A Last Chance at Middle East Peace?

A Last Chance at Middle East Peace?

The two-state solution for Israel-Palestine will disappear for good if Obama doesn’t move fast.


President-elect Obama will be the last American president who has a chance to save the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. If he does not achieve this goal during the first year of his presidency, the two-state “horizon” that George W. Bush pursued so ineptly is likely to disappear for good. But even a quick engagement by the new president will fare no better than previous US peace initiatives–all of which have gotten nowhere–if Obama and his advisers approach the task believing that some more “peace processing” or “confidence-building measures” will achieve the goal.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has defied US “facilitation” over these many years not because of procedural shortcomings or a paucity of ideas. The terms of a workable agreement–formulated in the so-called Clinton Parameters of December 2000 and elaborated in the Taba discussions that followed in January 2001–are well known and enjoy near-universal support. They call for minor rectifications in the 1949 armistice line (which served as Israel’s pre-1967 border) in order to allow Israel to retain a cluster of nearby settlements based on an agreed equal exchange of territory on both sides of the border; a capital for the new Palestinian state in Arab East Jerusalem; a limited return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel in agreed numbers that do not significantly alter Israel’s ethnic and religious balance; a nonmilitarized Palestinian state that addresses Israeli security concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty; and a US-led international force that would ensure security and assist with Palestinian nation-building for a transitional period.

What has been missing is the political will to get the parties to act on these parameters–a political and moral failure that has doomed all previous efforts. This failure has not been the result of ignorance but of cowardice–a willful disregard by Israel and successive American administrations, as well as by much of the international community, of certain unchanging fundamentals that underlie this conflict. Peace initiatives that ignore these fundamentals and seek an agreement on the cheap cannot succeed.

None of what follows is intended to excuse disastrous choices Palestinians have so often made in pursuing their struggle for statehood–from egregious failures at institution-building, to murderous violence against innocent civilians, to the more recent fratricidal warfare between Fatah and Hamas (for which Fatah’s refusal to accept the democratic choice of the Palestinian people in the parliamentary elections of 2006, and US instigation of that refusal, deserve most of the blame). Rather, it is to say that the difficult measures Palestinians must take to put their house in order will remain beyond their grasp unless they are given a credible Israeli commitment to a state alongside Israel that is “independent, viable and sovereign” by right, not as a result of Israeli generosity. And because such a state is indeed the right of the Palestinian people, its acknowledgment must precede–not follow–conditions set for its implementation.

That such a clear commitment has not been made to this day is far more revealing of Israeli intentions and US/European indifference than any number of confidence-building measures that have left entirely unchanged the Palestinians’ status as a people under the heel of a crushing and open-ended occupation. Any credibility that President Bush’s call in 2002 for a Palestinian state might have had was dissipated by his letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, in which he called for Israel’s retention of “already existing major Israeli population centers” in the West Bank.

In a recent interview following his resignation as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, a longtime right-wing Likud hawk who for many years supported Israel’s retention of “Greater Israel” and opposed the peace treaty with Egypt, shocked Israelis by endorsing views held by Israel’s hard left. Among other startling declarations (such as his newly held belief that Israel will have no peace if it does not return “all, or nearly all,” of the occupied territories or if it refuses to permit the establishment of the capital of the Palestinian state in East Jerusalem), Olmert said the reason Israel was able to reach a peace agreement with Egypt–as opposed to its failure to achieve an accord with Yasir Arafat or with Syria’s two Assads–was not Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem, as widely believed. The real reason is that well before Sadat’s visit, Israel’s celebrated chief of staff and defense minister, Moshe Dayan, at a secret meeting with Sadat’s envoy in Morocco, delivered the following two messages from Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “First, Israel is prepared to return every last inch of Egyptian territory under Israeli occupation. Second, we are ready to negotiate the implementation of that goal.” That, Olmert said, is something Israel has refused to say to the Palestinians, and that is why all previous negotiations have gotten nowhere.

By contrast, when asked in 1968 to describe his plan for the future of the occupied territories, Dayan replied, “The plan is being implemented in actual fact. What exists today must remain as a permanent arrangement in the West Bank.” A decade later, at a conference in Tel Aviv, when asked what was the solution to the occupation, he responded, “The question is not ‘What is the solution?’ but ‘How do we live without a solution?'” As noted by Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, who has monitored the settlement enterprise from its beginnings, “Living without a solution, then as now, was understood by Israel as the key to maximizing the benefits of conquest while minimizing the burdens and dangers of retreat or formal annexation.”

Of course, while in office, Olmert did nothing consistent with his newly found convictions. To the contrary, until the last moment he personally approved measures, such as authorizing further construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem, that deepened the despair of Palestinians and made a two-state solution an even more impossible fantasy.

So back to the fundamentals. The first and most decisive one is the vast discrepancy of power and influence that defines the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. It is rare for a country with the overwhelming military, diplomatic and economic advantages enjoyed by Israel to yield to demands of a near-impotent adversary without a powerful third party restoring some balance between the two. In this situation the only outside power capable of restoring that balance is the United States, because its support is unquestioned by Israelis and understood by everyone to be the country’s most important security asset–one they dare not compromise.

