are, it has become a political liability to project belief that negotiations can yield something. Without genuine engagement by the leaders, progress in the talks—direct, indirect, or otherwise—will be unattainable.

The current impasse has exposed a problem that runs deeper than misjudgments and missteps. Almost two decades after the peace process was launched, little remains of the foundational principle that each side has something of value to which the other aspires and thus something it can offer in exchange for what it wants. Israel holds a monopoly over all material assets. It controls Palestinian land, natural resources, and lives. Israel’s economy is flourishing, its security for now seemingly assured. Its occupation of Palestinian territories is subsidized by Western powers that purportedly seek its end. Although not as satisfactory as Israelis would like, the status quo is not as unpleasant as their adversaries would wish. Israel has become accustomed to the way things are.

In the hope of alarming Israelis, some Palestinians toy with options they haven’t seriously considered, don’t believe in, or cannot implement. To compensate for the asymmetry with Israel, Palestinians bank on US involvement, which has constrained Palestinian maneuvering without seriously influencing Israeli actions. The lopsidedness has only been made worse.

Unless they can find a way to reclaim the initiative, Palestinians risk losing the ability to shape events. The US has an important part to play, but so far it has done more to demonstrate the limits than the extent of its influence. Decisions about the future now lie in Israel’s hands. What once was a three-way spectacle has become Netanyahu’s one-man show.

Whether Israelis wish for a resolution is not the central issue; one can assume they do and still question why they would want to take risks and provoke deep internal rifts when there is no apparent urgency to do so. The principal question for Israelis is no longer how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. It is why and at what cost.

2.

President Abbas has a problem. He is attempting to persuade Israel to make peace with a party with which it no longer is at war—at odds, in dispute, even in conflict, but for now and the foreseeable future, not at war. This quandary lies at the core of Abbas’s belief and strategy: that Israel can be convinced through engagement of the need for a historic compromise that meets Israeli and Palestinian fundamental interests.

The Palestinian leader’s rejection of violence is not an expression of naiveté or a version of pacifism. It is rooted in his experience as a leader of Fatah and its now defunct armed struggle, experience that makes his belief more secure and his creed more credible. He is convinced that, for Palestinians, force has exhausted its utility and that his way, based on enlightened self-interest and the power of persuasion, ultimately must prevail because there is no other.

Israelis feel less threatened by Palestinians than at any recent time. They are sheltered behind a separation barrier, protected by an aggressive military force, and aided by the PA’s own security services. Palestinians are exhausted, in search of a respite, not a fight. The priority for Fatah and Hamas seems to be to fight each other, not to coordinate struggle against Israel.

Should negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis progress, and Hamas feel that it is sidelined, it might be tempted to resume attacks. So far, however, Hamas’s military inclinations have been held in check both in Gaza, where it holds power and bears responsibility for its constituents’ welfare, and in the West Bank, where its power has been crippled under the combined weight of Israeli and PA security forces.

Virtually everything about mainstream Palestinian politics—its makeup, political methods, sources of support, and diplomatic outlook—argues against a return to armed struggle. Violence would compromise the foreign support upon which the Palestinian Authority has become dependent. It would imperil its effort to build the institutions of a proto-state, which is its most important international selling point, and would threaten the economic and security progress that has become its most potent argument.

Much the same could be said of nonviolent forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation such as peaceful demonstrations that—notwithstanding periodic expressions of support from the PA leadership—at heart are incompatible with a West Bank strategy that hinges on Israeli goodwill. The occupied territories are far from enjoying quiet or normalcy. But for the most part and for the time being, they convey the appearance of both.

3.

Palestinians have looked for other nonviolent options. It’s a curious list: unilaterally declaring statehood, obtaining UN recognition, dissolving the PA, or walking away from the idea of negotiated partition altogether and calling for a single, binational state. Not one of these ideas has been well thought out, debated, or genuinely considered as a strategic choice, which, of course, is not their point. They are essentially attempts to show that Palestinians have alternatives to negotiation with Israel even as the proposals’ lack of seriousness demonstrably establishes that they currently have none.

Of these suggestions, arguably the most promising is to seek international acceptance of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. In the past few months, several countries have recognized such a state and others may follow. The trend is causing Palestinians to rejoice and Israelis to protest, which only makes Palestinians rejoice all the more. Further recognition almost certainly, and understandably, would be seen as a significant achievement and boost Palestinian morale. Should European nations join the list, it could possibly provide the jolt that will force Israelis to reconsider their options.

What it will not do for now is materially affect the situation on the ground. Palestinians would not enjoy greater sovereignty, their capital-to-be in East Jerusalem would still be occupied, the fate of Palestinian refugees would remain unaddressed. Their initial shock overcome, Israelis might see an advantage: as Palestinians and the international community celebrate the birth of a state and focus on the minutiae of building its institutions in the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank under PA control, pressure to resolve outstanding issues—drawing final borders, dividing Jerusalem, or bringing justice to the refugees—could wane and Israel could be provided with the opportunity to pursue its own unilateral inclinations.

Invoking a one-state solution in which Jews someday no longer will form a majority has its own limitations. The argument is familiar—in the absence of a two-state solution, Israel will face a stark choice: remaining Jewish by denying its Palestinian population the right to vote and thus no longer being democratic; or extending the suffrage to all, in which case it no longer will be Jewish. The only way to avoid this fate, according to this view, is to achieve a two-state solution.

Demographic developments undoubtedly are a source of long-term Israeli anxiety. But they are not the type of immediate threat that spurs risky political decisions. Moreover, the binary choice Palestinians, Americans, and even some Israelis posit—either a negotiated two-state outcome or the impossibility of a Jewish, democratic state—assumes dramatic and irreversible changes that Israel would not be able to counter. Yet Israel possesses a variety of potential responses. Already, by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, former prime minister Ariel Sharon transformed the numbers game, effectively removing 1.5 million Palestinians from the Israeli equation. The current or a future government could unilaterally conduct further territorial withdrawals from the West Bank, allowing, as in the case of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s West Bank government, or compelling, as happened in Gaza, large numbers of Palestinians to rule themselves and mitigating the demographic peril. The options, in other words, are not necessarily limited to a two-state solution, an apartheid regime, or the end of the Jewish state.

4.

Salam Fayyad has another idea. He wants to demonstrate that Palestinians can put their finances in order, restructure their security forces, end attacks against Israelis, and build the foundations of a state alongside which their neighbors could live in security, thereby removing any possible reason, sincere or disingenuous, that Israel might have to object to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Questions have been raised about what a government that rules by decree, with little democratic legitimacy—parliament has not met in years and elections are long overdue—has done to build democratic institutions. Many grumble that Fayyad has conquered the West through his demeanor rather than substantive deeds. Some challenge his claim to self-reliance, noting that his project relies almost entirely on Western support and Israeli goodwill. They contend that most of the West Bank’s economic growth can be attributed to large-scale foreign aid and that such economic growth has little to do with productive, self-sustaining economic development. Others protest that his security forces violate human rights and cooperate with the occupier to stifle resistance to the occupation. Still, his ideas and how he puts them forward have gained appeal.

Fayyad’s approach represents a break in the Palestinian national movement. Their many differences aside, Arafat and Abbas were rooted in a time when the movement was in exile and aimed to fulfill the national aspirations of the entire Palestinian people; a time when material well-being and state-building were not the central—perhaps not even particularly important—components of its demands. Day-to-day issues of governance essentially left them cold, which is why they left them to others.

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