Losing the Peace
Triumphant Israel need cut no deals with Palestinians—which spells disaster for the Jewish State.
By Scott McConnell
On the night of Jan. 28, as revolutionary crowds began to shake the foundations of the Mubarak regime, a friend on the occupied West Bank sent out an e-mail. He had spent the day in a Ramallah café with Palestinians, who cheered each time the Al-Jazeera feed showed an Egyptian police vehicle hit by a Molotov cocktail. The Palestine Papers—leaked documents detailing the Palestinian Authority’s suppliant efforts to negotiate an independent state with Israel’s previous government—had been released only days before, but they were already old news. The PA didn’t matter, the negotiations didn’t matter. The café crowd seemed intuitively to recognize that the Egyptian upheaval would change their world, in ways impossible to predict.
Palestine is occupied by America’s ally Israel, and Palestinian bids for liberation, whether peaceful—as in the 1987 Intifada—or armed, have invariably been spurned by America. Might Egypt’s revolution alter that equation, freeing the clogged arteries of American discourse and focusing attention for the first time on Arab demands for justice? While it is too early to tell, it was clear, even before the January rising, that the American-sponsored peace process had exhausted its possibilities.
Two weeks earlier, I had been in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank as part of a fact-finding delegation of Churches for Middle East Peace. CMEP is an earnest group, representing a broad coalition of Christian churches. For a generation it has advocated the so-called two-state solution, an Israel living in peace with secure and recognized borders beside its Palestinian neighbor, with Jerusalem accessible as a holy city to three faiths. The consensus view of our delegation, and certainly my own impression, was that a two-state solution had never been more remote since the Oslo process began 20 years before.
I had visited Israel and the occupied territories as part of a similar delegation five years earlier. Then we heard many say that the window for a two-state solution was closing rapidly. But a sense of hope remained. The two-state solution—the simplest way to deliver security and a modicum of justice to both peoples—seemed achievable. Hamas had won an election, but Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, were still speaking to one another. Gaza had not been severed from the West Bank. In recent memory there had been fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, most notably at the Sinai town of Taba, evidence that an agreement acceptable to both sides was in reach.
On this trip, there was no such optimism. No discussions were taking place between the parties, nor was there prospect of any. As the Palestine Papers reveal, the heart of the impasse is Israel’s insistence on retaining settlements on land the Palestinians would need so their state could be contiguous, not a hodgepodge of townships separated by Israeli-controlled roads, settlements, and checkpoints. Underlying Israel’s position is not fear but the country’s sense of its strength. Israel was once shaken by the Intifada of 1987-1988, a rolling wave of protest throughout Gaza and the West bank that galvanized the West to get a meaningful peace process going. And though the Palestinians suffered far more deaths than Israel in the second, more violent uprising of 2001-2002, Israel too had significant casualties.
But Israel is no longer vulnerable to Palestinian actions. The Palestinian population is now geographically divided: one and a half million in Gaza, which resembles a large prison whose borders, airspace, and seacoast, access to food, building materials, and the technology to acquire drinking water are controlled by Israel. The most favored group of Palestinians lives in Israel proper, where it faces discrimination in housing, education, and employment but enjoys the basic framework of Israeli citizenship rights. The Palestinian majority is in the West Bank, shuttered behind a formidable separation wall routed so as to sever Palestinian villages from land and water resources Israel covets.
The West Bank is divided into three administrative zones—some Palestinians live under Israeli military rule, where they face regular harassment from settlers, ranging from the uprooting of their olive trees to gun violence. In the last week of January, two young Palestinians were shot by West Bank settlers, one killed, one critically wounded. Israeli perpetrators of such acts are virtually never brought to trial, much less punished. Most Palestinian live under semi-autonomous towns now policed by the Palestinian Authority. But all live under the some degree of Israeli control, which dictates whether they can enter and leave the West Bank, move from one town to another, or access their own natural resources.
From Israel’s perspective, the separation wall has been a striking success. Israel no longer feels any need to make peace with the Palestinians. As Robert Malley and Hussein Agha succinctly put it in the New York Review of Books, the Palestinian Authority “is attempting to persuade Israel to make peace with a party with which it is no longer at war.” Israel is safe and thriving. “[L]ittle remains of the foundational principle that each side has something of value to which the other aspires and thus something it can exchange for what it wants … Israel has become accustomed to the way things are.”