The four-decade colonial dynamic of the settlement enterprise has resulted in so extensive an expansion of Israel’s population into Palestinian territories as to make a Palestinian state impossible. And that, indeed, was its purpose. What is not clear is whether these “facts on the ground” established unilaterally by Israel are still reversible. Their reversibility depends entirely on whether President Obama is prepared to draw on the large political capital the United States has accumulated these past sixty years with its unstinting support of Israel to leave no doubt about his resolve to end the conflict on the basis of the existing international consensus, while at the same time fully supporting–and participating in–the measures that will be necessary to enable Israel to deal with security challenges created by such an accord. However complicated and costly, these measures hold far greater promise of protecting Israel’s security within its borders–and at lesser material and moral cost–than the perpetuation of the occupation.

American peace processors in previous administrations have repeatedly warned that an agreement imposed on the parties by outside powers would quickly fall apart. They are wrong, for the permanent-status parameters that President Obama and the international community would be advocating are based entirely on principles that both Israel and the Palestinians signed on to when they formally endorsed UN Resolutions 242 and 338, the 1993 Oslo Accords, the 2003 “road map” and the 2007 Annapolis understandings. The United States and the international community would be demanding–after forty years of Israeli and Palestinian noncompliance–only that these commitments finally be implemented.

To be effective, such a new American initiative must be based on a clear reaffirmation of the foundational principle of the road map and other previous agreements. These agreements specify that while changes in the pre-1967 situation, territorial or otherwise, may be inevitable, they will not receive US support or recognition if made unilaterally by either party. It is a principle that Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly affirmed rhetorically but never acted upon.

Particularly misguided and damaging has been the oft-repeated demand that Palestinians offer territorial concessions that match the “painful concessions” Israel’s leaders have said they are prepared to make. It is a formulation that reveals a profound misunderstanding or deliberate distortion of the history of this conflict, one that will inevitably produce a one-sided outcome that is unjust and untenable. Palestinians have not asked Israel to make territorial concessions–i.e., give up any of the territory Israel controlled between the armistice agreement of 1949 and the 1967 war–nor has Israel ever indicated it would under any circumstances consider doing so. What Palestinians have asked is that Israel return Palestinian territory on which Israel has illegally established settlements and to which it has transferred its own population, in violation of treaty obligations and international law. To describe the return of illegally expropriated Palestinian territory as Israeli “concessions” is to compromise the Palestinian case before negotiations even begin.

Indeed, it is only Palestinians who have made painful concessions. As a condition for Israel’s acceptance of the Oslo Accords, the PLO formally agreed to recognize the legitimacy of territory acquired by Israel in the war of 1948. It is a concession that reduced by fully one half the territory originally assigned to the Arab population of Palestine by the UN partition plan of 1947. Given that major Palestinian territorial concession, any new initiative that does not provide that negotiations begin at the pre-1967 armistice line and expects Palestinians to relinquish (other than in equal land swaps) even more of the 22 percent of the territory that has been left them will be stillborn.

The United States and the international community must reject the unspoken but long-dominant notion that if the parties do not reach a peace accord, the “default setting” of UN Resolutions 242 and 338 is a continuation of Israel’s occupation. If that notion were correct, its authors would have deliberately subverted the resolution’s goal by presenting Israel with an irresistible incentive to avoid a peace agreement indefinitely. The United States and the international community must therefore finally act on the resolutions’ plain logic that their default setting is a return to the status quo ante–without territorial and other changes that negotiations and a peace agreement might have produced. It is a default setting that should have kicked in long ago.

Finally, while the cessation of violence is a necessary condition for successful peace negotiations, it is an unimplementable goal absent an independent and empowered international mechanism that monitors violations by both sides. If the occupying power–with its guns trained on the occupied population–continues to serve as judge, jury and executioner, as it has for the past forty years, violence is inevitable and peacemaking will remain out of reach.

It is these fundamentals that must inform what will surely be the last US opportunity to salvage a two-state solution. Losing this opportunity will spell the end of Israel as a democratic or Jewish state; given the emerging non-Jewish majority in the territories under Israel’s control, it can no longer be both. It is difficult to understand why anyone would believe that supporting or acquiescing in that kind of outcome is an act of friendship to the State of Israel or the Jewish people.

The loss of the two-state solution would also severely damage important US national interests. Across the Arab and Muslim world, America’s perceived partiality toward Israel and indifference to Palestinian rights and suffering continue to fuel virulent anti-American sentiment. James Baker and Lee Hamilton, co-chairs of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, warned that US success in Iraq depends in part on progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran, which exploits the Palestinian plight for political gain, would welcome a failure to end the conflict to consolidate its strategic gains. Hezbollah would exploit it to justify its continued use of an independent paramilitary force in Lebanon. And failure would intensify grievances that would continue to generate sympathy and support for Al Qaeda and attract new recruits to its ranks. As far as Al Qaeda is concerned, the loss of the two-state solution would be the ultimate gift that keeps on giving.

The lesson the new administration should draw from previous failures is that peacemaking gets nowhere if it focuses on process, confidence-building and incrementalism in the absence of clear parameters that define the endgame. It is a strategy born of a lack of courage to tell Israel that its exploitation of the absence of a peace agreement to continue its confiscation of Palestinian land will no longer be tolerated by the international community.

A US initiative that goes beyond the failed “facilitation” of previous administrations to vigorous and determined diplomacy can still produce a two-state solution, but only an American president whose political and moral horizon extends beyond the next Congressional elections–and who understands that by the time those elections occur the two-state solution will have disappeared–can hope to bring this multigenerational tragedy to an end.

It remains to be seen if Barack Obama is that man.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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