Israel at a Crossroads

Israel’s occupation of the West bank raises the question of whether the Jewish state wants peace.  Fifty years later, apartheid policies pose a threat not only to the future of the Palestinian people, but also of Israeli democracy.

Israeli settler in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, Feb. 28, 2017. Atef Safadi/European Press Agency

The Arab defeat in the 1967 war brought Palestinians under Israeli occupation. A half-century later, Palestinians have tried it all—from civilian resistance to armed uprisings, from suicide terrorism to missile warfare, from peace negotiations to international diplomacy—to no avail. Nothing has stopped the expansionist drive of the occupier; Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands beyond the so-called Green Line, which demarcates the Jewish state’s pre-1967 borders, continue to grow. A Palestinian state in the West Bank looks less and less viable.

The question is today inevitable: does Israel want peace? Forward-looking Israeli governments under Ehud Barak and, later, Ehud Olmert, came close to meeting the core requirements of Palestinian nationalism, but were defeated by a combination of domestic opposition and Palestinian intransigence on issues like the right of return and the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites. In recent years under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s priorities have clearly shifted away from reaching a comprehensive settlement with Palestinians. While Netanyahu did undertake negotiations at different points during the Barack Obama presidency, he was never willing to come close to the proposals that had been made by previous leftwing Israeli governments, which the Palestinians had anyway rejected. Netanyahu also introduced the pre-condition of asking the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—which they could not accept—in order to both neutralize the demand for a Palestinian right of return and eventually derail the whole peace process.

Much of the failure to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians has to do with the tragic inconsistencies of the 1993 Oslo Accord upon which the entire peace process was built. Essentially built on the unequal relations between the occupied and the occupier, Oslo was bound to crash into the rock of conflicting national dreams.
Settlements are an Israeli march of folly that goes not only against international law but also against Israel’s moral and political interests. Yet it is not too late to reach a settlement: 80 percent of Israeli settlers are still concentrated in blocks of settlements adjacent to the Green Line. The conventional premise has always been that these could be annexed to Israel provided they are swapped with land on the other side of the Green Line. Both the Barak and the Olmert governments proposed such swaps.

Oslo’s Blind Alley
The incremental nature of the Oslo process left wide open the shape of the final agreement in the perception of the Israelis, and hence encouraged successive governments to persist in their policy of creating a grand fait accompli in the occupied territories: a dense map of settlements in the West Bank that narrowed the living space for the Palestinian people, and destroyed their faith in the peace process.

The hallmark of the post-Oslo years was the fatal symmetry between settlements and terrorism. Loyal to the old Zionist philosophy according to which the last kindergarten also defines the political border, the Israelis tried to influence the nature of any final agreement with a hectic policy of settlement expansion into Palestinian lands. The Palestinians responded with terrorism.

The negotiating process for a final settlement fell victim also to the conflicting interpretations as to what exactly were the exact premises upon which it was built. The Israelis came to the negotiations with the conviction inherent in the letter of the Oslo Accords that this was an open-ended process where no preconceived solutions existed. For the Palestinians, they represented a simple, clear-cut process of decolonization based on “international legitimacy” and “relevant UN resolutions.”

Neither Yitzhak Rabin nor Shimon Peres ever thought that the peace process would usher in a full-fledged Palestinian state. Constructive ambiguity facilitated an agreement in Oslo at the price of creating potentially irreconcilable misconceptions with regard to the final settlement. The Israeli negotiators of a final status agreement at Camp David and Taba came to solve the problems created by the 1967 war, and were surprised to discover that the intractable issues of 1948, first and foremost that of the refugees’ right of return, were now high on the Palestinian agenda.

A Two-State Trap
Unlike peace efforts with the Arab states, especially in the case of Egypt and Jordan, which have been strictly political undertakings based on restitution of territory, peacemaking with the Palestinians is not just a matter of land in exchange for peace. It is an attempt to almost break the genetic code of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and perhaps even of the Jewish-Muslim dispute, by touching upon religious and historical rights of ownership.

Even so, why has peace in Palestine been such a tragically elusive enterprise? Almost every opinion study in both Israel and Palestine has always shown an unequivocal support for the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Yet, at the moment of truth when reasonable solutions—the Clinton Peace Parameters of 2000, and Ehud Olmert peace proposals of 2008—were on the table, the delusion of some better deal in the future prevailed. Today, while Israel drifts rightward and away from peace initiatives, Palestinians lack leadership and a legitimate partner for peacemaking.