Israeli liberals with whom CMEP spoke readily acknowledged this. According to polling by the Geneva Initiative, an Israeli group that advocates a two-state solution based upon borders conforming to previous negotiations and UN resolutions, a majority of Israelis would support a settlement based roughly on the 1967 boundaries. But this 54 percent does not translate into an Israeli political majority because for many “peace” has become a fifth- or sixth-order priority. More than once our delegation heard the phrase “complacency culture” used to depict Israelis in secular Tel Aviv—those most inclined to tell pollsters they favor a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
The occupation is dynamic, not static. It changes week by week, but its overall tendency is towards taking more Palestinian land and putting more pressure on Palestinian lives. Israel no longer wants to hear about it: Israeli human rights groups that monitor conditions in the occupied territories are now criticized as traitorous fifth columnists by elements of the Israeli ruling coalition. The government evicts Palestinian residents from their homes in Jerusalem, while private organizations with government links move settlers into Arab neighborhoods. In the rural West Bank, settlers press on Palestinians every day, seizing wells, uprooting trees.
During our trip we heard that Israeli bureaucrats had withdrawn the Jerusalem residency permit of the Anglican archbishop, a man of Palestinian origin. Augusta Victoria, the Lutheran hospital on Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus that specializes in advanced cancer treatment, has been forced recently to jump through one newly concocted Israeli administrative hoop after another to continue treating patients from Gaza and the West Bank. These are institutions with strong international ties and considerable ability to defend themselves. Israel’s assaults on them are symptomatic of a larger pressure brought to bear by almost every arm of the Israeli state, whose goal seems inexorably to squeeze educated Palestinians out of their native land.
The tip of the spear is the far-right settler movement. Before American audiences, Israeli spokesmen present settlement as a banal activity—a desire to live close to one’s parents, have a bit more space, a more favorable mortgage. No doubt this is the case for many of Israel’s settlers. But the most active element is fiercely ideological, fueled by a racist zealotry that would shock most Americans if they were aware of it. This component of Israel is committed not simply to living on the West Bank but to driving the Palestinians off it. And yet it is they whom the Israeli government supports, even at the cost of confrontation with Washington. Here are some examples of the spirit of this new Israel.
- Last winter, Israel evicted a Palestinian family from the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. A group of ideological settlers were moved in. On one of their first nights in their new neighborhood, they held a loud party, singing songs in praise of Israeli mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire on Muslim worshipers in Hebron 15 years earlier.
- Several weeks ago, the Israeli Bereaved Families Forum brought a group of Palestinian grandmothers who had lost children in the conflict to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum. At the entrance to the museum, a group of Israeli teens recognized the women as Arabs, surrounded them, and shouted “Sharmouta”—the Arab slang term for whore—at the elderly women.
- After the settlement freeze expired last fall, West Bank settlers began laying foundations for new homes at a dizzying pace. An online video posting from one Eliyokim Cohen, a settler from Framingham, Massachusetts, captured the spirit of many of them. “I am detested by 99 percent of the world’s population because God gave me this land a few thousand years ago and I came back and claimed it,” Cohen said. “If you look down in the valley there you’ll see Muslim occupied Israel. I’ve already picked out the home I’m going to take over there as soon as we drive them out.”
Of course, most Israelis are not aggressive religious fanatics. But Israel’s current government empowers those who are.
None of CMEP’s conversations revealed a horizon for restarting meaningful peace talks. When we asked what Americans could do, we were told on two occasions to try to influence prominent American Zionists, as these are the only voices to which Israel listens. The Palestinian Authority, despite its readiness to cede to Israel “the biggest Yerushalayim in Jewish history” as its negotiator Saeb Erekat described it, is unable to accept a non-contiguous Bantustan-type state; if it did, the agreement would have no legitimacy in the Palestinian politics or the Arab world.
Despite President Obama’s past eloquence about the need to end Palestinian statelessness, he has proved unable to move Israel: his ties to the Israel lobby—or more plausibly, his party’s dependence on Israel lobby linked donors—bend him towards Tel Aviv’s wishes. Dennis Ross, the diplomat who has compiled an extraordinary 20-year record of failure as a peace negotiator—interspersed by stints working for right-wing Israeli think tanks—has again been moved to the center of the America’s “peace-making” efforts, a guarantee that the administration will put no pressure on Israel.
