It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that can be attained under present conditions. It goes without saying that resolving this conflict requires strong leadership, if not on all sides (Israeli, Palestinian, American) then at least in two out of three. There is no reasonable possibility that significant progress can be made with Bush and Olmert in office and with a fractured Palestinian leadership that doesn’t have mass support in the Occupied Territories. The recent call by George W. Bush for an international peace conference is a grandstanding ploy that has no chance of making a positive impact. What is most important at this time is to re-focus people’s attention on the facts on the ground. The failure of Bush’s policy must be spelled out in specific terms of poor planning, ignorance of the situation and undesirable goals, not just in bad results. Most important, the focus on the settlements in the West Bank has got to be strengthened in a major way.
At this point, few in either Israel or Palestine believe that a Palestinian state is even a possibility in light of the enormous spread of the settlements and their networks (bypass roads, military and police installations, etc.) Moreover, the fact that settlements have grown far beyond even their borders as established by Israel, and the abject refusal of a long line of Defense Ministers to stop the spread of “outposts” means that the entire landscape of the West Bank is covered in settlements, except for the major areas of Palestinian population. The problems with this are obvious as a matter of structure. The problems, however, go deeper because they have already established, in the minds of most Israelis and Palestinians, that the settlements are irreversible facts.
I don’t think they are, but the reversal is only going to come from concerted American action. If the US does not make settlements a leading item on its agenda with Israel, no Israeli leader will be strong enough to act against them, even if they want to. Americans interested in a secure Israel and relief for the besieged Palestinians should be screaming about the settlements, almost to the exclusion of everything else on the Israeli side. If they remain, the two-state solution is dead. And if the two-state solution dies, we are faced with at least 10 years of re-orienting global diplomacy and international law on this issue. Recall, it took nearly 30 years after 1948 for most of the world to come around to two states, and 40 before the US, Israel and many Arab states (on both sides of the question) would accept it.
Reversing the settlement project has to happen BEFORE a serious peace process can begin. It doesn’t have to be complete in order to allow for negotiations, but as things stand now any discussions about the West Bank are a joke.
If one accepts the premise that the settlements can’t be moved, then the only possible way forward is either the status quo, which is obviously unacceptable at least to the Palestinians and guarantees further suffering and bloodshed, or to disband the PA and have Israel re-establish its complete occupation as it existed before 1993. That will lead, quite likely, to a massive growth in the movement for a single secular state. That is unacceptable to almost all Israelis. And since the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews wish, above all, to preserve Israel as a Jewish state, the only result would be a state of undeniable apartheid. All of this points to why it is absolutely crucial that the option of two states be preserved. Even if one supports a single state, if that solution is forced on Israel in this manner, the result will not be what anyone wants.
Now, I don’t agree with the premise that the settlements on the West bank are irreversible. I would point out that exceedingly few settlements have been in place for 40 years, and the overwhelming majority are 15 years old or less, with quite a few of them being considerably newer. So, while the settlement program may date back to 1967, the vast majority of settlements are not so entrenched.
In the threat of a single apartheid state or the loss of a Jewish state lies the political capital to reverse the settlement project. As those concerns grow in Israel, they will grow in the US as well. That implies not just political capital that an ambitious and strong president can spend on pushing for settlement rollbacks, but also a significant potential for a lobby that simultaneously supports Israel and also supports settlement reduction. The continuing demise of AIPAC’s reputation and the increasing awareness that it does not represent the views of most Jews, American or Israeli (and here I do not contend that Jewish Voice for Peace represents such a majority either, but AIPAC is frankly just as far from it) opens the door for such a lobby, one I can only hope groups capable of doing it can take advantage of.
In any case, what one person who communicated with me on this subject termed a “realpolitik intended to manage the existing circumstances by reducing the risk of further destabilization, achieving humanitarian ends, making the lives of Palestinians at least tolerable, and giving the Israelis a sense of short-term security” brings us back to the same place.
Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to return to the status quo ante of pre-Oslo days. Back then, there was some limited economic growth in Palestine, albeit growth in an economy that was entirely dependent on Israel. But now, if there was to be any kind of substantial improvement in the lives of Palestinians, there are only two options for doing that. One, create a massive welfare system, one that Israel would administer, cutting out the middleman of the PA. That involves enormous cost and essentially makes it impossible for any part of the Palestinian economy to be truly functional. That means it is a major burden on Israel and one that, if Israel abandons it, immediately puts the Palestinian West Bank into a similar condition to Gaza. The other option is to remove at least enough settlements and bypass roads, as well as checkpoints that Palestinians can realistically move from town to town as well as into and out of Jordan and Israel to allow some kind of minimal economic growth. Thus whether the projection that current conditions make a solution impossible (which, I repeat, I don’t concur with, though even if I’m correct about that, the situation envisioned therein is not far off in the future) is right or not, we end up at the same place: the need to remove settlements.
Beyond the question of whether two states is even a possibility at this point, the idea that it remains a possibility is crucial to another main point we need to push, the Arab League offer. It is that offer that creates the real possibility of increased security for Israelis. One should also add that Americans need to be vocal, as some have been, in denouncing the Bush Administration’s blocking of Israel-Syria dialogue (though recent statements by Bashar Assad hanging conditions on such talks, puts something of a damper on any such hopes).
As recently as January 2006, a poll conducted jointly by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and The Harry S. Truman Research Institute found that Israelis support, by 56% to 41% opposing, negotiated withdrawals from settlements on the West Bank and that 61% support, while 34% oppose the dismantling of “most settlements” in the context of a peace agreement. That is without any serious leadership either from the Israeli or American government on the issue. This something that can happen, and it must if there is to be any hope for a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians. For activists on this issue, I can’t imagine anything more important to press on.