The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian peace conundrum is that while the two-state solution is where the salvation of both national movements truly lies, it is at the same time highly unattractive to them. A mini-Palestinian state would be sandwiched between two skeptical neighbors, Israel and Jordan, both deeply suspicious of its future evolution. Nor would the Palestinian state that Israel could agree to be able to satisfy the Palestinian constituent ethos of the Right of Return and its quest for justice. Hence, such a state might be seen as illegitimate even among sizable segments of the Palestinian nation at home and in the diaspora.

The Palestinian national movement lacks today a coherent and cohesive sense of purpose. The two-state idea is not a constituent article at the root of the national Palestinian narrative; its political father and its major source of legitimacy, Yasser Arafat, is no longer there to give the necessary cohesion to a movement that has lost its way, that is fragmented, and whose political spinal cord, Fatah, the party that led the shift to the idea of partition, is broken, practically nonexistent. The carriers of the two-state idea, the Oslo leadership, represent the monumental deception that came with it, and they suffer from a very dangerous deficit of legitimacy.

As for the Israelis, a two-state solution would mean a return to what Abba Eban, not exactly a hawk, defined as Auschwitz borders. Moreover, such a settlement would entail a sociopolitical earthquake of untold dimensions, for it would require a massive evacuation of settlers, and might lead to civil strife and military disobedience in an army replete these days with national-religious officers and troops intimately attached to the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria. And all this in order to go back to borders nobody has a special nostalgia for with a neighbor nobody truly trusts.

The Israelis do not believe the Palestinians would be able to prevent Hamas from taking over the West Bank and becoming an outpost of Iran only a few kilometers from Tel Aviv. And neither believes that Israel will be able to dismantle and relocate more than 100,000 Messianic settlers who live beyond the so-called settlement blocs.
Nor can the old concept of a Palestinian demilitarized state satisfy Israel today because the new weapons can easily bypass any monitoring mechanisms. Given the lessons from Gaza, the security requirements of Israel will be extremely difficult to reconcile with the Palestinian idea of what is exactly a sovereign state.

Israel’s Fig Leaf
For too long, the peace process served as a curtain behind which Israel’s policy of practical annexation has flourished. The settlers movement continues as strong as ever. Settlers and their allies on the Israeli right are by no means alone in their conviction that Zionism always flew in the face of reality; it succeeded because it ignored reality and will continue to do so.

Underlying the very serious question of the settlements is a an even more serious problem that has to do with the involvement of the entire Israeli body politic in maintaining and continuously expanding a regime of coercion and discrimination in the territories. This is a regime of dominance that has the drive and traits of permanence. It would require a truly historic leadership to dismantle and get rid of.

But Israel’s reluctance to invest in peace, and the increased space that this affords for rightwing settler movements as a result, did not spring up overnight. It was the Second Intifada that should be seen as the fatal watershed that destroyed Israel’s peace constituency and radically shifted popular opinion to the right and far right. Exposed to indiscriminate waves of suicide terrorism, the Israelis lost any hope of a negotiated settlement and in their despair succumbed to a new self-defeating political religion, that of unilateral disengagement. Humiliated by Israeli retribution, with the backbone of their society broken, and in response to the sad vicissitudes of deficient governance, the Palestinians embraced the militant organization Hamas as a legitimate option.

The Intifada forced the Israelis to turn their back to the Palestinians, erase them from their consciousness, imprison them behind impenetrable walls while keeping for themselves the essential parts of the land required for their settlements and rising security needs. For the Israeli right, particularly under Prime Minister Netanyahu, the peace process is now about how to achieve such expansionist goals under the mantle of the peace process’s two-state solution.

That the Israeli right reconciled itself with a “peace process” of sorts is not due to the wonders of the two-state solution, but to the need to delineate the geographic limits of Israel’s expansion. But, with no Palestinian partner willing to accept peace based on Israeli land grabbing, it was the specter of the loss of the Jewish demographic predominance in historical Palestine, an inevitable concomitant of the death of the two-state idea, that gave life to the concept of unilateral disengagement from populated Palestinian areas. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement and the wall he built in the West Bank were a response to the “demographic threat.” Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, won an election in 2006 on what was then called a Convergence Plan, a unilateral withdrawal from great parts of the West Bank.

America’s Purblind Justice
Ever billing itself as the impartial broker, America’s attempts at peacemaking in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are actually a defining failure. Its pattern of peace diplomacy—direct negotiations between the parties under U.S. guidance—has proved utterly inadequate. More recently, Washington’s weak-kneed attitude toward Israel has, whether intentionally or not, provided cover for Netanyahu’s rightward shift.

