What will come of Secretary of State Kerry’s announcement that he has achieved agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to restart peace talks? The news that there will be—pending further clarifications—“talks” in Washington between Israeli and Palestinian emissaries says little: Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in intermittent negotiations for more then twenty years, during which time Israel has placed nearly half a million settlers, a good many of them violently aggressive nationalists, in the West Bank and built a wall cutting into Palestinian land and separating Palestinian villages from their fields and water supplies. A new round of talks may give Israel some respite from the slowly building efforts to delegitimize Israel’s territorial conquests, and from Palestinian initiatives in the UN General Assembly and the International Criminal Court.
Israel may be able to count, for the moment, on unconditional diplomatic support from the United States, but really does fear international “delegitimization.” And absent a peace process, there are constant small reminders that American support may not forever be unconditional. Last weekend at the Aspen Institute, outgoing CENTCOM commander James Mattis, a Marine general, said Israeli occupation of the West Bank directly threatened American military interests in the Mideast, and threatened to turn Israel into an “apartheid” state. David Petraeus had said the same thing a few years ago, only to quickly retreat when he came under fire from AIPAC. Does anyone doubt that this is what top American generals (not to mention, of course, diplomats) responsible for broader American interests in the Muslim world actually believe? In any case “peace talks”—a strung out process in which Israel half-heartedly negotiates with the Palestinians about statehood, might at least stall independent Palestinian diplomatic efforts.
Few observers are optimistic that “peace is at hand.” Reason one: Israel is led by a right wing coalition whose leading party has written opposition to a Palestinian statehood explicitly into its platform. Many key Israeli ministers explicitly and passionately oppose to a Palestinian state. No one who has followed Benjamin Netanyahu’s career thinks he has anything to offer the Palestinians except bantustans. There have been Israeli leaders who do want a two-state solution, and new ones might emerge again. But they aren’t in the Israeli goverment, or at least not influential within it, for the moment.
Secondly, even the so-called Israel peace camp seems to be naive about negotiations. Nathan Thrall in the New York Review of Books points to surveys in which Israeli two state solution advocates assume that settlements like Ariel and Maale Adumin would remain part of Israel under any agreement. But those settlements lie deep within the West Bank and their surrounding infrastructure would effectively deny a Palestinian West Bank state territorial contiguity.
Thirdly, the Palestinians are too weak. The PA, which seems to have been bludgeoned into agreeing to talks, lacks both democratic and popular legitimacy. At this point, the tired face of Mahmoud Abbas seems to signify an old and tired organization. Its leaders are subject to tremendous pressures, including veiled bribery. Tony Blair has been boasting of an “economic peace” paradigm which would funnel billions of dollars into the Palestinian “economy.” How much of this cash might be dangled in front of leading PA figures, who are perhaps not all completely beyond the temptations of self-enrichment? This seems an almost inevitable consequence of negotiations between such unequal parties.
Finally, there are indications are that Obama has lost whatever interest he might once have had in pushing for a just peace. To these most recent negotiations, he has evidently allowed Kerry to select Martin Indyk, one of the key figures of the failed Oslo process, to oversee the talks. Indyk is knowledgeable but hardly even handed; he has a long time emotional association with Israel, being one of the founders of the AIPAC spin-off Washington Institute. Indyk is very much in the “Israel’s lawyer” mode of American mediators. His appointment sends the signal that Obama is not going to push Israel to make concessions. (Phil Weiss wonders why it seems to be necessary that all American Mideast diplomats be Jewish.)
We will see. I believe negotiations that cleaved closely to the 1967 borders as a template could achieve a genuine breakthrough. That the seemingly intractable issue of the Palestinian “right of return” could be resolved in other ways than the immediate return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian to Israel proper. That it wouldn’t kill Israel to acknowledge the crimes of the Nakba, anymore than it any other country has been harmed from acknowledging past crimes. But look as I might, I don’t see the current Israeli government negotiating on the basis of a Palestinian state within the ’67 borders, and I don’t see an American government ready to insist upon it. In which case, the negotiations will be merely a part of the ongoing political struggle, one which also includes the incipient international movement to boycott the Israeli occupation.