The Fateful Events
Prisoner Release. The first public sign of crisis in the talks was Israel’s announcement that it was delaying the release of the fourth set of Palestinian prisoners. The government of Israel, as a confidence-building measure at the start of the talks, had agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who were convicted of crimes against Israeli citizens (“terrorist acts”) before the 1992 Oslo Accords. The prisoners, some of who were near the end of their sentences, were to be released in four stages. The problem with the fourth group, as I understand it, is that 14 of the 24 prisoners were Israeli Arabs rather than Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. The prisoner release was controversial enough in Israel as it was; the fact that some of them were Israeli citizens was especially troubling because they were seen as both terrorists and traitors who would be returning their homes in Israel. There were demands from members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cabinet that they be exiled to the West Bank and stripped of their Israeli citizenship.
A Scramble for a Deal. When the Palestinian negotiators threatened to react to the delay in the prisoner release by walking out of negotiations, Secretary of State Kerry launched a frantic effort to patch things up. If various press reports are accurate, Kerry was going to offer the release of Jonathon Pollard and an extension of the talks beyond the April 29 deadline. (The White House has officially denied this story.)
Jonathon Pollard: An American intelligence analyst who was convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel and given a life sentence. Many people in both Israel and the United States feel that his sentence was unduly harsh given that the information he passed to the Israeli government was U.S. intelligence on Arab countries, not information on U.S. military or political strategy. They also point out that no other person convicted of spying for a U.S. ally has drawn a life sentence.
Both Sides Act. Kerry’s effort were eclipsed by three actions. The first was the announcement by the Palestinian Authority that it had signed some 15 United Nations conventions and treaties. The second was the announcement of plans by Israel to build several thousand additional housing units in the West Bank. The Israeli side regarded the Palestinians’ actions as violating their pledge not to pursue claims to statehood through the UN system. (For more discussion, see http://ir-comments.blogspot.com/2011/09/palestinians-at-un-does-it-matter.html) The Palestinians regarded the expansion of settlements as a violation of Israel’s pledge to “show restraint.” A few days later, the Palestinians announced that Fatah, the dominant faction in the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, the governing party in the Gaza Strip, had reached a unity agreement.
Time after time the President of the United States has announced a new effort to bring peace to the Middle East and time after time those talks have failed. Even the Oslo Accords of 1992, which initially led to a fundamental change in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and promised so much more, fell far short of delivering on what each side promised to the other. One might ask, why should the U.S. bother? The quick answer is that it is in the long-term national interest of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.
He Really Said That? In a speech the National Press Club, Secretary of State Kerry used the term “apartheid state.” Contrary to some of the more hysterical reactions in both the U.S. and Israel, Kerry did not say that Israel was guilty of practicing apartheid, with all the connotations of racial oppression and gross injustice that word carries. What he did say was that that was one of two terrible options looming in the future if there is no agreement on a two-state solution. By the way, Tzipi Livni, Minister of Justice in the Israeli government and chief negotiator in the talks, said the same thing in a speech last week.
One alternative to two states -- Israel and Palestine -- is the current situation. Some parts of the West Bank have local control over internal policies but with the Israeli military controlling security, the Israeli government controlling and collecting taxes on imports and exports, and increasing numbers of Israeli setters establishing gated and armed enclaves with their own roads and infrastructure. Other parts of the West Bank are under direct Israeli administration. This mix of indirect and direct rule of people who are not part of the Israeli polity is a direct threat to Israel’s democratic essence. The roughly 540,000 Israeli citizens who live in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have far more rights and privileges than the 2.7 million Palestinians.
The other alternative to two states, is to make them one. That is, Israel would simply annex the West Bank. But the resulting new Israel would have around 9 million Jewish citizens and 5 million Arab citizens and the so-called “demographic time bomb” would be loudly ticking. The Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and the quarter of the current population of Israel that is classified as Arab have markedly higher birth rates than Jewish Israelis. The day would inevitably come when Jews would become a minority and the Jewish identity of Israel was we know it would be gone.
The Politics of Despair. West Bank Palestinians are young -- half are less than 22 years old. By contrast the median age in Israel is 29 and in the U.S. it’s 37. The official unemployment rate is around 25% but everyone understands that it is substantially higher than that. Compared to their counterparts in most of the rest of the Arab world, these young Palestinians are better educated and more urbanized ... both factors that lead to greater political involvement, especially in protest movements. There is a major disconnect between many young Palestinians and the current leadership, men in their 70s and 80s whose glory days as freedom fighters in the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history and who are widely perceived as self serving and corrupt. As the creation of a Palestinian state seems to recede further and further into the realm of the impossible dream, a third Intifada (uprising) looms as a larger and larger threat. And this time it may be that stones and burning tires will be replaced by AK-47s and Improvised Explosive Devices. But an armed insurgency is far more likely to destroy the economic, social and political progress the Palestinians have made in the past 20 years than it is to dislodge the Israeli Defense Forces and the armed settlers.