A successful peace diplomacy requires at times the transformation of the mediator into a manipulator and an arm-twister. The only exploits of American peace diplomacy in the Middle East—Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the wake of the 1973 October War that led Israel into groundbreaking interim settlements with Egypt and Syria, President Carter’s historic achievement of peace between Egypt and Israel, and Secretary of State James Baker’s success in convening the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference against the will of the recalcitrant Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir—were all the result of a masterly combination of power, manipulation and pressure.

Somehow, all this accumulated wisdom has been absent throughout America’s peace efforts on the Palestinian front. Washington’s blunder stems from its perception of power and diplomacy as distinct and separate categories of foreign policy. Too frequently it acted as if the process of negotiation operates on its own inherent logic, independent of considerations of power and coercion. By delinking force from diplomacy, Washington gave the parties in the conflict the sense that American power lacked resolve and conviction.

America continues to be an indispensable actor in the Middle East and beyond, but it has lost the awe-inspiring drive of the past and its willingness to use coercive diplomacy in its quest for a new order. It no longer intimidates, not even allies and clients such as Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Now a new player has come to town: President Donald Trump, who has boasted that he “will get it done,” and that Israeli-Palestinian peace is “not as difficult as people have thought.” But the thought that the man responsible for the most farcical performance in American presidential history would put together the complex diplomatic architecture required for an Israeli-Palestinian peace sounds truly eccentric.

In this peace process no stone has been left unturned, no idea untried. The solutions are all there. The deal now depends on the diplomatic perseverance and resourcefulness of the mediators, and on the political will and courage of leaders to take unpopular decisions. And this is where the whole thing might blow up in President Trump’s face, as it did in that of all his predecessors. Unless both parties trim their conditions on key contentious issues, the Trump peace process would end in the normal, tragic anticlimax we have been used to.

A man of short fuses, Trump does not have the patience for details. But in the Israel-Palestine situation where historical narratives are so overwhelming, and geography so small, details do matter. No small narcissist himself, Trump would soon discover that the narcissism of minor differences that derailed previous negotiations would compromise his process as well.

The best Trump can reach is another day of reckoning on the Palestinian side and a much-needed shakeup of Israel’s political map. To abandon the comfort zone they have been living in, Israeli and Palestinian leaders must be confronted with both a tempting peace plan and the threat of a massive American and all-Arab pressure. Unless this happens, the parties would prefer, as they always did, to retreat to their normal refuge from unpopular decisions, the protective warmth of their moral consensus.

A New Paradigm for Peace
The United States needs to relinquish its monopoly on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It should be clear by now that the United States cannot solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by itself just as it cannot solve single-handedly the Iranian nuclear dispute, the North Korean crisis, or the mega-tragedy that is the Syrian civil war.
In the last twenty years, Washington excelled in forming international coalitions for wars in the Middle East. For a change, it could now try to form an international alliance for Middle East peace. This would mean giving a greater role to the Quartet (the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, alongside the United States) and to key Arab states like Egypt and Jordan.

The new paradigm needs to be that of an essentially international solution for Palestine. Why would the Iranian nuclear problem need a P5+1 forum of powers to lead the negotiations with Tehran, and the North Korea question the so-called Six Party Talks, yet the Palestinian question remain an American monopoly in spite of Washington’s proven incapacity to solve the problem single-handedly? An international solution is required also because of the political domestic constraints that inhibit Washington’s freedom of maneuver in its relations with, and almost unconditional support for, Israel.

The new paradigm means also that a peace plan based on the core principles that were understood time and again to be the foundation of a peace deal—two independent states along the 1967 borders with territorial swaps to accommodate Israel’s blocs of settlements, two capitals in Jerusalem, an agreed solution to the refugee problem and security arrangements—could be turned into a UN Security Council Resolution as the internationally accepted interpretation of what is a fair deal in this dispute. Led by the United States, the international community would then have to devise a strategy for the implementation of this peace plan.

The new paradigm requires broadening the scope of the peace process: the objective should no longer be only about Israeli-Palestinian peace but about a regional settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. This should be so if only because the future Palestinian state would be in no condition to offer Israel the kind of security it requires. Palestine is not the major security challenge for the Jewish state; it is the broader Middle East that explains Israel’s formidable military buildup, and it is through a settlement with it that Israel could get the security guarantees that it needs. That was very well understood by the initiators of the 2002 all-Arab Peace Initiative, which neither Israel nor the United States gave the attention it deserved.

