Old Settlement Wine in New Peacemaking Bottles

During his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered “a package of meaningful measures in the West Bank.” Although Bibi KerryNetanyahu was apparently vague about what those measures would be, an anonymous Israeli official told a reporter for  Israel’s Ha’aretz, “The prime minister made it clear that we want American recognition of the settlement blocs and of the fact that we can build there.”

Most observers have long recognized that any workable two-state agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to include Israel keeping the large settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim. A key question had been if, and when, U.S. policy should shift to acknowledge this, either tacitly or explicitly.

For most of the period from 1967 until today, the United States has viewed all Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line in the same way. The one exception came in 2004, when George W. Bush, in a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.” The Bush administration’s thinking here was that, by delivering this recognition, it would make it politically easier for Sharon to take difficult steps toward peace.

The Obama administration, while never making any sort of declarative statement, quietly and unofficially walked back this policy of winking at the “settlement blocs” that Bush established. Many on the right criticized this, but Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel in 2004, defended the Obama administration’s move, noting both that Israel and the U.S. had never agreed upon a definition of the “settlement blocs,” and in any case the growth of settlements had far outstripped what the Bush administration would have considered acceptable.

Now some are suggesting again that hope for preserving the two-state solution lies in accepting building in those settlement blocs.

Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and author of the excellent blog, Ottomans and Zionists, makes the case for this approach in a piece today In sum, Koplow argues that, while it is hard for peace advocates to accept any settlements as legitimate, pragmatism dictates differentiating between settlements we expect Israel to keep and those we do not.

“The reality is that if a two state solution is to happen,” writes Koplow, “it will require settler buy in, for better or worse, and getting settlers to support two states means recognizing that for the majority of them, expanding their current communities does not create an impediment to a final status agreement.”

First, let’s recognize that, yes, hard-to-swallow compromises often have to be made in order to progress toward a mutually beneficial outcome. The problem here is that objections to this idea are not, as Koplow characterizes them, only about moral high ground, nor about principle. The issue is very much a practical one.

It’s helpful to review the history. Israel has always accepted incremental gains so that it can pocket them and use the new status quo as a new starting point. One example of this strategy is the Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty, made most explicitly in 1993 by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat. In 2007, the Israeli demand changed from simple recognition to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, a much more problematic formulation, and a unique one in the annals of international relations. Netanyahu is very well aware of this strategy, and he is employing it now in this demand for US recognition of the settlement blocs.

Such recognition would have real effects on the ground – none of them good. As happened under the Bush administration, it would allow for further expansion of these key blocs, which have already grown into much bigger threats to the contiguity of a Palestinian state than they were before, with ever-expanding “regional council” areas surrounding the growing built-up areas, and new, barely connected “neighborhoods” in the blocs.

Importantly, if Obama should acknowledge such a thing, it will likely be seen as a final betrayal by the U.S. of the Palestinians’ historic compromise, in which they accepted 22% of historic Palestine for their state. Again, this is not simply a matter of principle, nor about securing the “moral high ground.” It’s pure pragmatism, based upon clear lessons of history. If we ignore the blocs, Israel naturally pockets that and presses for more, as any shrewd negotiator would if they could. Such a policy effectively removes the blocs from the negotiations. The Palestinians would quite reasonably ask what there is to discuss when the U.S. has already framed the talks in terms of Israel having secured the major blocs by force.

This approach did not lead to progress when Bush took it. It would likely be much worse if Obama did it now, given the current situation, where Israel has lurched further right, the U.S. has lost most of its credibility as broker, and Abbas is hanging politically on by a thread. While well intentioned, Koplow’s “solutionism” thus runs the risk of feeding into the Israeli right’s agenda to block a two-state solution. (And while new approaches and ideas are most welcome, it must be said that “Let’s give Israel stuff and hope good things happen” is one of the oldest approaches there is in Washington.)

