The Israel-Palestine conflict is rich with many things, but nothing is so widespread in it as useless aphorisms.
One of the most destructive of these is the oft-repeated mantra that “only direct negotiations between the two parties will resolve this conflict.” It was explicitly repeated today by leading Israeli hasbaranik, Mark Regev. I’ve touched before on this point, but now it seems to be gaining wider traction.
In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Howard Sachar, perhaps the best-known mainstream writer of Israeli history,
argues that only “great power intervention” can be expected to resolve this conflict. While I disagree with much of Sachar’s reasoning, his conclusion is inescapable. (Note: A tip of the hat to Bernard Avishai for pointing to this article).
Sachar’s reading of history tells him that small powers do not make peace by themselves and that only great power intervention settles these conflicts (for good or ill, as Sachar freely admits). That’s as may be, but, some would argue, the Israel-Palestine conflict has many dimensions that make it historically unique, so perhaps that principle would not apply here.
It is to this question that the major point Sachar misses in his essay provides an answer.
The disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians is often pointed out, and this is no small factor. But there is another, more fundamental one that ultimately is the single biggest reason that bilateral negotiations are doomed to fail, and that only powerful outside intervention will ever resolve this conflict — that is the simple calculus that the status quo, or something close to it is preferable for Israeli leaders.
Part of this calculus is well-established in political discourse. Israeli leaders repeatedly profess that they want peace (well, most aside from Avigdor Lieberman, do), but that is an empty statement. What matters is what one is prepared to do to attain peace and what one is prepared to pay to receive it. That’s where a balance sheet comes in, and any serious consideration of such a balance sheet must show that the price Israel, and its political leaders, would have to pay is too high, as things now stand.
Let’s look at where Israel is today. Economically, it is relatively strong, having been spared most of the ravages of the massive economic bust of recent years; the PA has won repeated praise from both Israel and the US for its crackdown on terrorism emanating from the West Bank; Gaza rocket attacks have had almost no impact since Israel’s bombardment in Operation Cast Lead, which has brought an extended period of quiet to Israel; Israel has been welcomed into the OECD and, while its international image has been tarnished recently, it remains able to do business with Europe.
Israel faced no consequences for its refusal to ever completely freeze its settlement activities or even accept a massive bribe to extend a bogus “freeze” for three months. Indeed, to date, there have been no serious consequences for the vast majority of Israeli actions for many years.
Now, consider the question of what Israel gets out of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas would still exist, presumably, and those are the main objects of Israeli fears. So many Israelis, even some who really do want to see an end to occupation, will be nervous and less than wholly enthusiastic about a peace deal.
From the point of view of Israeli leaders, it’s even starker. Withdrawing from West Bank settlements, even if Israel keeps the “major blocs” (which in my view is not realistic), would mean massive political battles domestically. Sharing Jerusalem will also mean spreading that upheaval throughout the global Jewish community. And, from the point of view of military strategy, economics and geo-politics, what are they gaining for taking such a risk, both in terms of politics and in terms of their perception of Arab sincerity or lack thereof?
Israel is more or less going about its business. The PA is doing a lot for Israel’s security and is handling much of the day-to-day business of bureaucracy in the West Bank. The machinery of that bureaucracy is funded by donations from abroad, largely Europe. Progressives can argue, with much merit, about the deleterious effect of the occupation in Israeli culture and to some extent its international standing, but the fact is, the occupation costs Israel staggeringly little, much less than occupations have historically cost the occupier.
Palestinian Quid Pro No?
What do the Palestinians have to offer Israel? Even the Israeli government doesn’t have any idea, which is why they come up with unreasonable demands like recognizing Israel “as a Jewish state.” They’ve already recognized Israel’s right to exist and have conceded 78% of historic Palestine. They are already policing their own people. So, what do they have to offer, other than peace?
This has always been the problem with bilateralism, and it is one that defenders of the status quo and proponents of a “Greater Israel” often come back to. They say, “We give and give and what do we get?” Granted, that distorts what Israel has ever “given” (which is not much and, obviously, much less than is demanded by international law and expected by most of the international community), but there is a more realistic version. If we’re talking about a framework of negotiation, this is, by definition, a give-and-take. In that milieu, the inevitable business question is “Why should we agree to peace? What do we get out of it?”
Idealistically, one would like to say the answer is that Israel would be relieved of the burden of causing Palestinian suffering and breaking international law on a constant basis. But that’s not the world we live in, and Israel is no more inclined to take leaps of faith for reasons of lofty ideals than any other country.
International law is all well and good, but who expects people, much less governments, to obey a law that may cause them inconvenience or worse if there are no consequences for defying that law?
Only An Imposed Solution
All this leads us to the same conclusion Sachar reached: the only way to resolve this conflict is by imposing a solution.
But while Sachar’s points about historical comparisons are all well and good, but it’s important to recognize that there are real, current, political reasons that make imposition the only realistic route to resolution.
This, naturally, leads to the question of the United States. Clearly, any attempt to impose a solution cannot withstand American opposition, and equally clearly, the domestic forces in the US which have tirelessly labored to destroy any hope of peace (and, not incidentally, are complicit in the degradation of Israeli democracy we witness on a daily basis—“pro-Israel” indeed!) will spare no expense or effort to place a giant American obstacle in the path of any imposed solution.
But there is some reason for hope. It is not necessary for the United States to support such an imposed solution, at least not at the outset. It simply must not block it. The European Union can do a great deal of this work on its own if America is not working against it.
There would, to be sure, still need to be a massive sea change in American politics around this issue, but there has also been a good deal of shift in the popular discussion of Israel here. More and more mainstream figures, like Peter Beinart and David Remnick are questioning Israeli policies and, either explicitly or implicitly, the way the US deals with Israel. Whatever shift has happened in the public discourse has not had any effect in Congress, but that can change, especially if the White House remains committed to at least recognizing at least some of Israel’s misdeeds.
There will be an opportunity to explore the possibility of America standing aside soon. The Palestinians and some allies are pushing aUN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements as illegal. The US has not stated that it will veto the resolution, but it has indicated that it is not in favor of it. It is overwhelmingly likely that the US will veto, but this is the place where activism in Washington should be focused. Not towards a Yes vote, which is unrealistic, but to a simple abstention, so that the US won’t be contradicting its own stated policy, de facto, at the UN.
Be it one state or two, the solution to this conflict is not going to come from within Israel or from some collaboration between the occupying power and the occupied people. It can only come from outside, and the only realistic chance for that is an American movement not to shift our policy in a radical direction, but simply to get us out of the way.
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