Israel-Palestine: Parsing the ‘Peace’

FEATURES | June 14, 2010     

Israel-Palestine: Parsing the ‘Peace’Irreconcilable understandings of ‘the peace’ have betrayed the hollowness of saying “I’m for peace.” But time is now of the essence if there is to be any reasonable peace to salvage

Notwithstanding the recent Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, the sudden ire of Turkey and even the prior, well-publicized row between the US and Israel over settlement construction, the future of the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be determined by far more fundamental, sustained trends. Let us recall that the settlement flap began when the Israelis chose the visit of US Vice-President Biden as the moment to announce more construction in East Jerusalem. As Biden was in town to encourage the resumption of peace talks, this was rightly seen by the US as a calculated snub intended to undermine those talks.

Prime Minister Netanyahu may not have known what was coming – at least in terms of the timing. Members of his fractious coalition seeking to undermine the ‘Peace Process’ may have caught him by surprise, though he doubtless supports the substance of what was announced.

The said talks, which recently began, are so-called ‘proximity talks.’ A US mediator – in the event, George Mitchell – shuttles back and forth between the two sides, carrying messages and ideas, but the two sides are not to negotiate directly – until, at least, a later appointed time. Thus, almost 20 years after the Madrid Conference began the ‘Peace Process,’ and almost 17 years after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands at the culmination of the secret Oslo talks, the parties are largely where they were before Madrid and Oslo.

Of course, many things have since happened. A Palestinian Authority (PA) governs, to some extent, the lives of many Palestinians. The two sides are believed to have approached a final agreement at Taba, and creative ideas have been floated, such as the so-called ‘Clinton parameters,’ the year-long discussions between former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and PA President Abbas, as well as the unofficial, but highly credible ‘Geneva Initiative.’

However, we still seem far away from a deal. In the meantime, the standard of living for most Palestinians has declined since the process began; Hamas governs the Gaza Strip and religious ‘extremists’ are gaining popularity throughout the region; Israeli settlements have grown inexorably; Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, albeit unilaterally, thus permitting Hamas, rather than the PA, to declare victory; and the average Israeli feels far less secure than he or she did when the process started.

How did a peace process that raised so many hopes that this stubborn conflict might finally be resolved come to this? More fundamentally, there is a deeper question: Was there ever really a peace process at all? There are at least three reasons to wonder.

First, the two sides have long held different essential conceptions of what the process has been all about. For the Palestinians, the objective of the process has been to implement a set of rights that they believe are enshrined in international law through various UN resolutions and other documents. These rights are non-negotiable; that is, rights cannot, by definition, be negotiated. What needs to be discussed, rather, is how they will be implemented.

Moreover, Palestinians already believe that they made their historic compromise when they accepted Israel’s right to exist within the boundaries of 1967. Having already accepted, as the inherent logic of the peace process, that their country will comprise roughly 22 percent of historic Palestine, the Palestinians see no reason to engage in a negotiation over how much of that they will have to give up.

For Israelis, this process is a negotiation – an exercise in trading concessions to reach a deal. The starting point of this horse-trading, in the view of the Israelis, should be the realities on the ground when the process began – the 1967 borders, plus other things. A process of give-and-take will then result in compromises on all of the issues on the table.

Each side criticizes the other’s behaviour, but these criticisms miss the point that their fundamental objectives have never been the same. Israeli criticisms that the Palestinians simply pocket Israeli concessions without responding miss the aforementioned point that the Palestinians believe that they have already made their major concession in accepting the 1967 borders as the starting point of the discussion. When the Israelis speak of their willingness to “make painful concessions” – if only the Palestinians would do the same – they assume that each side will do so on the basis of what it had as of the start date of the process. Meanwhile, Palestinian criticisms that Israel expects them to negotiate further on their historic compromise miss the point that that is what a negotiation is all about – a series of compromises leading to a convergence.

The arguments advanced by the Israelis (“How can we negotiate when they continue to use violence?”) and by the Palestinians (“They have to stop building settlements in what will become our state, or there will be nothing to talk about.”) reflect this essential dichotomy. These two stands have the added, and not inconsiderable, benefit of allowing each side to avoid a showdown with its own radicals (religious settlers on the Israeli side, and violent extremists on the Palestinian), and to blame the other side for its lack of courage to do so.

A second reason for which there may never have been a peace process has to do with the psyche of the two sides, and the need that each has to pursue absolutist desires – even when each side knows that pragmatic solutions require settling for less.

Israel has an insatiable appetite for ‘security.’ Perhaps due to the particular tragedy of the Jewish people, and to the fact that they have felt largely alone in the region for all of Israel’s existence – alone, but more militarily powerful than all of their enemies combined, it must be said – there is no amount of ‘security’ that is too much. Still, as the classic security dilemma tells us, absolute security for one side is not possible; its pursuit only makes the other side feel less secure, and compels it to begin to build up its own capabilities.

