Thursday, August 1, 2013

Preparing for the worst in Palestine

For a journalist, writing about Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is more about duty than pleasure, like producing a royal heir. The talks between the two sides that resumed this week are no exception. The chances of success are next to nil, and yet the articles get written.

It’s odd how an Obama administration that has been hopeless on Syria and Egypt should now expend political capital on the Middle East’s Gordian knot. But even there the effort is halfhearted. President Barack Obama has left the legwork to Secretary of State John Kerry, putting virtually none of his personal credibility on the line to ensure the negotiations are a success.

Moreover, the participants will meet not in the United States, where the administration can exercise direct influence over them, but in the Middle East. The American official tasked with following up on the talks is Martin Indyk, a savvy former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and ambassador to Israel, but apparently not someone with the full weight of the president behind him.

Kerry deserves credit for having brought the two sides back to the table. But that such a basic achievement should be greeted with ululations is indicative of the profound difficulties ahead. And nothing suggests Kerry has new ideas to ensure success.

If anything, the obstacles are greater than they ever were: The Israeli population in the West Bank has increased by some 20 percent in the past five years. Defenders of the settlements hold powerful positions in the government. One of these, Naftali Bennett, is a former head of the Judea and Samaria Settlement Council. Recently, he was quoted as saying, “I’ve killed many Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.” Last June, Bennett derided the idea that a Palestinian state would be formed on land evacuated by Israel. “Never in the history of Israel have so many people invested so much energy in something so futile,” he said, before adding that “[t]he most important thing for the land of Israel is to build, build, build.”

And build Israel has, to the extent that a settlement council member, Dani Dayan, recently told the Washington Post, “I think in the last two or three years, we have passed a point of no return. ... What I mean is that from a psychological point of view, there is no going back. We are here to stay.”

Such are the attitudes with which Kerry and Indyk will have to wrestle. While some polls suggest a majority of Israelis would welcome an agreement with Palestinians, others show there is still resistance to the recent decision to release Palestinian prisoners and continued opposition to freezing settlement construction. Even Yair Lapid, the centrist finance minister who controls five portfolios in the Netanyahu government, opposes the dismantlement of large settlement blocs, even as he backs a two-state solution.

Some believe that, ultimately, the key is to accept the principle of a transfer of territories between Israelis and Palestinians, so that the larger blocs near the 1967 lines can be integrated into Israel and the Palestinians compensated elsewhere. Land swaps were endorsed by the Arab League earlier this year, in a modification of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. This helps, but the reality is that there is a higher barrier that needs to be cleared, one that transcends technical solutions: mutual mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis, and the fact that neither side seems keen to live alongside the other.

Palestinians resent more than half a century of abuse, dispossession and humiliation, and this will not soon evaporate. Israelis demand more security, but do not seem to realize that their policies today are only further intertwining their fortunes with those of the Palestinians. Unless Israelis are willing to engage in the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Jerusalem, they will continue to live next to a hostile population, increasingly radicalized by the hopelessness of their situation. Already, Palestinian leaders willing to compromise with Israel, above all Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have lost authority because they never get anything in exchange for their moderation.

Can we expect this pattern to change now that the secretary of state has gotten Israelis and Palestinians into the same room? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s track record suggests not, and he has no intention of challenging the solid majority in his government that supports the settlement enterprise. As for the Palestinians, Hamas has opposed renewed peace talks, and has rejected the land swap principle approved by the Arab states. With this degree of bad faith all around, you wonder where Kerry gets his optimism.

In fact you have to wonder why the secretary of state insists on addressing the Palestinian-Israeli challenge at this moment, when there seem to be so many other American priorities in the region. Egypt is a mess, and yet Obama’s way of dealing with it is to send Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both critics of his Syria policy, to Cairo next week to meet with Egyptian officials. In the annals of official lethargy that must stand as a milestone.

Kerry’s management of the Syria crisis is no less puzzling. While the secretary appears to want to inject clarity into the chaotic American approach to the country, many politicians in Washington, along with Obama’s chronic hesitancy, have worked against him. Kerry’s decision to shift to the Palestinian-Israeli track is a risk that may weaken him further, since any setback can and will be turned against him.

The real problem is Obama himself. The president never seems to have both hands on U.S. overseas concerns. Rather, an escape hatch is perpetually prepared to avoid his being burned by failure. No foreign policy can thrive with such a man at the helm, and certainly not a Palestinian-Israeli track forever lined with corpses of expectation.

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