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Kerry’s Quest for an Israel-Palestinian Peace: What You First Need to Know

The early reports from John Kerry’s latest trip to the Mideast, to try to breathe life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are unpromising. Few informed observers expected otherwise. Prime Minister Netanyahu treated Kerry to a lecture on the savagery of the Palestinians who would celebrate the freeing of prisoners accused of committing acts of terror. I assume […]
Kerry Netanyahu

The early reports from John Kerry’s latest trip to the Mideast, to try to breathe life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are unpromising. Few informed observers expected otherwise. Prime Minister Netanyahu treated Kerry to a lecture on the savagery of the Palestinians who would celebrate the freeing of prisoners accused of committing acts of terror. I assume Kerry did not remind Netanyahu that Israel has elected two former terrorists as its prime ministers. Foreign Policy today ran an interesting book excerpt on Israeli terrorism and the British intelligence services. In the immediate post war period, when Britain lacked coal and food, Zionist terrorism was perceived by British intelligence as its primary threat.

These are atmospherics: Netanyahu wishes to signal to his cabinet and supporters that no serious negotiations will be forthcoming, that they need not worry, Greater Israel is in good hands. Kerry will lo0k for any faint sign that the continuation of ongoing negotiations are not, as they have been for more than twenty years, a cover under which Israel can proceed with colonizing the West Bank and a slow motion ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem.

Required reading for any attempt to understand the what is at stake in the negotiations is the work of Jerome Slater, a SUNY-Buffalo professor who has written perhaps a dozen methodical, careful, footnote-rich essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His work is a model of how much one can do with a scholarly temperament and wide and careful reading in freely available English sources. One always comes away from a Slater essay enriched—whether it is a topic one thought one understood (the failure of Oslo Camp David negotiations) or knew little about (the nearly successful Israeli-Syrian negotiations of the early 1990’s).

I recently read “What Went Wrong: The Collapse of the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process,” which appeared (behind a firewall) in Political Science Quarterly in the summer of 2001. (The essay is available online to subscribers and those with access to various academic data bases). I’ve not seen anywhere a more careful and substantial debunking of the main talking points of Israeli hasbara, from the notion that the war was forced upon Israelis who in 1948 were otherwise all too happy to accept the UN’s partition resolution, to the idea that Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians everything they could conceivably have wanted for an independent state at Camp David in 2000, only to have Yasser Arafat walk away. Both propositions are simply false, though they have become–through constant media repetition—very nearly the American received wisdom. Since there is no reason to think that Bibi Netanyahu is more inclined to allow the Palestinians a viable state than Barak was, there really is little chance that Kerry’s mission will succeed—unless of course the Palestinian leadership has been sufficiently corrupted and bribed to sell out legitimate Palestinian aspirations.

Since Slater’s exemplary scholarship is not easily available on the internet, I will quote at length several of his paragraphs, which challenge the conventional wisdom but should be part of it.

The evidence is now irrefutable that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and the other leading Zionists “accepted” the UN compromise only as a necessary tactical step that would later be reversed, a base from which Israel would later expand to include all of biblical Palestine. In many private statements, Ben-Gurion was quite explicit, as in a 1937 letter to his son: “A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish state will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety. . . . We shall organize a modern defense force . . .and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means. . . . We will expel the Arabs and take their places . . . with the force at our disposal.” A year later, Ben-Gurion told a Zionist meeting: “I favor partition of the country because when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine.” And “Palestine,” as understood by the Zionists, included the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, and much of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Or this, assaying the readiness of the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin to make peace:

Two years after the Oslo agreements were signed, Rabin announced his detailed plans for a permanent settlement with the Palestinians: there would no return to the pre-1967 borders; a united Jerusalem, including the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, would remain under exclusive Israeli sovereignty;most of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would remain there, under Israeli sovereignty; free access to and military control over the settlements would be assured by a series of new roads to be built throughout the territories; Israel’s security border “in the broadest meaning of that term” would be the Jordan River, meaning that Israel would retain settlements and military bases in the Jordan River valley, deep inside Palestinian territory. What the Palestinians would get was an “entity” that would be the “home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. . . . We would like this to be . . . less than a state.” In the next year, Rabin began implementing this peace plan, under which the Palestinians would end up with a series of isolated enclaves on less than 50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, cut off fromeach other and surrounded by Israeli settlers and military bases. Jewish settlement in an ever-expanding Jerusalemcontinued, including in Arab areas, and the massive road building project got under way, often requiring the confiscation and destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards. Astonishingly, under Rabin the growth of the Jewish settlements was greater than it had been under the previous hardline Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir.

Or this, on the Ehud Barak and the “perfect offer” given to Arafat at Camp David in the summer of 2000:

The first difficulty in assessing Camp David, as well as subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that continued until just before the February elections,is that all of Barak’s proposals were verbal; evidently seeking to keep all his options open, even as he was supposedly negotiating a final settlement, Barak refused to allow the creation of an official record. As a result, even the participants at Camp David and at subsequent meetings have differing accounts of precisely what Barak offered… . [snip]