At the beginning of the process, Yitzhak Rabin explained why he would negotiate with Yasser Arafat, even though he manifestly hated doing it. Rabin assessed that Israel faced a rapidly evolving threat. Up to that point, the threat had come from Israel’s immediate neighbours, backed by the rest of the Arab world – a phenomenon Rabin referred to as the “first ring” of threats. However, peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt mean that this is no longer true. No credible combination of enemies can defeat Israel militarily. The threat facing Israel, Rabin believed, is an emerging “second ring” of enemies, comprised of rival states like Iran, allied with extremist sub-state actors – who would not be capable of defeating Israel outright, but could wear her down over time through terrorism. This threat could nevertheless become existential if any of those actors acquired a nuclear weapon.

For Rabin, the objective of the peace process was to make peace with the first ring, including the secular leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in order to free up resources to deal with the emerging second ring. Indeed, peace with the Palestinians and the moderate Arab states would permit cooperation in dealing with the extremist threats – threats that exercise moderate Arab states just as much as they do Israel. Thus, in Rabin’s reasoning, a degree of risk could be tolerated in making peace with the first ring in order to position Israel to deal with the emerging second ring, where the real threats of the future lay.

This careful analysis fell foul of the realities of Israeli politics, and especially the politics of the Israeli security discourse. For even the most carefully reasoned argument that a degree of risk should be tolerated in dealings with the Palestinians could not survive an Israeli security discourse in which there simply is no acceptable degree of risk. And what Israel has now ended up with is the worst of both worlds: an emerging second ring of threats, but no peace with the first ring.

On the Palestinian side, the fundamental need to reconcile the population to the fact that a return to historic Palestine was not on the cards – that the PLO would, in effect, have to transform itself into the ‘PPLO’ (the ‘Part of Palestine Liberation Organization’) – was something that the Palestinian leadership would not do. This would have meant, for example, going to the millions of Palestinian refugees and telling them that they were not going to return to historic Palestine. Such a step would have required an act of supreme political courage, and the Palestinian leadership never faced it.

Indeed, the Palestinian leadership might well argue that this represented a chip not to be played until the endgame. But they made a fundamental error in not tackling this issue. A segment of the Palestinian people, sensing that a full return was not on the cards, but not being told this honestly by their leadership, was seduced by more radical – if less plausible – promises from extremists. The Israeli people, en attendant, took the reluctance of the PA to deal with this issue candidly as proof that it harboured a secret desire to destroy Israel. More generally, the Israelis needed to hear from the Palestinians that a peace agreement will result in a final end of the conflict – that is, that Palestinian demands are not elastic – and they have never heard this.

In both cases – security for the Israelis, and an honest recognition of the limits of return for the Palestinians – the psychological and political need to pursue absolutist objectives (even though both sides knew these to be unattainable) fatally poisoned the atmosphere.

A final reason for which there may never have been a process is the fact that the two sides never attempted to come to grips with their own and each other’s ‘narrative.’ Social scientists who study conflict refer to the ‘narratives’ that each side has to describe the conflict as a critical element in how each side views the chances of making peace. The narrative is the set of agreed understandings about how the conflict arose, the true nature of the other side, and how the latter two elements have shaped the conflict. Narratives combine a litany of grievances and accusations about the other side, as well as heroic, peace-loving images of one’s own side. These create fiercely held myths that are used to cast blame on the other side, and to rationalize extraordinary actions taken by one’s own as necessary and even just.

While Israeli scholarship has featured a revisionist school that has challenged Israel’s dominant narrative, both sides, as Robert Rotberg notes, remain “locked together in a struggle, tightly entangled, and enveloped by a historical cocoon of growing complexity, fundamental disagreement, and overriding misperception of motives.”

Getting to grips with these narratives will require that both sides honestly revisit their history of the conflict. This is difficult to do, especially when the conflict still rages, and each side perceives that any display of weakness will compromise its position – both with the other side and also with competing groups at home. But a sign on each side of willingness to undertake this difficult process – possibly as part of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process during the implementation phase of any agreement – is necessary.

So where does this leave us? Notwithstanding President Obama’s good intentions, the peace process, such as it is, cannot be reinvented. Indeed, the existing process is fatally flawed and unlikely to produce peace. This may be one of its attractions for many on both sides who still harbour absolutist objectives.

Moreover, the process may have reached a point of no return – a place where the moment of compromise has passed, and all that can be hoped for is management of the conflict. There are many who believe that this state of affairs intrinsically favours Israel, as a steady process of putting ‘facts on the ground’ will tip the balance on key issues.

