Thursday, November 20, 2014

Israel is in a trap of its own making

Doubtless, it was a shock to many Israelis that the Spanish parliament recognized the state of Palestine – well sort of – on the day that two Palestinians attacked a synagogue in Jerusalem, killing four people. But even if the parliamentary resolution was a watered down version of an earlier proposal, Israeli officials should read the writing on the wall: They are losing the battle of narratives in their conflict with the Palestinians.

The Spanish move came only weeks after the Swedish government recognized a Palestinian state and the British parliament passed a motion urging the government to recognize a Palestinian state alongside Israel, to contribute to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Seven European Union or Mediterranean countries have already recognized a Palestinian state, and the French parliament is expected to do so soon.

Most of the resolutions are non-binding and have only symbolic value. But Israeli anger at their passage suggests that officials in Israel grasp the underlying message: Israel is increasingly seen as the problem, not as a willing participant in a two-state solution with the Palestinians, so that parliaments throughout Europe feel justified in pushing it in this direction.

The Israeli response has been stupidly arrogant. The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, wrote on Facebook that the “Swedish government must understand that relations in the Middle East are a lot more complex than the self-assembly furniture of IKEA and that they have to act with responsibility and sensitivity.” Yet Israel itself has for decades failed to show any real understanding of, let alone responsibility for or sensitivity to, the deep changes in the Middle East, or the repercussions of its perennial crushing of Palestinian aspirations and abuse and degradation of the Palestinian people.

Most disturbing, successive Israeli governments have found no answer to the numerical challenge posed by a rising Palestinian population whose land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is being gradually reduced by Israeli actions. Before long Israelis will have to determine what to do with a rising Palestinian population in their midst. They cannot expel them, because of the international outcry and because Palestinians could be expected to fight back; they cannot expect the growing Palestinian population to supinely accept being banished to a nominal, fragmented mini-state surrounded by Israel; and they cannot absorb Palestinians, because Israeli Jews do not want to create a demographic time bomb that ultimately transforms them into a minority.

This reality has time and again been raised with Israeli officials, to no avail. The settlement project continues, preposterously defended by Israel as merely “expansions of current settlements.” Israel is systematically seeking to reduce the Arab population of East Jerusalem. And even relations with the Obama administration have been strained, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has made no effort to compromise on its settlement plans to facilitate an understanding with Palestinians.

Instead, the Israelis have focused on Palestinian violence or shortcomings to derail progress. They have also benefited from Arab anxieties toward Iran, an enemy Israel shares with many Arab countries, to move ahead with their agenda of annexation.

To a large extent Netanyahu sees a playing field to his advantage. He remains domestically strong and the tensions with Barack Obama are sustainable at a time when the U.S. president is reeling from a Republican drubbing in Congressional elections. Those Republicans are even less likely than their Democratic counterparts to raise the heat on Israel, so that Obama stands alone. Nor has the president, typically, sought to build up a constituency in favor of his position. Like virtually everything he has touched, Obama’s efforts to isolate Netanyahu have been haphazard, half-hearted and utterly ineffective.

The chaos in the Arab world has also helped Netanyahu. Few Israelis watching what is going on all around them today have any impetus to surrender Arab land, not when their withdrawal from Gaza led to successive wars between Israel and Hamas.

In this regard, the Palestinians botched the Gaza pullout. Since the territory was overrun by Hamas in 2007, it has served as much as a political battleground between Palestinian Islamists and Fatah as between Hamas and Israel. On many occasions it was Hamas that provoked a war with the Israelis in order to undermine Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, or to satisfy the regional designs of Iran and Syria.

But under Netanyahu, Hamas and Israel have also had a parallel interest in discrediting a two-state solution in which their leaders do not believe. Netanyahu, though he has had a Palestinian partner willing to adhere to the conditions of a two-state solution, has never missed an occasion to humiliate Abbas and make his position among Palestinians untenable. Netanyahu has continued to say that he believes in peace, but the reality is that his policies and conditions have made peace virtually impossible.

Less and less is the international community willing to go along with this charade. But more important, Israelis themselves have to face the fact that without a mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem, they can only expect years of instability ahead, and almost certainly greater radicalization on both sides. Abbas’ expiration date is rapidly nearing and you can be sure that whoever comes afterward will be far less amenable to reaching a negotiated solution with Israel. Nor can Israeli Jews assume that all will remain well and unchanged with their Arab Israeli countrymen, particularly at a time when the government is demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Israel is facing a dilemma of significant proportions, and its skill at batting away any and all protests against its policies only makes matters worse. It simply offers no realistic endgame with the Palestinians, and everyone knows this. Until most Israelis agree, they can be sure that their future holds only more violence.

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