One would have expected that the surprising strategic intimacy between Israel and the major Arab powers in the region—a result of the ill-fated Arab Spring, and the rise of the ominous threats of Iran and Islamist terrorism—would pave the way for the revitalization of the Arab Peace Initiative. Not only has this not happened, but Palestine was relegated from being the presumed epicenter of the region’s problems into a marginal consideration by the major regional actors. Whatever they might say in public, Palestine is now the least of Saudi Arabia’s worries. The same applies to the Sunni Gulf dynasties and Egypt, now in close security cooperation with Israel.

Netanyahu’s Spring
And even if this were not the case, Netanyahu is a well-placed conservative in revolutionary times. He would cite the failures of the Arab Spring and the ensuing anarchy on Israel’s borders as a preoccupation that precludes any serious peace initiative on Israel’s part. Netanyahu’s mentality, and that of his party where a strong Tea Party component has emerged lately, would lead him to “keep his powder dry” and wait for developments to unfold in the region before making risky moves on the political security front. To create a Palestinian state when existing Arab states seem to be crumbling and a part of Palestine is in the hands of Salafists and Hamas does not look to Israel’s ruling rightwing coalition as a particularly brilliant idea right now.

Netanyahu’s rejectionist strategy and Israel’s maneuver capabilities get powerful tailwind also from the evident decline in the vigor and sense of purpose of the Palestinian national movement. Split between the Fatah-controlled West Bank (with the occupier’s help) and Hamas in Gaza, Palestine is in a state of war with itself. That these are also the twilight days of the ailing President Mahmoud Abbas’s rule with all the uncertainties that this entails does not make the Palestinians’ situation any more edifying. Israel looks today far freer than in the past to ignore Palestinian rights and turn its back on the requirements of a genuine peace process.

Moreover, the Jewish state now enjoys a global clout unprecedented in its history. An Israeli foreign policy that was for years hostage to one single issue, Palestine, has acquired a maneuver space it hardly ever had. To future-proof itself against mounting popular pressure in the West, Israel has been looking elsewhere with extraordinary success for economic, and ultimately political, partners. It now does more trade with the once-implacably hostile Asian giants—China, India and Japan—than with the United States. Israel is now India’s second-largest supplier of military technology. Nor are Japan and China, Israel’s third-largest trading partner, anymore linking success of peace efforts to their economic ties with Israel, the “startup nation.”

Meanwhile, Israel’s strategic clout in the eastern Mediterranean has increased thanks in part to its status as a gas-producing power. A marriage of convenience has created a tripartite geopolitical bloc, a counterweight to Turkey, between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. No wonder Nabil Shaath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, complained to Haaretz in January, 2017, of Greece’s “betrayal of Palestine.”

Netanyahu is also making strategic inroads into Africa—in his second trip in a year to the continent in early June, he addressed an ECOWAS-Israel Summit—and into Eastern Europe’s illiberal axis. As the prime minister himself edges Israel toward an illiberal democracy, Netanyahu trusts that the changing political balance in Europe will shield Israel against EU initiatives on Palestine. Indeed, it was thanks to the stance of that very illiberal East European axis that the recent EU directives on exports from the occupied territories came out far more attenuated than initially planned by Brussels.

But do Israel’s foreign policy opportunities solve its Palestinian predicament? Of course not—the problem was always about the fatally corrosive effects that the suppression of Palestine has on Israeli society. Nor can Israel’s new friends in Asia, or in the Middle East, replace its vital links with the West. The Asian giants do not share with Israel the same outlook on the world to a degree that is essential for a true strategic alliance.

The Palestinian quest for self-determination is then not the exclusive interest of the subjugated nation; in this conflict, the occupier’s very existence is imperiled as well. But this essential truth would acquire its meaning only once political change is produced in Israel and the Palestinian national movement recovers its unity and sense of purpose.

Israel’s Choice
Though dim, the chances of the two-state solution have not entirely disappeared. There is much truth in the Palestinian claim that Israel’s settlement expansion is aimed at making impossible the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet, a recent report by Israel’s Central Statistics Bureau has shown that 80 percent of the settlers are still concentrated in settlements adjacent to the Green Line, altogether consisting of no more than 4 percent of the West Bank. This would still allow a peace agreement based on land swaps between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
The alternative scenarios to a two-state solution are all dark and gloomy. Persisting in the current slide to a one-state reality would end up institutionalizing an apartheid-style situation, but one that would not be susceptible to South Africa’s peaceful resolution. Israel’s control of the levers of power including its military would allow it to never abdicate its predominance in a de facto binational state. Such a state would live in a permanent state of civil war. An affront to the international community, it would strain to its limits Israel’s capacity to resist outside pressure.