So long as the peace process remains a triangular enterprise between Washington, the Israeli government, and a powerless Palestinian entity in Ramallah, there will be no movement.
In the past decade however, there have important stirrings beyond this barren circle. First and perhaps most importantly, there is an emerging sense in Europe that Israel has been indulged long enough. Israel is highly dependent on West European trade and would certainly take notice if its exporters were required to prove their goods weren’t manufactured or grown in the occupied territories. The wheels of diplomacy turn slowly, but turn they do: in recent months, European Union president Catherine Ashton deplored both Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem and the imprisonment of nonviolent Palestinian activists on the West Bank. Britain’s foreign minister William Hague has visited the site of peaceful demonstrations against the wall. France’s foreign minister has denounced Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Such diplomatic demarches are only a beginning, but they reflect European popular sentiment and are likely to grow.
In cultural terms, European disenchantment with Israel has progressed further: leading performers have cancelled appearances in Israel in solidarity with a quickening Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement that seeks to subject Israel to the kinds of pressures brought upon apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
In the Mideast, Israel is rapidly losing the few allies it once had. Turkey, long Israel’s most important friend in the region, was outraged by Israel’s Gaza massacre in 2008, and further infuriated by the Israeli assault, which killed nine Turks, on a vessel seeking to break the Gaza blockade. Until now, Israel’s sole remaining regional ally was the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak—a legacy of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Anwar Sadat had not intended to make a peace at Palestinian expense, but he did; under his successor, Egypt became a silent partner in the Israeli occupation and helps Israel enforce the blockade of Gaza. This degree of collaboration is unpopular in Egypt—some protest signs in Cairo’s Liberation Square called for Mubarak to exile himself to Tel Aviv. A more democratic Egypt would almost certainly be less compliant towards Israel.
Add to this the growing rejection of the occupation in many pockets of global civil society. Examples surface in the most surprising places. In Jerusalem, CMEP met an American evangelical pastor who serves as witness to settler assaults on Palestinians in the occupied territories—a figure all but unimaginable a decade ago. He will shortly return to the United States to speak about what he has seen, and there will probably be more like him. The disaffection of prominent liberal Jewish intellectuals from Washington’s “Israel is always right” axiom has been widely remarked upon. On many elite campuses, there are now significant Palestine solidarity organizations, drawing as members Muslims, Jews, and Christians in roughly equal measure.
Taken collectivity, these phenomena, which some Israelis have labeled “delegitimization,” are a source of much anxiety. While Israel’s power over the Palestinians is greater than it ever was, the country is still viewed in its region as unwanted—indeed, as temporary. Israel’s fears about its growing moral isolation are understandable, even as it is obvious—except, perhaps, to most Israelis—that Israel has been delegitimizing itself through its own actions: in particular through its high-tech assaults on its neighbors, its failure to take advantage of a 20-year window to make peace with the Palestinians, and its decision to ignore the Arab League’s peace initiative, put forth in 2002 and reaffirmed in 2007.
The Palestinians may have no leverage to persuade Israel—and must by now realize they have little with Washington. But they do hold one important key, as important as the keys many retain from the family homes they lost in 1948. Through the Palestinians runs the only path to Israel’s acceptance in the region, its legitimization; indeed, it difficult to imagine how Israel would ever be accepted without reaching a just peace with them.
In a recent forum at Washington’s New American Foundation, Chas Freeman—the gifted American diplomat who was blocked by the protests of the Israel lobby from serving in the administration post for which Obama had selected him—related conversations he once had with an prominent Israeli leader, whom he didn’t name. The Israeli was haunted by the history of Muslim Spain, which for decades shunned opportunities to make peace with the comparatively backward Christian principalities that bordered it. No compromise was necessary: Muslim Spain was too powerful to need it. Now, of course, there is no Muslim Spain.
For the moment, Israel’s military power in the region has no peer. No other state comes close. But many of Israel’s most capable citizens, perhaps 20 percent of them, now choose to live abroad; they are replaced with zealous settler types like the Massachusetts native described above. The closing of the two-state window is a tragedy for this generation of Palestinians and must be counted as a major setback for American diplomacy and influence. But looking at the broader trends, the greatest loser is likely to be Israel itself.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.