Having said this, there is a danger for Israel in this, for the demographic logic favours the Palestinians. They are the majority – a fast increasing majority – between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Indeed, some voices argue that the ‘two-state solution’ – the conceptual basis of the current process – is no longer in the Palestinian interest, especially if all that Israel will ever permit is an emasculated rump of a Palestinian state. Better, the logic goes, to wait a few more generations, and then to pursue a ‘one-state solution.’

The hardship that will be endured in this scenario favours extremists on the Palestinian side, who will take advantage of Palestinians’ sense of hopelessness and rage to further their progress in Palestinian politics. It will further encourage the radicalization of the region, with negative consequences for the international political and security situation.

Obviously, Israel will fight a one-state solution, and has many tools at its disposal to do so. However, the demographic pressures are relentless. The Israelis will have to adopt an overtly racist, apartheid structure if they are to retain control. While some Israelis would have no difficulty with this, a clear majority will certainly question it. And quite manifestly, the international community, and even the US, will eventually come to wonder what they are propping up.

It is thus clear that ‘moderate’ Israeli and Palestinian political forces still have an interest in finding a way forward – and soon, lest the stalemate become entrenched. And yet, it seems equally clear that each side’s leadership has great difficulty in overcoming the built-in, largely indigenous forces that militate against compromise. A much more assertive US and international push to force an agreement may therefore be the only way forward at this stage. Indeed, if there are political forces on both sides that want an agreement, but are incapable of taking on their own rejectionists, they may very well welcome such a push – even if they react with horror in public.

Such a push would likely comprise a statement from the US outlining what a final status agreement could look like, detailing compromises on the key issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and others. Ways forward on all these issues are well-known, based on work done over many years. Crucially, such a statement would also have to come with a firm timetable – a set of dates by which the US would expect the two sides to take different actions on the way to a final agreement. Absent a set of dates by which different milestones would be reached, any US statement would simply be a reiteration of ideas that would quickly be forgotten.

But such a push cannot simply be comprised of a major speech and a timetable. It must be well-prepared and accompanied by significant and ongoing action. This would include direct involvement by President Obama, as well as a coordinated approach to the region in toto. The other Arab countries would have to come under pressure to make good on their pledge to recognize and make peace with Israel as it makes peace with Palestine. They will surely be reluctant to do so: there will be spoilers – people on both sides who favour a continuation of the fighting, and who will take violent action to stop the process. Only high-level and committed leadership will keep it going.

To be sure, any push of this type could also lead to a political crisis in both Israel and Palestine. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s current coalition would likely not survive. He would have the option of trying to forge a new coalition with more moderate parties – as Israeli President Peres has advocated – though this may not be possible. Ultimately, new elections may be required, which would set things back some months. On the Palestinian side, the hold that President Abbas has over political life is tenuous. Powerful elements, such as Hamas, will resist any permanent agreement.

To these concerns, one can only say that there will inevitably be political crises in Israel and Palestine if there is not any long-term solution to this conflict. On the Palestinian side, support for extremist political movements can only grow if Abbas fails to deliver progress, and this cannot be in Israel’s interest. On the Israeli side, a crisis between the moderate, secular political movements and those representing the settlers and hard-line elements is coming in any event, as Israel goes through an internal debate over what kind of country it wishes to be. All of this will be played out, as mentioned, in the context of a steadily worsening demographic balance. It is thus a false concern to say that a push to impose a peace agreement would lead to political crises in both countries, as such crises are around the corner anyway – perhaps for different reasons, and according to different time scales, but around the corner nonetheless.

Is it realistic to expect a push beyond the current ‘proximity talks’? After all, successive US presidents have repeated the mantra of peace, but have taken the view that the realities of Israeli politics preclude real pressure. Moreover, the September 11th attacks, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, at first strengthened the bond between the US and Israel: a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality flourished as Israel’s supporters in the US portrayed Islamic extremism as a threat to both countries because “we are both democracies and that is why they hate us.”

A different argument is now being heard, however. It is not new, but the level of the people making it is, as is their willingness to make it publicly. Recently, the general in command of the US war effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan publicly informed Congress that anger in the Muslim world over what is perceived as America’s unthinking support for the Israeli occupation is a significant factor in whipping up the anti-US sentiment that is making these wars harder to fight. It is also making it more difficult for the US to confront Iran. Other voices have been heard in favour of this argument from within the Obama Administration, including the President himself.

In effect, it is being argued that continuing unwillingness by Israel and Palestine to confront the tough choices necessary for peace is a threat to US national security. This is an argument to which an American public tired of casualties and weary of paying for seemingly endless wars may be receptive. If there is to be a concerted push to force an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, however, it should critically re-examine the past 20 years of peacemaking. Fundamental errors have been made. Putting them right will not be easy, but more of the same will not lead to any productive outcome either.

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Peter Jones is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

(Illustration: Henrik Drescher)

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