It is true that Barak’s proposal went further than any other previous Israeli offer to the Palestinians, especially in agreeing to a Palestinian state and to the sharing of at least part of Jerusalem. On the other hand, it is no less true that Barak’s proposals fell far short of a genuinely fair compromise that would result in a viable Palestinian state. Within a few weeks of Camp David, a number of Israeli political analysts had reached this conclusion. Particularly revealing was the forthright assessment of Ze’ev Schiff, the dean of Israel’s military/security journalists and a centrist in the Israeli political spectrum. According to Schiff, because of Barak’s ongoing violations of the spirit of the Oslo agreements—“above all . . . the relentless expansion of the existing settlements and the establishment of new settlements, with a concomitant expropriation of Palestinian land . . . in and around Jerusalem, and elsewhere as well”—the Palestinians had been “shut in from all sides.” Thus, Schiff concluded, “the prospect of being able to establish a viable state was fading right before their eyes. They were confronted with an intolerable set of options: to agree to the spreading occupation . . . or to set up wretched Bantustans, or to launch an uprising.” As both the Palestinians and Israeli political analysts began to draw up detailed maps, it became evident not only that Gaza and the West Bank would be divided by the State of Israel, but that each of those two areas would in turn be divided into enclaves by the Israeli settlements, highways, and military positions, the links between which “would always be at the mercies of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers.” With little or no control over its water resources, with no independently controlled border access to neighboring countries, and with even its internal freedom of movement and commerce subject to continued Israeli closures, the already impoverished Palestinian state would be economically completely dependent on—and vulnerable to—Israel.

In greater detail, this is what the consequences of Barak’s proposals would have been:

Borders. First, the Jerusalem “metropolitan area,” which since 1967 had been expanded to include almost one-fifth of the entire West Bank, would now be incorporated into the city. The eastern boundaries of this “Greater Jerusalem” and the other newly annexed settlements would reach almost to the Palestinian town of Jericho, itself only a short distance from the Jordan River and at Camp David and at subsequent meetings have differing accounts of precisely what Barak offered. Still, there is general agreement on the main Dead Sea. The net effect of these Israeli facts on the ground would be to split the West Bank nearly in half. Second, the so-called blocs of settlements that Barak proposed to annex were ten times the area of Tel Aviv and contained Palestinian villages whose population of some 120,000 was actually greater than the settler population. What would happen to that Arab population? Since it was inconceivable that Israel would want to incorporate a large number of new Arab citizens into the Jewish state, presumably they would be relocated or transferred by one means or another, thereby adding still further to the refugee problem, with all the moral and practical problems that would entail. Third, the land that Barak proposed to give to the Palestinian state in a territorial exchange was only about 10 percent of what Israel was taking from the Palestinians. Moreover, it was empty desert. By contrast, the land that Israel would annex was relatively fertile; even more important, it contained most of the West Bank underground water aquifers—precisely why the settlements had been put there in the first place.

Israeli military control. The independence of the Palestinian state would have been severely compromised—perhaps nullified—by the continuation of Israeli military control throughout the new state. Under the terms of Barak’s proposals, Israel would continue to control all of Palestine’s border access points with the outside world; would continue to patrol and protect all the Jewish settlements that remained in place in the West Bank, and perhaps even in Gaza; and would remain for at least six years—perhaps indefinitely, for all Palestinians knew—throughout the Jordan River valley.

Jerusalem. The situation in Jerusalem would have been intolerable for the Palestinians—and not simply for religious or symbolic reasons. As noted, Barak insisted that the Palestinians accept all of Israel’s “facts on the ground” since 1967, except that they would be given sovereignty over the remaining Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The problem was that these neighborhoods would be isolated and impoverished enclaves, cut off not only from the rest of the Palestinian state but even from each other by the Jewish neighborhoods, roads, and military outposts. Since 1967 it had been Israeli policy to establish Jewish political and economic control over all of Jerusalem and to create conditions that would convince the Arab residents to leave. To this end, highly subsidized Jewish neighborhoods were built in East Jerusalem, while the Arab neighborhoods were left in poverty, denied economic assistance and even most city services. As a result, even if Arafat had agreed to Barak’s proposals, long-run prospects for Jewish-Arab stability in the context of such extreme political, social, and economic inequality would have been dismal.

Some former Jerusalem city officials and city planners, including Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti, now openly admit that this was the purpose of Israel’s policies. For example, see a major but little-remarked story in the New York Times on 15 March 1997, in which a number of current and former Israeli officials admitted that “political planning” and “lopsided development strategies” had been employed to ensure Jewish dominance over Jerusalem and to encourage the Palestinians to move out of the city into neighboring West Bank towns. Even long-time Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek, who in the past had claimed he did everything he could to help the Jerusalem’s Arab population, spoke quite differently in an 10 October 1990 interview with the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv. The Arabs of East Jerusalem, he bluntly admitted, had become “second and third class citizens,” for whom “the mayor [that is, Kollek himself] nurtured nothing and built nothing. For Jewish JerusalemI did something. . . . For East Jerusalem? Nothing!”

Barak’s Camp David proposals effectively perpetuated Israel’s control over most of the West Bank’s water, since the most important aquifers would be incorporated into the newly annexed Israeli territory. If for no other reason, this made the Barak plan intolerable to the Palestinians, and a strong indication that Barak continued to resist the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state.

Here and in other essays Slater provides detailed opinions about other sticking points in the negotiations, including the Palestinian “right of return” and Israel’s demand that Palestinians recognize it as “a Jewish state”. He believes that these are far from insurmountable obstacles, subject to compromise and symbolic actions—provided that there is sufficient Israeli good will and realism to actually leave the Palestinians with a viable (if largely disarmed) state at the end of the negotiation. I tend to agree, though we are likely never find out so long as Israel can contemplate no more than an archipelago of Palestinian bantustans.

The real question is whether the liberal Zionist convictions of someone like Slater have already been overtaken by events, or as it happens, by the construction of Israeli settlements. Already much of the Palestinian population has moved on from the desire to build small state on the 22 percent remnant of Palestine, to placing their hopes on the idea that a broad based, international campaign for boycott and divestment will tear down Israel’s walls. South Africa is not an exactly similar case, but it is not entirely dissimilar either.

In any case, any realistic assessment of Kerry’s latest efforts—which I believe are probably doomed—requires some sense of what has gone before. To this, there are few better sources than Jerry Slater’s work.