The alternative to this is not to call for a full settlement freeze, which in any case Obama is not going to do, nor is his successor. A better way forward is to frame talks in terms of treating everything beyond the Green Line as equal but open to swaps. Israel would then know that to keep the blocs it must pay “fair market value” for them and be flexible enough to allow for contiguity for the Palestinian state (i.e. it needs to reduce the areas currently reserved for settlement growth, which are much larger than the built-up areas themselves).

Such an alternative is pragmatic and is, in fact, consistent with existing U.S. policy and, importantly, with international law. What has been missing is the political will to frame the talks in the manner that the international community, including the U.S., has long agreed: borders based in the 1967 lines with mutually agreeable swaps. That is how Israel can keep the settlement blocs. They are not a fait accompli, but an Israeli gain for which the Palestinians must be compensated fairly, and not merely by Israel agreeing to meet its pre-existing commitments, as Netanyahu is now offering. Anything less would merely reinforce the current dynamic of Israeli impunity, and further entrench the one-state reality.

Elliott Abrams’ Shell Game on Settlements

The shell game is a tried-and-true method of persuading people to give their money to the person running the game. Abrams-Elliott-620x350In political terms, it’s also a reliable method of persuading people to buy into the political stance of the man running the game.

Elliott Abrams is a master of the shell game. He provides what seems like a serious and sober analysis, with just enough cherry-picking of facts and omission of detail to convince you of his point of view. That is a big reason why this man, who is responsible for some of the greatest foreign policy fiascos in American history, continues to be considered a legitimate source for foreign policy analysis.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. Despite the enormous catastrophes brought on by the neoconservative school of thought of which Abrams is a part, the philosophy, such as it is, continues to be an influential voice in the foreign policy debate in the United States. This is, however, even more reason to look at an apparent change of course from Abrams with a skeptical eye.

The Reversal that Isn’t

That so-called change of course came in an article last week in Foreign Affairs where Abrams seemed to admit that settlements were indeed an obstacle to reaching a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

For Abrams, the growth of major settlement blocs where the vast majority of Israeli building in the West Bank has occurred under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s watch is not an impediment to a negotiated solution between Israel and the Palestinians. However, he argues, growth outside those major blocs is. To some, this is a major reversal of Abrams’ long-held position on settlements.

That’s what we’re meant to think. It certainly took in Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism. In an op-ed in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, Yoffie opines that

After admitting that it is ‘remarkably difficult to discern what is going on outside the blocs,’ Abrams states that according to his most recent calculations, there were 73,000 settlers living outside the security fence in 2009 and 93,000 in 2015. If the new Netanyahu government continues to settle at this rate, there will be 115,000 settlers outside the blocs by the end of the government’s term. The implications of this growth, Abrams writes, is (sic) that it will be exceedingly difficult and costly to make a two-state solution happen under these circumstances.

Actually, this is nothing new from Abrams. Over a decade ago, he was a driving force behind the letter George W. Bush sent to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which spoke of the need to adjust the 1967 borders to accommodate “demographic realities” since that fateful year. The result was that Israel felt free to build in the so-called “major settlement blocs.”

That has become an accepted reality in Jerusalem and Washington. In Ramallah, though, not so much.

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, and one of the leading experts on settlements, clarified the evolving debate:

The greatest threat on the ground to the two-state solution is construction in the so-called blocs. ’So-called’ because they have never been formally delineated. This has allowed them to be defined according to the ever-evolving whims of settler apologists and advocates (including Abrams), to become ever-expanding to the point where they encompass so much of the West Bank—and in key areas, especially around Jerusalem—that if we go with the “everybody knows” argument (i.e. that there is a basic understanding that Israel will keep these blocs in an eventual peace agreement) that Abrams favors, the two-state solution is already effectively dead.

Why?  Because no Palestinian leader ever will sign (or should be expected to sign) an agreement that leaves Israel in control of “blocs” of the West Bank that leave behind an only nominally contiguous state. The reality on the ground is that the Maale Adumim bloc reaches to the edge of the Jordan Valley; the Etzion bloc south nearly to Hebron and East to the Jordan Valley ridge; Givat Zeev reaches the outskirts of Ramallah; the Ariel and Kedumim blocs reach more than halfway to the Jordan border; and the new “Beit El” blocs is east of Ramallah.

