Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 7 – 14 February 2014

Conflicts Forum

We seem to have been here many times before. Another “last chance” for a two-state solution; and perhaps the “final” chance for “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians?  Might it though, be different this time?  Is Secretary Kerry successfully pushing Bibi Netanyahu into making the concession (a Palestinian state) that he never wanted to make?

European leaders (who are only vaguely aware of what is transpiring in the negotiations, since they are not privy to the key one-to-one Kerry-Netanyahu exchanges), think that indeed this time it just might be different. It may turn out that they are right; but European optimism is supported more by their reading of the internecine exchange of insults and the heightened political cross-fire in Tel Aviv.  It is mainly this internal Israeli tension which convinces them that the Americans are in earnest, rather than anything else:  they are not, in any case, in a position really to form a cold assessment of the prospects – not knowing all the details of the private exchanges.

Americans and Europeans also sense that the Palestinians are probably in their weakest condition since the first Gulf War (as evidenced by the stream of concessions issuing from PM Abbas); they see too, that Hamas has been fractured and almost broken by the twin pincers of Hamas’ miscalculation of the Syrian political reality (which deprived them of three key supporters), and by the fierce attacks on the movement in Gaza emanating out from Egypt. Europeans may also sense that their pressure on Israeli settlement trade with Europe is having its effect through igniting fears in Israel of a coming de-legitimisation of the state (Kerry hammers on with this argument, in spite of having taken some heavy pounding at home, for making exactly this point).  And it is plain to all, that the Gulf States simply are desperate for Israel to make peace with Palestinians, and are ready to twist Abu Mazen’s arm until it rips out from its joint.

All this makes a compelling scenario to suggest that this time the US could be about to pull-it-off: Kerry has taken head-on Netanyahu’s insistence that Israel’s security must be settled before all else (by presenting a US security plan for the West Bank); he has adopted the Israeli demand for the recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; he has taken the Israeli position that an accord should be interim, rather than definitive and final (as the Palestinians sought); he has accepted prima facie the demand that Israel be present in the Jordan Valley (at least for the first five years – in a context where temporary often slips into permanency) and he has conceded that the Palestinian right-of-return effectively should be erased. Kerry even adopted the position that the Palestinian capital be not Jerusalem, but lie only somewhere in Greater Jerusalem.

In short, Mr Kerry has done everything – more than gone the extra mile – to reassure Israel concerning its security – even at the expense of dumping pretty well every Palestinian ‘red line’.  How then might there not be ‘an agreement’?  Why are the Israelis not rushing to seize Kerry’s almost complete adoption of Netanyahu’s position?

Well, almost certainly ‘a document’ will emerge:  the probability however, is that the outcome of all Secretary Kerry’s shuttles will be little more than a re-hash of the Clinton parameters – generalised negotiating guidelines, to which the parties give their general assentin principle, whilst entering ‘reservations’ on particulars that effectively render the parameters meaningless (as happened to the Clinton parameters and the Roadmap).  And in this fashion, another ‘last chance’ for peace, in all likelihood will have become simply another in a succession of documents laying the basis for a future, further round of the so-called ‘peace process’.

Why so?  Why should it all have been so elusive, so destructive of American efforts?  The answer perhaps, lies in the way the ‘peace process’ originally was conceptualised (wrongly as it turned out), but which has since became an icon of doctrine, such that criticism simply is not to be entertained.

The peace process has been based on the premise that Israel, out of its own necessity, must seek to conserve a Jewish majority within Israel. And that with time, and a growing Palestinian population, Israel will at some point have to acquiesce to a Palestinian state – if only to maintain a Jewish majority. That is to say, only by giving Palestinians their own state and thereby shedding a part of the Palestinian population that it controls, can Israel’s Jewish majority be preserved.

This simple proposition has given us the security-first doctrine: meeting Israel’s self-definition of its own security needs, it is presumed is the principal task in hand, since this will allow Israel to transition with confidence to the two-state solution (which anyway is in Israel’s own interest – it was then widely believed).  Thus, ‘the solution’ to the Palestine issue for the last 21 years has been understood to be that of building security confidence with Israel. Kerry’s own initiative, as we can see, is wholly centered on this proposition.

