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.
Not a bad assessment, although you are inaccurate with the assertion that Israel is “consolidating control over the West Bank (largely via settlement activity)”.
Settlement activity is near zero, and has been for many years. There have been no new settlements and Peace Now will confirm this. The existing settlements have been extremely restricted in their growth and limited in most cases to zero. Go check the Maale Adumim city plan and look across the highway at the white elephant that was laid out years ago, but no building permits have been approved.Ditto in Gush Etzion south of Jerusalem where there has been almost zero growth in the past five years.
The Palestinians love to use the red herring of Israeli settlements “eating away” at the west bank, but the truth is that when you look at the statistics over the past decade growth has slowed to near-zero. And no, the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem is not a “settlement”, nor are other parts of the city, so don’t count in those numbers.
The truth is that neither side has the courage to make the decision. No Palestinian leader will go down as the man who told the refugees that are “not going home” to live in Israel, and no Israeli leader has to make any decision while the Palestinians refuse to negotiate.
Abbas makes Netanyahu look good. Bibi keeps saying “Let’s negotiate” and Abbas keeps saying no, pretending that the settlements are the reason. They so obviously are not to anybody who understands the issues. Abbas could negotiate, but he can’t sign on anything -especially since he does not speak for Gaza (and Hamas totally rejects the peace process and living in peace with Israel).
Aside from that, your analysis is pretty good. Another failed mention is that the security fence has indeed been working. From dozens of suicide and car bombings every year that killed hundreds, to zero in the past few years.
Brian Cohen, if you look at this graph:
…it clearly shows that there is no freeze in settlements. Rather, it suggests that the settlements are increasing. The numbers are from Israeli Bureau of Statistics. Moreover, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion are today completed, that’s why the building has slowed down in those particular areas.
The Netanyahu government have no problem negotiating, as long as negotiations doesn’t lead anywhere. They’ve been negotiating now for twenty years, and the expansion just continues meanwhile. Status quo is victory for the the settler agenda. More and more people see through what can only be described as a charade of “negotiations”.
The settlements are NOT increasing. The population is going up. Seriously, go look up the meanings in your dictionary, or name all the new settlements that are part of this alleged increase.
And where did you get the idea that Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion are “completed”? That’s one of the most absurd comments I’ve ever heard from people arguing one way or the other. Aside from the fact that I live in Gush Etzion so I see this first hand. Also there is an entire E1 plan of Maale Adumim that is frozen.
Your attempt to pretend that there are more settlements is akin to the phony argument that there is “ethnic-cleansing” of Arabs in Jerusalem – which is a total propaganda since the Arab population of Jerusalem is at an all-time record high. Under Israeli rule there have never, ever, been more Arabs in Jerusalem than there are now.
And readers should remember that it was the Likud who signed the peace treaty with Egypt and handed over an area 3 times the size of Israel – despite harsh internal objections. If the Palestinians ever find unity and return to negotiations, then yes – odds are a Likud government will sign a peace treaty with them too.
However, we can’t sign two peace treaties with Fatahstan in the west bank and Hamastan in Gaza. And Hamas and Fatah aren’t about to make up, nor is Hamas about to declare a desire to negotiate for peace with Israel.
So the truth is that the Palestinian charade is the problem.