“Resetting” the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?

It comes as no revelation to report that the efforts of the Obama administration to move the on-again, but mostly off-again peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is currently going nowhere. Cynicism and pessimism has set in on both sides of the equation suggesting that neither the Israelis or Palestinians are willing or able (or both) to make the kinds of concessions necessary to vitalize the talks (people like to talk about revitalizing them, but when were did they ever have real life?). Over sixty years after the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors (as they were originally designated, not as Israel and Palestine), both sides are deeply suspicious of the motives and sincerity of the other regarding meaningful and acceptable bargains. These perceptions are probably largely correct on both sides.

The Obama administration, with George Mitchell as the not very sharp tip of the spear, has been trying to move the situation toward the two-state solution in some form, with a cessation of additional building and the willingness to abandon some or all Israeli “settlements” on the West Bank as its centerpiece.

The problem is, and has been, that although majorities (smaller in Israel, except among Israeli Arabs) on both sides support a “two state for two peoples” solution, neither can agree on exactly what the parameters of such a deal would entail. The devil is decidedly in the details. Moreover, the political winds regarding solutions are shifting as well. In an article in the current edition (December 2010) of Current History, for instance, Tamar Hermann details these changes, which include a vast weakening of Israeli political parties and a movement to the political right generally among Israelis. The right, of course, has formed the basic opposition to movement toward a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, at least on terms the Palestinians are likely to accept. Within that has become an almost institutionalized atmosphere of distrust and cynicism on both sides, the result has been an enormous inertial force that the Obama administration has proven unable to start moving.

Inertia, of course, serves the purposes of those on the political right in Israel, at least in the short run. The electoral base of Igvador Lieberman’s Beit Yisreal is based on settler (especially immigrant settler) support, which opposes a Palestinian state and backs expanded settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares opposition to negotiating away the West Bank because, as Hermann puts it, “Israel’s control of the occupied territories is in Netanyahu’s view justified by two equally important arguments: the Jews’ historical claim to the promised landand the constant existential threats that faces them.” The validity of these arguments is almost beside the point; the point is that these positions are now the Israeli positions and ones from which the leadership is not likely to budge. The Americans (and certainly the Palestinians) may not like this,but there is little they can do short of threatening a breach of relations with Israel, a position that is politically untenable in the United States.

It is within this setting that a confident Netanyahu has suggested a “reset” of the terms of negotiation between the parties. This position starts from the premise that fundamental territorial adjustments (e.g. abandonment of all or most West Bank settlements) is no longer a viable basis for an agreement, and that some other basis (a “reset”) must form that basis. Neither the Obama administration or the Palestinians are exactly ecstatic about this position, but there it is.

Among the more innovative proponents of a reset has been Lieberman, the controversial Israeli foreign minister. He has suggested, for instance, the cessation of a small amount of occupied territory to the Palsetinians that would leave the larger and more prominent settlements intact. In particular, he suggests ceding an area near the old pre-1967 border within Palestine known as the Triangle and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jeruslaem into the Palestinian state. According to Sergio DellaPergola (also writing in the December 2010 Current History), the Triangle contains an Arab population of 300,000 and 275,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem, thus adding nearly 600,000 Arabs to the Palestinian state.

Lieberman’s proposal has not gained great traction. Other Israelis consider the ceding of any part of Jerusalem unacceptable, and Palestinians counter that it still leaves much too much of the West Bank under Israeli occupation and control. It is probably as great a concession as the current Israeli government might be willing to make, and it looks like it is not enough.

There seem to be two realities at work here, neither of which bode well for progress toward peace. One is that the current framework for negotiations is not working, mostly because neither of the main proponents truly wants the framework to succeed (or is unwilling to take the steps to make it work, which in effect is the same thing). The other is that some alternative base–a “reset”–appears to be needed to get the talks moving, and nobody has found an acceptable reset button. The simplest and, applying the principle of Occam’s Razor, most likely reason is because neither side wants a permanent settlement worse than the present situation. Until that changes, pushing reset buttons will continue to be an exercise in futility.

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One Response to ““Resetting” the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process?”

  1. william bilek, m.d. Says:

    The information offered in this blog contains several inaccuracies, and, as a result, misses crucial points.

    1) It claims: “the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors (as they were originally designated, not as Israel and Palestine). This is incorrect. In U.N. G.A. 181, Part 1; Section A; Par. 3, it clearly states the recommendation that “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in Part III of this Plan, shall come into existence in Palestine.”

    It is crucially important to note the term used by the U.N.,”a Jewish state”, as well as Britain and the League of Nations before, “a homeland for the Jewish people”.

    2) The blog incorrectly claims that: “majorities (smaller in Israel, except among Israeli Arabs) on both sides support a “two state for two peoples” solution.” While both the Israeli government, and the overwhelming majority of the electorate of Israel support this goal, the Palestinians have NEVER agreed to it. The have agreed to a “two-state plan”, which specifically avoids the concept of “another people”, or a “Jewish people”. Thus, they will not have to declare an end to the conflict; they will not have to give up the right of return for refugees; and they continue to work towards the goal of a Palestinian Arab state to REPLACE the Jewish state, beginning with a purely Arab Palestine, next to an Arab-majority Israel.

    3) “The right, of course, has formed the basic opposition to movement toward a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, at least on terms the Palestinians are likely to accept.” This statement ignores the fact that the Left Wing of Israeli politics, in the persons of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinians just about everything they said they wanted, and probably more than the general Israeli electorate would accept, if and when it came to a vote, but it was still not enough for the Palestinians. Apparently, the MOST the Israelis can offer, is less than the LEAST that the Palestinians will accept. The Right Wing has always acted on the basis of the Likud Charter, which basically claims all of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people, as they believe it was promised in the Balfour Declaration. For the first time, in July 2009, Netanyahu abandoned that basic plank of the Right Wing policies, and called for “two states for two people”, and instituted a partial settlement freeze. This, too, was rejected.

    4) “Israel’s control of the occupied territories is in Netanyahu’s view justified by two equally important arguments: the Jews’ historical claim to the promised landand the constant existential threats that faces them.” In fact, Netanyahu has clearly come out in support of two states for two people, with security limitations.

    5) “This position starts from the premise that fundamental territorial adjustments (e.g. abandonment of all or most West Bank settlements) is no longer a viable basis for an agreement,”

    “The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, last night said for the first time he would accept an independent Palestinian state, but only on condition it was demilitarised and that the Palestinians recognised Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem guardian.co.uk, Sunday 14 June 2009

    “In a half-hour speech broadcast live in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the conservative Likud Party, laid out what he called his “vision of peace”: “In this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.” NY Times.

    “We have brought a national agreement on the idea of ‘two states for two peoples’ and the outlines of the agreement are, first of all, that the Palestinians will need to recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. This says that the problem of the refugees will be resolved outside the State of Israel and that Israel needs — and will receive — defensible borders, and includes the full demilitarization of the Palestinian territory.” Netanyahu in cabinet Meeting.

    5) “In particular, he suggests ceding an area near the old pre-1967 border within Palestine known as the Triangle and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jeruslaem into the Palestinian state.” The 1949 armistice lines were never, at Arab insistence, to be constituted as a “border” . Nor was there on the other side of the armistice lines ever a country called “Palestine”. It was Jordanian-occupied unallocated land.

    These, and other misconceptions widely promulgated, serve only to obfuscate the single, major obstacle to resolving the conflict, and misidentify the crux of the conflict as a territorial or religious issue.

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