Two weeks ago, I thought a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) was within reach. I’ve changed my mind. Today, I think such an agreement is nowhere in sight. I’ve just returned from an 8-day exchange mission to Israel and the Palestinian Territories with a group of American and Chinese international relations professors. Here are a few brief reflections based on conversations we had with top Israeli and Palestinian officials.
- Israel is comfortable with the status quo. The status quo involves maintaining a strict seal around the Gaza Strip while and slowly consolidating control over the West Bank (largely via settlement activity). Liberal voices calling for a two-state solution in the early to mid-1990s have been frustrated by the failure of Oslo and the violence of the Second Intifada, which have largely marginalized such voices compared with those on the right. East European and Slavic immigrants, who now make up a sizable portion of the electorate, support hawkish governments and settlement expansion. Netanyahu’s government will not be a first-mover in the process, showing disdain for any concessions to the PA and neglecting to signal to Palestinians a sincere desire for a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s government did enact a 9-month settlement freeze, which allegedly gave Palestinians the opportunity to come to the table, but the Palestinian Authority either missed the signal or declined the opportunity to act. Israel has since continued settlement expansion and will have sealed off the Palestinian Territories with the security barrier by the end of 2013. The mood in Israel is apathetic at best, and cynically expansionist at worst.
- The PA doesn’t have a plan. The PA, which is barely holding onto power in the West Bank, is out of ideas for how to resume the peace process, despite the urgency they feel about doing so. Because of settlement expansion and the building of the separation barrier, they feel like time is against them. In fact, the Fatah-dominated government is facing its own set of challenges regarding legitimacy, governance, and development. Internal rivalries have Fatah leaders zipping around Ramallah in motorcades in between heavily-guarded fortresses (meant to protect them from other Palestinians). The PA cannot or will not stop routine rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza into the Negev. As a last resort, the PA plans to pursue an internationalization strategy—securing “occupied state” status in the UN General Assembly—which may not result in meaningful leverage against Israel in the pursuit of the two-state solution anyway. Regardless of the outcome, many fear that Hamas is gaining ground in the West Bank, marginalizing liberal Palestinians who may have cooler heads in the pursuit of statehood. Needless to say, the mood is grim and urgent.
- The international community is distracted. With Iran testing long-range missiles, Syria’s gruesome civil war, the crisis in the Eurozone, and the Muslim Brotherhood winning the presidency in Egypt (and perhaps elsewhere), Israel’s allies are tied up. The American president has few incentives to get aggressive with Israel until after November 5, and Europe is otherwise occupied. Given the conflict’s protracted nature, potential brokers do not feel the same level of urgency about making progress on the two-state solution that Israeli liberals and Palestinians do. The mood in the international community is collective denial.
Of course, we talked mostly with elites, not with many ordinary people on the Israeli or Palestinian side. It would certainly be interesting to hear reactions from non-elites to see where they differ about these interpretations.
The most poignant part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that both Israel and the PA know the rough contours of the permanent status agreement. These have been hammered out over numerous phases of negotiation (the most recent being Annapolis in 2008—already four years old). And given regional changes, devising and implementing a viable two-state solution seems as urgent as ever.
Yet as both sides agree, the problem isn’t finding a mutually agreeable solution. The problem is getting from here to there. And given the political environments in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, implementation seems to be growing ever more distant with each passing day.