But Israel has not done this apparently self-evident ‘thing’ – despite many opportunities over the last 19 years (to ‘save’ themselves from demography) – and does not seem any more disposed to “give” a Palestinian state now.  Seldom is it asked why, if the logic is indeed so compelling, have two states not emerged?

But perhaps both the original ‘Israel surely needs a Palestinian state’ premise, and its corollary that building security trust with Israel is the necessary sine qua non to a two-state solution, is wrong?  Perhaps Israel has had an alternative hypothesis to the presumed inevitability of two states emerging with equal political rights for all citizens?  The evidence of Israeli actions on the ground plainly does not support the contention that Israel has been in any way preparing the transition to a two-state solution of fixed borders and a sovereign Palestinian state (there has been no initial planning for an eventual separation and autonomy of two separate sets of infrastructure – far from it). On the contrary, the evidence points in the opposite direction: that it has been intent on frustrating the two-state solution within fixed borders.

This suggests a very different Israeli thinking, at odds with what has been presumed by the international consensus.

The Oslo negotiations, Professor Mushtaq Khan postulated, was based on a remarkable assertion: that the Palestinians’ bargaining power was simply irrelevant. Khan further expounds, “Everyone thought the end game was clear. In the end, the two-state solution would emerge because the dominant power … would accept it, in its own interests … [and] that this was the only way that Israel could ensure a demographic basis for Zionism”.

Professor Khan noted that the presumed inevitability of a Palestinian state was mirrored in Oslo’s structure: It was constructed entirely as a confidence-building exercise, rather than as a serious negotiation based on bargaining power. “You sit at the table, you get to know each other [and] don’t have to worry too much … as in the end, they [the Israelis] will give you what you need.”

Actually, it didn’t work out that way. Professor Khan explains: “We know that Oslo didn’t work from day one … [A]fter signing Oslo, Israel did not detach itself from the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  In fact, Israel invaded the OPTs much more significantly.  It signed treaty after treaty to gain control over key Palestinian economic variables: foreign trade, taxation, currency, labor movements … [I]ntegration with Israel had this strange character … it was neither integration nor separation, but [asymmetric] containment on Israel’s terms which meant that Israel penetrated into the OPTs and tried to contain it from within. Now why would you want to do that if you were [genuinely intent on] trying to go back to 1967 borders? What is the logic here?”

What was going on, in fact, was the evolution of a different logic; one that ran counter to the presumption of the Palestinian state’s inevitability, and which seemed to Israelis to open a window of political opportunity for their leaders to postpone or avoid the conundrum of how to maintain Israel as the homelandfor all Jews over physical terrain that included a large Palestinian population.

The implications of this last point, go to the heart of Israel’s calculus on the advantage of establishing a Palestinian state with internationally recognized borders.  Fixed borders, and what that entails for Israeli strategy, are at the heart of the problem:  A two-state solution does not ease the problem of how to maintain a ‘homeland for Jews’, rather it threatens to undermine it. Tzipi Livni spelled this out clearly in 2008 to Palestinian negotiators in a previous round of talks: “Israel was established to become a national home for Jews from all over the world. The Jew gets the citizenship as soon as he steps in Israel, and therefore don’t say anything about the nature of Israel…. [T]he basis for the creation of the state of Israel is that it was created for the Jewish people … Israel is the state of the Jewish people — and I would like to emphasize the meaning of ‘its people,’ is the Jewish people … [Y]our state will be the answer to all Palestinians, including refugees” (emphasis added).

The size of the Palestinian population in the whole of historic Palestine (Israel and the OPT) may be reduced from 40%-50% to 20% of the Jewish population by declaring a ‘Palestinian state’; but the inherent political vulnerability of having a non-Jewish Palestinian population with subordinated rights in a Jewish homeland remains unresolved – in either outcome.  And rights inevitably will be subordinated for the 20% (or for the 40-50% if there is no Palestinian state) – not least by the mere physical need to provide the housing, land, water and other resources for any Jew who newly elects to exercise his or her ‘right of return’ into the ‘homeland’.

If you are going have to have differential rights for 15% or 20% of the population, and risk anyway being de-legitimised as an apartheid state, which will surely be the case – why not then have differential rights for 35% or 40% of the population, and just keep the Zionist vision intact by holding on to the West Bank; or large tracts of it?  Would Zionist thinking strategically wish to have a hard border anywhere?  The answer must be ‘no’.  The very ambiguity of unfixed borders offers more room for manoeuvre.  What does Israel gain by giving up land, when at the end of the day, Israel will still have the problem of justifying to the world why it has to maintain differential rights for a significant number of its citizens, and face increasing accusations of apartheid – Unless … unless, of course, you can get the Palestinians and the international community to sign up to a prior recognition of Israel as ‘the nation-state and homeland for the Jews’.

And here is the rub. For the Palestinians to subscribe to this (as they are being asked), they effectively legitimise and condone the suffering, the dispersal and disembedding from ancient lands that happened to them in the making of this ‘homeland’; they would effectively be endorsing the apartheid-type subordination of the Palestinians remaining within the Green Line; and since Netanyahu’s definition is one of a homeland for all Jews (and not just those in Israel now), it opens up the question of how shared aquifers and other resources shall not become pre-empted by a burgeoning Jewish ‘right-of-return’ – at a time when the Palestinian legal ‘right-of-return’ is being extinguished.  Palestinians will reject it.  This formulation, as presently constructed, takes nothing from the South African experience. Reconciliation is primarily a psychological process – and not a legal-political face-off, as presently conceived.

In short, the Israeli political tensions, which Europeans identify, and which are the prop sustaining their present optimism, are possibly more complex in nature than simply being a result of US being in earnest in reaching a solution.  The political tensions resulting from Kerry’s mission more plausibly arise from a profound Israeli disagreement about the merit of Netanyahu even entering into the argument with external powers about the Jewish homeland; about asking gentiles and Palestinians to give it ‘recognition’.  The Zionist ‘way’ is simply to do it – to seize facts on the ground – rather than seek outside ‘legitimacy’.  Netanyahu, in this sense, has opened to overseas intervention the sensitive debate of what should be the basis of Zionism today.  This is a highly divisive – even explosive – issue within Israel.  The internal political spats noted by the Europeans may be more about this, rather than some signal of the imminence of Israel accepting a Palestinian state.

Both Palestinian and Israeli leaderships – for different reasons – are anyway probably politically impotent to implement a real solution – “they do not have goods to deliver”. Israelis generally see no reason to make concessions to the Palestinians: in their eyes, Muslims across the region are ‘killing each other’, Syria, Iraq and Egypt are weak, Iran is engaged with the US, Israeli defences have never been stronger and the Palestinians are quiet and fragmented. Why give up assets? Equally, even amongst the Fateh leadership, there are few that believe that Kerry’s ‘confidence measures’ for Israel are any more than a sell-out of the Palestinian cause. However, we are in the ‘avoid-blame game’. Abu Mazen offers concessions he cannot deliver, in order to wrong foot Netanyahu; and Netanyahu uses the recognition of a Jewish homeland to erect a hurdle he believes Abu Mazen cannot leap.  Both hope that in this pass-the-parcel process they will not be left holding ‘the responsibility’ indictment.

And even an American Secretary of State can find he has limitations back home, both in terms of the pressures which he can exert on the Israeli leadership, and arising from the scepticism in DC as to the value of being pulled further into the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.

What happens if this latest round fizzles out into some highly reserved (by both sides) ‘terms of reference’ document?  Probably not much – at least for the foreseeable future. There is not much evidence of a new Intifada in the making. Abu Mazen may resign (and Palestinians may then have the pleasure of the unscrupulous Mohammad Dahlan foisted on them by the Gulf States). And as for Israel, the peace camp has long since shrivelled.  And regional states – for now – are more preoccupied by inspecting their navels than pursuing the Palestinian cause. Pity the Palestinians.


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