Pragmatism, Politics and Principle. The United States has pragmatic interests in seeing a stable and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is an important military asset for the U.S. The Israeli army, air force and navy are far superior to any other country in the region and cooperate closely with the U.S. on strategy and tactics, and the Israelis contribute vital intelligence on the Arab world. Israel is a significant trading partner, despite the relatively small size of its economy. Israeli tech firms are important partners for many U.S. software giants and the Israeli military is an important consumer of American-made weapons and equipment. Creation of a Palestinian state would enhance the Israeli economy.
Many Americans take a candidate’s stance on Israel into consideration when they vote. In addition to Jews who feel an understandable emotional and ideological kinship with Israel, evangelical Christians have become increasingly vocal and uncritical champions of Israel. And public opinion polls consistently show Israel with a profoundly positive image in the eyes of the vast majority of Americans.
Even if the coldly practical economic and military reasons and the politics of the issues did not impel American leaders to seek a solution, political morality does. Israel is a stable, mature democracy. The core values of Israeli civic life are the same as the core values of American civic life. If, as many people think, the future of Israel and the future of the Palestinians are inextricably linked, then the United States has a principled reason for working to find a way for them to live together.
So How Come It Didn’t Happen?
The Core Issues. For the past twenty years the four central issues in the conflict have been borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees.
Borders: No one seriously believes that the borders of Israel at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967 can be restored. But how much alteration will be done to account for military defense and the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and around Jerusalem?
Security: What restrictions will a Palestinian state accept on its military and defense forces to reassure Israel that it is not the spearhead of aggression from the Arab world? What assurances can the Palestinian state get that the Israeli Defense Forces will not operate at will in Palestinian territory?
Jerusalem: Israel has declared Jerusalem its “eternal and indivisible capital”; the Palestinians have built a large “lecture/community” hall that looks a whole lot like a potential parliament building in the eastern, traditionally Arab section of Jerusalem. Can the semantic and historical distinction between “:Jerusalem” and “East Jerusalem” satisfy each side?
Refugees: Regardless of the morality of telling people whose families have been expelled from their homes that they can’t go back, the fact is that it is impossible for Palestinians (or their descendants) who left their homes during the 1948 or 1967 wars to go home. But is it possible to find some way to compensate them for their loss?
While the negotiators did a good job of keeping their discussions private and not negotiating in the media, enough leaked out to suggest that the talks bogged down on the complications of drawing borders.
Complication 1: Settlements. The first time the Obama administration ventured into Middle East peacemaking, it tried to make a six-month moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank a precondition for talks. That led to a direct confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the talks were declared dead before they began. This time around the U.S. and the Palestinians merely asked for “restraint.” But Israel authorized 4800 new houses in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and announced plans for 6800 more in the months ahead.
To paint with a broad brush, there are two types of settlements. One comprises the suburban communities built in the eastern suburbs of Tel Aviv and in a ring around the eastern side of Jerusalem. Around 400,000 people live in those two areas, attracted primarily by the lack of housing elsewhere in Israel and government subsidized rents. They look and feel like gated suburban communities in the
U.S. except for the fact that security is much tighter and people commute to their jobs in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem along special roads from which Palestinian cars are excluded. The other type of settlement consists of much smaller units scattered throughout the West Bank. Some are legal under Israeli law; others are illegal. Most of the residents of these settlements are motivated by ideology and religious conviction. They describe themselves as living in Judea and Samaria, integral parts of the land of Israel in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. This second type of settlement is often built close to Palestinian villages and farms, and contentious interactions between settlers and Palestinians are common. Some of these settlements are the sources of “price tag” incidents, in which olive orchards are decimated or mosques, churches and graveyards are desecrated to convince local Palestinians that staying in their homes and resisting settlements is too expensive.
The settlement program, begun in the early 1970s to “create facts on the ground” that would make a return to Israel’s pre-197 borders, has succeeded. No one, including the Palestinian leadership, seriously expects Israel to abandon the settlement communities around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The other settlements in the West Bank are far more problematic for both sides.
