About a year ago, the United States started pressuring Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to restart peace negotiations. No one knows why. Israel had expressed no such desire. The Palestinians and everyone else thought: What’s the point? No one believed the Americans would ever pressure Israel sufficiently to get a reasonable compromise. Besides, no one was pushing the United States to get back into the ring. Presumably, Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama thought something could be achieved. Were they naive, or did they have a few aces up their sleeves?
With the negotiations at an end, we can now answer that question. There were no aces up American sleeves. Draw your own conclusions.
Obama had tried to get things going in his first term. In Cairo, he promised the Arab world a settlement freeze. But Israel paid no attention and, instead, announced new construction in the middle of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s official visit. When Obama stated that future negotiations would be based on the 1967 borders, Netanyahu got 42 standing ovations from the U.S. Congress for telling Obama to stuff himself.
The PA asked for a settlement freeze but got the release of prisoners instead. They agreed to enter negotiations. There is suspicion that a few high-profile Western boycotts of Israeli projects in the West Bank convinced Israel to comply.
The Jewish State
The basis of the Kerry negotiations, like all negotiations before, is the “two-state solution.” There is near-universal agreement on what that would look like: two states, based on the pre-1967 borders with mutually accepted land swaps; a shared or split Jerusalem; and some recognition of the rights of Palestinian refugees, including compensation and limited repatriation. This is Canada’s official position. The only significant groups that reject this plan are Israelis, evangelical Christians and Palestinian radicals and their supporters (see box).
Many in Israel’s coalition government reject a Palestinian state out of hand. Prime Minister Netanyahu once said he accepted the two-state solution, but he has, during these negotiations, stated that Israel will not give up the Jordan Valley for 40 years, accept refugees or remove a single settler, and that Jerusalem will remain Israel’s undivided, eternal capital. He has thrown every wrench he can find into the spokes.
The latest wrench – and the big discussion of late – is Netanyahu’s demand that the PA recognize Israel as the Jewish State. It’s an odd demand. On one hand, it’s obvious – so obvious that, until recently, it never occurred to Israel to demand it. Peace treaties were signed with Jordan and Egypt with no such declaration, and no other country recognizes or has been asked to recognize Israel as the Jewish State. The Palestinians have recognized Israel several times, but now the goalposts have been moved.
Palestinians are loath to recognize Israel as a Jewish State because they fear it would amount to abandoning Palestinian refugees’ right of return and the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel for equality with Jewish citizens. Are their fears justified? Who knows? Israel has never defined what it means by Jewish State.
Palestinians, like most people in the world, regard Jews as adherents to a religion. Secular Israeli Jews (a shrinking majority of Jews in Israel) tend to see themselves as a nation or people. For them, Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State is equivalent to Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. But it’s not: You don’t have to change religions to become a Palestinian or a Canadian. Imams and/or priests do not control who gets to be a Palestinian or a Canadian, but rabbis (and under Israeli law, only Orthodox rabbis) do decide who gets to be a Jew.
Negotiations were going nowhere because Israel demanded everything and gave nothing, refusing even to discuss borders. Then Netanyahu announced cancellation of the fourth prisoner release. A few days later, he announced 706 settlement units in East Jerusalem. Abbas said Netanyahu had broken the terms of the negotiations and announced the PA would sign new UN and other international agreements. Netanyahu accused the PA of walking out of negotiations.
When a few days later Abbas announced the PA had reached an agreement with Hamas, Israel suspended negotiations, saying the PA must choose between peace and terrorism – even though Israel has, more than once, called negotiations pointless because of Palestinian disunity; even though the Palestine Liberation Organization, too, had been called terrorist before Israel recognized it; even though Israel helped to create Hamas; even though at least two Israeli prime ministers had been terrorists; even though another Israeli prime minister had been found guilty of being personally responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacres; even though Israel itself had previously negotiated with Hamas; and even though Abbas said that a Palestinian unity government would recognize Israel and condemn terrorism.
Netanyahu also said that, to continue negotiations, he had been prepared to offer a “partial freeze” of settlement construction. Partial freeze is another way of saying continued expansion.
And that’s where we now stand.
What’s the difference between the Israeli right, centre and centre-left? The right openly opposes the two-state solution. The centre pretends to support it in an effort to maintain international, especially U.S., support. The centre-left claims to support it, but places conditions on the Palestinians that make resolution impossible. All blame the Palestinians for failure. As Zeev Sternhell wrote in Haaretz,1 “For Israel’s leaders, the word ‘agreement’ means unconditional Palestinian surrender. This perception is anchored deep in the Israeli consciousness and is shared by the right, the center and the center-left, the towns in the country’s outskirts and most residents of Greater Tel Aviv, the Labor Party and Likud.”
The tactic that best serves the Israelis is delay. This is not new. From the beginning of the occupation, the settler slogan was “facts on the ground”: if there are enough Jews living in the territories, it will be too late to change. Settlements have expanded under both centrist and right-wing governments. Construction accelerates during times of relative peace (negotiations, for example) and slows when there is violence.
So refusing to negotiate is a kind of delay, and then negotiating is another kind. Breaking off negotiations is one kind of delay, and agreeing to resume is another. Failed negotiations are a kind of delay. Successful negotiations are a failure, because even small steps encourage the dangerous belief that deals can be made with Arabs. That was the lesson of the Oslo Accords, when for a few years Israelis became enamoured of Palestinian-Israeli accords. It took the Camp David Accords in 2000 to break Israelis of that habit – those negotiations whose failure Clinton blamed on Yasir Arafat and out of which Ehud Barak invented the great slogan “We have no partner for peace.”2 Delay as long as you can, negotiate as long as you can, then sabotage the negotiations and blame their failure on the Palestinians. And, of course, even if there is a deal, you can be sure there will be violence (from extremists or provocateurs), and Israel can use that violence to break the deal and then, again, delay negotiations or negotiate for years.