But even if forced to return to the two-state paradigm, it would be too farfetched to assume that any future Israeli government would accept going beyond the Clinton Peace Parameters and Olmert’s peace proposals; both were rejected by Palestinian representatives and even Mahmoud Abbas responded to the latter by saying “the gaps are wide.” Rejection by the Palestinians of the Clinton Peace Parameters was ultimately a tragic blow to the Palestinian cause. Saudi ambassador to the United States, Bandar Bin Sultan, even believed it to be a crime against the Palestinian people.

The Israeli side might then try to get away with unilateral moves that would help it salvage its international image, while at the same time responding to genuine Israeli concerns. The nature of these steps would greatly depend on the structure of the Israeli coalition at the time. Such an Israeli unilateral Convergence Plan would be utterly rejected by the Palestinians if only because this would turn the West Bank into a replica of the Gaza situation with Israel controlling all the outer accesses to the territories, first and foremost the Jordan Valley.

Essentially, one needs to bear in mind that Zionism, even rightwing Zionism as Ariel Sharon has shown in his unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, has always given pre-eminence to demography over territory. Whenever Zionism had to opt between more land and a less homogeneous Jewish majority, or less land with a Jewish majority, it opted for the latter. This was seen in its acceptance of the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan, in its endorsement in 1947 of UN Resolution 181, and in Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s resistance to pressure from the military to invade the West Bank during the 1948 war. The same pattern was reflected in the concept of settlement blocs created by Labor Party after 1967, and its opposition to what Yitzhak Rabin called political settlements deep in the West Bank.

Conspicuously, Ariel Sharon’s construction of the wall in the West Bank was tantamount to a philosophical and political defeat for the Israeli right, for it meant a recognition that annexation of populated Palestinian areas in the West Bank was out of the question. In principle, unlike in the case of the Gaza disengagement, an Israeli unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank could be conducted in a more “constructive” manner. Israel could declare that it is willing to return to negotiations anytime and that it has no claims of sovereignty on areas east of the existing security wall/barrier and in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. It could then advance a plan to evacuate thousands of settlers who live east of the barrier and relocate them within Israel’s recognized borders. Some 30 percent of these settlers have been polled to say that they would be ready to be compensated into moving to Israel proper. The hardline, ideological settlers would resist evacuation, and the battle would be far tougher than in the case of Gaza.

Unilateralism, however “nicely” conducted, should not be the preferred option. The battle for a bilateral peace should not be abandoned. Israel should not succumb to the settlers’ philosophy of living eternally by the sword as the occupier and the denier of the most fundamental national, let alone human, rights of a disenfranchised people.
In only one sense can the lessons of Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement serve as an inspiration to those who still believe in a negotiated settlement. For, against the ominous predictions of the specter of civil war looming over Israel if a massive dismantling of settlements were carried out, the mostly peaceful Gaza disengagement proved to be anticlimactic. Especially shocking to the settlers’ community was the overwhelming support throughout the nation for the uprooting of the Gush Katif settlements.

The lords of the land for so many years, the settlers developed a hubris that was increasingly becoming out of tune with Israel’s longing for a normalcy that could only mean disengagement from Palestinian lands. The notion finally percolated through to Israelis that this Jewish republic of settlers on the golden sands of Gaza and the hilltops of Judea and Samaria has become an unbearable burden that has drained the resources of the nation and doomed it to a suicidal confrontation with the Palestinians. Once considered a patriotic vanguard, the settlers now became an obstacle that needed to be removed, an entanglement that needed to be untied, if Israel were to maintain its Jewish and democratic character. In the summer of 2005, it looked as though Israel was a society mature enough to face the formidable challenge of defining its final borders without cataclysmic upheaval. The precedent was established and, for the first time since 1967, the State of Israel challenged Eretz-Israel and survived.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace, which is a vital necessity for the Palestinian nation, is no less so for the Israeli occupier. Occupation has diminished the moral credentials of Israel among the family of civilized nations. Practices applied in the occupied territories spill over to this side of the West Bank, eroding the foundations of Israeli democracy. Israel’s choice is simple and cruel. It either degenerates into an apartheid state where a Jewish minority oppresses the Palestinian majority in a state of permanent civil war, or it switches away from its rightward drift and works for a two-state solution, before it is too late.

Shlomo Ben Ami is an Israeli politician, diplomat, and professor of history. He served in Ehud Barak’s Labor-led government from 1999–2001, first as minister of public security and later as foreign minister. He participated in several peace talks, most notably the Madrid Peace Conference, the Camp David Summit, and the Taba Summit. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy and currently is vice president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace.