Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Israel’s policy goals make the prospect of peace impossible

Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

That sums up the shortcomings of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians during the last two decades. Again and again the US has offered the same approach – bilateral negotiations aimed at agreeing confidence-building measures that would facilitate a permanent peace settlement – with no tangible results since the late 1990s.

Whenever one discusses the peace process, the tendency is to hold both sides equally responsible. But it has become apparent, even to the Americans, paramount facilitators of negotiations, that Israeli actions on the ground are preventing any accord with the Palestinians, a situation Washington has been either unwilling or unable to change.

Barack Obama tried to address the settlements issue during his first term, by asking for and getting a temporary settlement freeze. However, he was forced to back down when opposition rose in the US Congress. This showed how vulnerable Mr Obama was domestically, and how mistaken he had been to pick a fight he could not or would not win.

Negotiations have been undermined by two series of recurring dilemmas. On the one hand, because of Israel’s fractured party politics, it is rare for an Israeli prime minister to make serious concessions on settlements without risking the collapse of his or her governing coalition, as parties opposed to returning land threaten to pull ministers out.

Of course, that’s assuming the prime minister is committed to the principle of withdrawal from the West Bank with land swaps, as well as an accord over Jerusalem. With Benjamin Netanyahu no such commitment exists.

The other side of the dilemma is that Israel’s friends in the US Congress have opposed pressure to stop and reverse Israeli settlement building. In the divisive climate in Washington, Mr Obama has had little margin to act decisively on Israel, which enjoys support on both sides of the political aisle.

Nor has the president been willing to alienate his Jewish electorate, a key component of the Democratic Party base, especially as he contemplates losing seats in this year’s congressional elections. Mr Obama’s standoffishness in the negotiations initiated by John Kerry was partly aimed at averting the Israeli-Palestinian vipers’ nest in an election year.

In this context, it is virtually impossible to move to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Instead, all we have is a recurring cycle of limited confidence-building measures that create a semblance of progress.

The US has continued to resist publicly declaring the outlines of a final settlement, the details of which would be negotiated by the parties. The American fear is that this would box Israel in, when the US believes a final deal must be reached by the parties themselves. Perhaps, but such an attitude has only helped guarantee more stalemate.

No wonder the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has sought parallel progress by gaining access to United Nations agencies and why he finalised a reconciliation deal with Hamas last week. Israel used this as a pretext to break off negotiations, but this was pure opportunism, a chance to end talks Mr Netanyahu never wanted in the first place.

Israel’s excuse that Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction was too hasty. After the reconciliation, Mr Abbas told the UN representative to the peace process, Robert Serry, that Hamas had accepted the conditions set out by the Quartet: recognition of Israel, non-violence, and adherence to previous agreements.

Hamas will probably bob and weave to fudge this acceptance. But given its weaknesses regionally, with a hostile government in Egypt and a legacy of failure in Gaza, the movement’s ability to undermine the Quartet’s conditions is much diminished.

Nothing obliged Israel to reject the Palestinian unity agreement so swiftly. Mr Netanyahu could have waited to observe the new Palestinian government’s policies before cutting off contacts.

These dynamics were always predictable, yet Washington did not change tack and Mr Obama made a minimal personal effort to push the process forward. The credibility of the US as a mediator, already greatly damaged, now lies in tatters.

Mr Kerry warned of the implications by saying that if a two-state solution failed, a “unitary state” might ensue. But as he put it last Friday, “a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state”.

Israeli officials were angry at the comparison with South Africa. But Mr Kerry was being generous. Israel has direct or indirect control over the lives of millions of Palestinians, who have been under illegal occupation for nearly half a century. The Netanyahu government’s demand that Palestinians recognise the Jewish nature of Israel can only be understood as a means of weighing the system against Israel’s own Arab citizens.

A more probable outcome is that we will see neither a two-state nor a one-state solution. Israel will create a reality that makes peace impossible. With nothing to lose, with their misery rising, a new generation of Palestinians, not of Israel nor independent of it, will consider a new war of liberation.

This will create an impossible situation for Israel. It can engage in repression, but the costs will be very high. South Africa, where a peaceful transition was possible, will become a model to follow. For as long as Israel prefers occupied land to peace, the more likely will be this nightmare scenario.

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