Saturday, May 21, 2011

Israel-Palestine: is there a way forward?

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is back in the news cycle in the U.S., thanks to Obama's mention of the 1967 lines in his speech and his subsequent meeting with Netanyahu. As Stephen Hadley emphasized on the NewsHour Friday, Obama actually called for negotiated adjustments to the 1967 lines via land swaps, and if he had mentioned the land swaps first, his reference in the speech might not have been interpreted as such a big deal. Speaking later on the same program, David Brooks said that drawing "magic lines on a map" (I believe he used that phrase) would not solve a conflict whose roots are found in competing narratives, competing historical wounds, and so forth.

Brooks's remarks prompt a thought which I'm sure is not original (how many thoughts are?) but which I'm going to throw out anyway. Perhaps it has been a mistake to think in terms of 'solving' or 'resolving' the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; perhaps it would be better to think in terms of moving the conflict into a new phase, one that is less unjust, more stable, and more manageable. In this context the establishment of a Palestinian state with agreed-upon borders (or even 90 or 95 percent agreed-upon), and a Palestinian state which both recognizes Israel and is recognized by Israel, would be a major accomplishment, even if the issues of refugees and the status of Jerusalem remain unresolved.

Contrary to what many people seem to suppose, it is really not necessary to resolve all the outstanding issues, or even every last single territorial issue, in order to arrive at a mutually agreed-upon two-state arrangement. India and China still have disagreements about certain aspects of their border; so, I believe, do Greece and Macedonia; so do Thailand and Cambodia. Although the Thai-Cambodia border dispute recently has sparked some shooting and fatalities, most border disputes do not entail much or any violence. Many of them just simmer for years, causing some irritation in diplomatic relations and some inconvenience for those who live in or near the disputed areas, but not much else. There is no reason why Israel and a new Palestinian state have to agree on 100 percent of their border. Particularly difficult areas that can't be taken care of by land swaps can be labeled 'in dispute' and some kind of temporary jurisdictional arrangement can be put in place. Just as India and China disagree about five percent (or whatever the figure is) of their border, so Israel and the new Palestinian state could agree to disagree about five percent of their border. An understanding that there is nothing especially strange about such an outcome, coupled with a shift in thinking from 'resolving' the conflict to moving it into a new and less conflictual phase, might help in any event to restart a 'peace process' that appears to be very stalled at the moment.

P.s. As Jon Western argues, the "strategic time-frame" in the region is not on Israel's side, which should, one would think, be an impetus to re-starting negotiations.


Aaron said...

Israelis have been looking at it as conflict management, not conflict resolution, ever since the Aksa Intifada in 2000. I don't think that your proposal would make the conflict any more manageable, though. On paper, yes; in reality, no. The Palestinian state would officially be at peace with Israel, and officially the conflict would be nothing more than a border dispute as you say. In reality, the Palestinian state would be unable and (most likely) unwilling to control Iranian-influenced militias that are still at war with Israel over its existence.

There's nothing in this scenario for Israel. Unresolved border disputes are still "colonialism" as seen by those who want to see it that way. Terrorism continues, but (as in the 2006 Lebanon war) there's no legitimate state target for Israel to hit. Not only that, but any attack on a Palestinian state target, like attacks on Hamas quasi-state targets during Operation Cast Lead, is now an act of aggression against a sovereign UN member state, one which is nominally at peace with Israel. I don't see any up side for Israel here.

LFC said...


Thank you for the comment.

Israel would presumably not accept a treaty or agreement leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state without at least a formal renunciation of violence by Hamas. (Admittedly Hezbollah and other groups might remain "at war with Israel over its existence.")

Whether the scenario of two officially-at-peace states with certain unresolved issues between them contains any "upside for Israel" depends partly, I think, on one's view of the current situation. I believe -- having heard this figure recently, if it's wrong someone will correct me I hope -- that there are some three hundred thousand Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Even if I were not opposed to the occupation of the West Bank on principled grounds (which I am), I'm not sure the status quo is sustainable -- the status quo being a steadily growing number of settlers protected by the IDF in a territory that the PA is trying to turn into, with no doubt at least occasional Israeli co-operation, a de facto state. Add in the revolutions sweeping several important Arab countries and demographic trends within Israel itself and you have a situation in which, as Jon Western says in the linked post, the 'strategic time-frame' does not appear to be on Israel's side. The recent demonstrations at Israel's borders on the anniversary of the state's creation, and the way they were met (i.e. armed force vs. civilian demonstrators) is a smallish sign of what may become a bigger problem.

In other words, even if the status quo were not unfair to the Palestinians, which it is, I'm not at all sure it's in Israel's medium or long-run interest to just keep the status quo going.

Of course it's easy to make suggestions from afar; I'm sure things appear more difficult to those who are closer, geographically or otherwise, to the problem. And one of several reasons I have not blogged all that much previously about this issue is that I am far away.