Polls show that a majority of Israelis support the two-state solution, but this means nothing. Thirty-six per cent vote for the right, 35 per cent for the centre/centre-left. The religious parties, which tend to care mostly about – and can be bribed with – welfare and exemption from army service, are at about 15 per cent. That leaves genuine opposition to the occupation and support for a two-state solution at 14 per cent (which includes the Arab parties). That is what the Palestinians are up against.
The American response
When negotiations broke down, Kerry blamed Israel. This was as unprecedented as it was accurate. Sadly, he and the State Department backtracked. Others have shown some courage in apportioning responsibility – former Canadian ambassador Michael Bell, for example.3
Typical of the self-delusion that clouds the American mind on Israel is Roger Cohen’s April 10 op-ed in the New York Times. Cohen wrote, “The recent Israeli decision to move forward with plans to build 700 new settlement units in Jerusalem reflects a widespread view within Netanyahu’s governing coalition (and quite likely in his heart of hearts) that not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”; and “Netanyahu’s insistence on up-front Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state … amounts to so much bloviation designed to undermine any talks.”
So far so good, but then: “Neither side is serious today about a two-state peace settlement.” The problem on the Palestinian side is “widespread corruption and nepotism … Abbas has zero democratic legitimacy; he leads a divided Palestinian national movement” (see box: Abbas). Perhaps; but Cohen didn’t list a single position held or action taken by the Palestinians that undermined negotiations. So which side is not serious?
Cohen wrote, “The gap between the maximum potential Israeli offer and minimum Palestinian demand keeps growing.” Absolutely true, but he neglects to mention that the gap grows only because Israel’s offer shrinks.
So what does Cohen propose the Americans do about the fact that “Netanyahu’s governing coalition” is adamant that “not an inch of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River should be surrendered”?
Kerry should take a break. Prolonging failure only demonstrates weakness … American clout can only be demonstrated if there is a limit to the accommodation of unserious people. Let the impasse fester for a while (it has for decades), focus on securing a lasting nuclear deal with Iran, and demonstrate thereby that the United States is capable of acting in its own interests when necessary, irrespective of the views of even its closest allies.
In other words, the problem is American credibility, so prove your independence by pursuing U.S. interests in Iran, but other than that do exactly what Netanyahu and the Israel lobby demand: nothing. No mention that the United States provides Israel with over $3 billion a year in untied funds, guarantees Israeli military superiority4 and vetoes anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.
And now, Kerry and Obama have called for a “pause.” “Perhaps in a few months, Mr. Obama said, the time might be ripe for Israel and the Palestinians to ‘walk through that door,’ ready to compromise,” Patrick Martin reported.5 So now, according to the United States, both sides are to blame. An improvement over Clinton, I suppose.
In the Daily Beast on April 27, Josh Rogen reported on Kerry’s remarks to a closed-door meeting of influential world leaders two days earlier, of which the Daily Beast obtained a recording.6 According to Rogen, “Kerry said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders share the blame for the current impasse in the talks,” adding that neither Netanyahu nor Abbas was ready to make the tough decisions necessary for achieving peace. “Kerry criticized Israeli settlement construction as being unhelpful to the peace process,” and he “criticized Palestinian leaders for making statements that declined to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state,” Rogen wrote.
“Kerry also repeated his warning that a failure of Middle East peace talks could lead to a resumption of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens,” and said that if there’s no two-state solution, Israel risks becoming, in Kerry’s words, “an apartheid state.”
Finally, “Kerry said that he was considering, at some point, publicly laying out a comprehensive U.S. plan for a final agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, in a last-ditch effort to forge a deal before the Obama administration leaves office in 2017.”
Sure, let’s wait another three years. Apparently there are no tricks up the American sleeve. What a waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, like an addict promising to kick the habit next time, Kerry insists the United States still matters. We can always hope. But we, and especially the Palestinians, should put our energies elsewhere.
What’s next for the Palestinians?
Many – including the PA – were sceptical about the Kerry negotiations from the start. But the pressure to enter the negotiations from America and Europe – the two groups with the means if not the will to force an Israeli retreat – must have been overwhelming. Still, at this point the PA really has no choice but to give up on negotiations entirely and turn to the UN and international law. Palestinians in the territories will turn, one hopes, to increased nonviolent political action, with the tacit support of the PA, and support elsewhere via boycott, divestment and sanctions (see box).
Ten years ago, in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman called Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip “an urgent necessity.”7 Ideally, Friedman wrote, “this withdrawal should be negotiated along the Clinton plan. But if necessary, it should be done unilaterally. This can’t happen too soon, and the U.S. should be forcing it.”
The United States should be forcing a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, and it’s an urgent necessity. Friedman wrote that more than ten years ago.
Israel’s leaders will need to realize, as did Soviet and South African leaders, that they cannot have what they want. Israel simply does not get to keep the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Gorbachev and De Klerk abandoned Soviet and South African delusions, and thereby probably prevented a great many deaths.
We can’t simply wait for an intelligent and courageous Israeli leadership. We must force an end to Israeli delusions.
1 April 18, 2014.
2 In a 2005 review in Inroads of several books on the peace process, I critically analyzed the prevailing view that Arafat was primarily responsible for the breakdown of the Camp David talks (“Ending the War of 1948,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2005, pp. 130–36).
3 Toronto Globe and Mail, April 6, 2014.
4 The following Haaretz headlines ran in the middle of negotiations: “Innovative American aircraft train in Israel”; “Hagel: U.S. to speed up sale of six V-22 Osprey aircrafts to Israel.”
5 Toronto Globe and Mail, April 26, 2014.
7 New York Times, January 18, 2004.