Complication 2: Politics in Israel. Israeli voters run the gamut from very secular to very religious. Middle and upper middle class Israelis, especially those whose families originally came from Europe or North America, differ from working class or poor Israelis, especially those whose families originally came from elsewhere in the Middle East. Second or third-generation sabras (native-born Israelis) differ from more recent immigrants, particularly the large number of Russian Jews who have arrived since the end of the Soviet Union.
Without making this sound too much like a Political Science lecture (although that’s not a bad thing ....) The structure of Israeli political institutions tends to exacerbate political differences rather than promoting compromise. Seats in the Knesset are allocated by proportion of the vote a party receives, and a party only needs to get slightly more than 1% of the vote to get a seat. This encourages a proliferation of small parties reflecting rather narrow ideological or religious interests. The large majority of Israeli voters are fairly evenly divided between moderately left of center and moderately right of center ideological positions, but the proliferation of smaller, more extreme parties means that no centrist party can get a majority of the seats necessary to form a government. Instead coalitions are built among sometimes widely divergent political factions. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an example of very strange political bedfellows: Netanyahu gets to be Prime Minster because he controls the single biggest bloc of votes -- 31 out of a total of 120. But he had to combine his Likud party with Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a party whose base support is Russian immigrants, most of whom live in West Bank settlements. Thus the Foreign Minister of Israel is Avigdor Lieberman, who is only weakly committed to a two-state solution and is openly dismissive of any chance that talks with the Palestinians will ever succeed. The coalition includes the Jewish Home party, led by Nafatli Bennet. Mr. Bennett, an outspoken and colorful advocate of ever-expanding settlements and opponent of a Palestinian state, serves as Minister of Economics in the government. But the government also includes Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a veteran centrist politician who has long been an advocate for negotiations and a Palestinian state and was Israel’s lead negotiator in the last round of talks. While the left hand of the government negotiated with the Palestinians and the Americans, the right hand called for the annexation of large parts of the West Bank and stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship and letting them join the Palestinians in tightly controlled enclaves.
The outcome of the negotiations rested heavily on the assumption (or wishful thinking) that Mr. Netanyahu could find the political will and wiles to overcome the obstructionism of his erstwhile allies.
I do not mean to suggest that the failure is solely Israel’s fault. The Palestinians missed opportunities to move ahead, perhaps most notably by moving to join 15 United Nations conventions instead of waiting another day or two for Secretary of State Kerry to finalize a deal that would allow Netanyahu, over the vehement objections of some of his own government ministers, to release the last 24 Palestinian prisoners in return for the release of Jonathon Pollard (there is substantial circumstantial evidence to suggest that that was about to happen ... despite official White House denials.)
Two things that will NOT happen:
1. A MAD action. Some Palestinian leaders have threatened to dissolve their government, thus forcing Israel to assume direct control and full responsibility for all of the West Bank. This would be a variant of the old Mutual Assured Destruction threat of the Cold War, inflicting disastrous consequences on both sides.
2. Annexation. Israel will not follow the urging of the Economic Minister and annex some 61% of the West Bank, ending all hope of a viable Palestinian state. This also would be a MAD act with even greater catastrophic damage for Israel.
Two Nightmares that Might Happen.
1. The failure of the talks, on top of widespread disillusionment with the aging and often corrupt leadership of the Palestinian Authority and the indignities and irritations of the Israeli military presence lead to a third Intifada. This youth-led uprising could feature widespread, chaotic violence against Israeli soldiers, Palestinian police forces, and Israeli settlers.
2. The ideologically and religiously motivated settler movement expands even more rapidly in the West Bank, accompanied with increased violacea against Palestinians and more incidents of violent resistance to Israeli civil and military authorities. Much of the West Bank would become effectively ungovernable. The hope of a land for peace deal, in which Israel would dismantle enough settlements to permit a viable Palestinian state in exchange for guaranteed peace and security, would be dead.
The Next Chapter?
There is an official pause in the talks. Unlike Coca Cola, this is not a pause that refreshes. The Obama administration has tried to broker talks twice and failed both times. There will not be a third effort. The next elections in Israel will be some time in 2017. Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, has said often that he feels old (at 79) and tired and it is time for a new generation of leadership. It will take months, if not years, to work out a new leadership structure and close the schism between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Hamas in Gaza.
If everyone is fortunate, there will be time to resolve the political dynamics before either nightmare comes to pass. But it will not be soon and in the meantime everyone’s situation -- Israeli, Palestinian and American -- will get worse.