But the current situation, it seems to me, is in its own way quite dangerous for Israel: a 'peace process' that appears to be entirely frozen and stalemated, at least at the official level; an increasingly isolated Israel whose major patron, the U.S., is showing distinct (albeit rather timid) signs of exasperation; and a regional context which is changing in fairly rapid and important ways. When a peace process that is going nowhere is superimposed, so to speak, on political, economic and demographic trends that are definitely going somewhere and relatively quickly, this seems to me to be a problematic combination for everyone, including the Israelis.

Aaron said...

Agreed that lots of things are looking bad for Israel. I think it's facing worse isolation and, as you said, a distancing from the US.

If your suggestion could substantially improve Israel's standing with the US and the rest of the world in the long term, it might be worth it despite the costs. But I think that isolation has more to do with slow cultural changes in Europe and America over the last decades and less to do with any Israeli actions, even dramatic acts like creating a Palestinian state. As long as Israel is a 19th-century style nation-state with a "Western" Staatvolk and a non-Western minority, it will be viewed negatively by many in the West. There's an anti-Western and therefore anti-Israeli stance, expressed in reactions to various events. Once the occupation is ended, focus will just shift to the other grievances against Israel. How many people switch their sympathies from one side to the other in the middle of a long war?

None of this means that settlement should continue. I distinguish sharply between military occupation and settlement. The former is apparently even (privately) supported by Fatah, in the short term, because it protects them from Hamas. Israel could dismantle further settlements in the West Bank (Israelis supported this in their election of Ehud Olmert) while still keeping a military presence. Still pretty close to the status quo, and it doesn't address the problem of legitimacy. But I think there's very little Israel can do to solve that problem, short of renouncing the ethnic-national character of the state.

Aaron said...

P.S. Of course Hamas would formally renounce violence in any peace treaty. They have no problem in principle with a hudna with Israel. Arafat renounced violence in the early 1990s, several times (each time in exchange for another concession). Renunciations of violence aren't worth a whole lot.

LFC said...

I will be responding to at least a bit of this in a forthcoming post.

hank_F_M said...


Dropped in on a site a visit every once in long while and this post was on top, which provides an answer to your titile question. I don’t know about all the details and I am not sure I would agree with every thing, but I think his main point is correct, there is not enough common ground for a peace process to work, and well meaning attemps to force it aggravate the situation.

LFC said...

Hank - I haven't had a cup of coffee yet this a.m. but I have read the post to which you link.

The post begins by saying that before Obama took office in Jan. 2009 the Israelis and the Palestinians were moving toward what the author, evidently an emeritus prof in the pol sci dept of Hebrew Univ., calls "a tolerable coexistence." According to the author, it was Obama's "obsession" with pushing for a Palestinian state that awakened "sleeping dogs" and caused problems in a situation that was on the road to being manageable.

Really? What may look like "tolerable coexistence" to an Israeli professor may not seem to be "tolerable" to an inhabitant of the West Bank or Gaza. Things were improving in some respects in the West Bank, it's true, but the advances in economic development etc to which the post refers were linked by Fayyad, the p.m., with progress toward a Palestinian state, self-declared if not via mutual recognition. (See Robert Danin's FA piece "A third way to Palestine" -- I will try to put in the link below.)

The notion that Obama stirred things up and that the Palestinians themselves don't care about the est. of a state all that much strikes me as wrong, verging on the preposterous.

Notice that the post makes no mention of Operation Cast Lead, the war in Gaza that took place in Dec. '08 and Jan. '09, just before Obama's inauguration. He doesn't mention Cast Lead b/c it would disrupt and undermine his narrative that everything was really going pretty well until Obama came into office.

You say there is not enough common ground for peace and that well-meaning efforts to push the parties to the table only make things worse. I think it is better to have the parties talking than not, and better to have them under constant pressure to reach an agreement. Maybe it is not doable, but arguably the US has never really used the leverage it has with Israel. Also, the Fatah-Hamas accord may indicate that Hamas is tiring of a purely rejectionist position. Perhaps this is too optimistic, but the alternative, which is he continuation of the present situation, doesn't seem to me to be in either side's interest.

LFC said...

Two links from the Foreign Affairs site:
Danin's piece here (from Jan/Feb issue).

Daniel Levy's "Same Netanyahu, Different Israel" here -- haven't had a chance to read all of this yet.

hank_F_M said...

Thanks for the links - Levy's article puts a lot of info I have read in different places in a clear context.

A Middle East peace has to be their peace. It is not that there shouldn't be talks but they should be approached with a firm grasp of what each side can accept, not just the leadership but the whole soceitiy on both sides. And thar incldues the oppositon who will sooner or lateer come into power.

While he blames Obama there is a long string of Presidemts in both parties who have done more or less the same thing.