Friedman is quite correct. The idea that these settlements would remain in Israel’s hands was always problematic. But when Ehud Barak first broached this idea, during the Camp David II talks in 2000, those settlements were also much smaller than they are today. Every settlement or bloc also has an area around it that is much larger than the built-up settlement itself and considered that settlement’s land. That area expands outward as the settlement does.

As B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group, puts it:

The radical changes Israel has made to the map of the West Bank preclude any real possibility of establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state as part of the fulfillment of the right to self-determination. The settlements have been allocated vast areas, far exceeding their built-up sections. These areas have been declared closed military zones by military orders and are off limits to Palestinians, except by special permit. In contrast, Israeli citizens, Jews from anywhere in the world and tourists may all freely enter these areas.

Two States Versus One

The situation Friedman describes is hardly unknown to Abrams. It was his idea, after all, for the United States to send Israel a message that it could build all it wants to in the major settlement blocs. His so-called “concern” over the settlements outside the major blocs is a red herring. The real problem, as Abrams well knows, is the fact that, over 15 years after the idea of two states where the bulk of the settlements would remain in Israeli hands, expansion of those blocs has made this incompatible with a Palestinian state.

That doesn’t mean that something can’t be worked out. There are many other options for a two-state solution than the stale ideas of decades ago that no longer match the realities on the ground. But let’s not kid ourselves about what we’re up against if we want to make that idea a reality. The right, and especially the neoconservative right, is not waking up to the error of its ways. On the contrary, what Abrams’ article demonstrates, if one looks beneath the sheep’s clothing he draped over it, is that those same wolves that have thwarted peace efforts until now are today mapping out the one-state future they have been driving at for decades.

Yoffie expressed the hope that if someone like Abrams could change his position, it might influence Benjamin Netanyahu. But Abrams has not changed, and there remains no reason for Netanyahu to do so either. Bibi may not be the most popular guy in foreign capitals, or even in Israel. But he just won his fourth election to be prime minister of Israel. He knows what got him there, and it wasn’t making concessions or giving a damn about the rights of Palestinians or the security that peace could bring to Israel. And Elliott Abrams will still be in his corner.

Toward A New Two-State Solution

The idea that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead has been repeated so many times in the
past several years that it has taken on the droning sound of a mantra. Yet at the same time, we continue to hear pleas like the one that Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour made as the Security Council was about to reject the Palestinian resolution calling for an end to Israel’s occupation: “Those eager to save the two-state solution must act and cannot continue to make excuses for Israel and to permit, and thus be complicit in, its immoral and illegal behavior.”

So which is it? Must we abandon the two-state solution and think of other formulations or do we desperately need to revitalize and resuscitate the process we’ve been working on since 1993? Perhaps there is a better answer: a completely different approach to the two-state solution. Read more at the Foundation for Middle East Peace

Livni Joining With Labor: Not A Game-Changer

The media in Israel is abuzz with the news that Tzipi Livni will bring her Ha’Tnuah party into a joint ticket with the 675px-Kalpi_israel_18much larger Labor party. Now there is a tandem that can outpoll Likud, they are saying. The Israeli center just might be able to assert itself in this election.

Permit me to throw some cold water on this excitement. Livni, who has been the lone voice in the current government who has actively supported talks with the Palestinians, is doing this because if she doesn’t, there is a very strong possibility that her party will not get enough votes to remain in the Knesset. Labor leader Isaac Herzog, who has very little international experience, ran for the party leadership based on his commitment to resolving the long-standing conflict with the Palestinians. As the prospective Number Two, Livni gives Herzog some credibility in this regard.

But not only is there a long way to go before the March 17 election; there is also no guarantee that the party that wins the most seats will lead the next Israeli government. Of all people, Livni knows this only too well. In the 2009 election, she led the Kadima party which won the most seats in the Knesset. Then-President Shimon Peres tasked her with forming a governing coalition, but she couldn’t get enough parties to agree to join her to accumulate the requisite 61 seats. So Peres turned to Netanyahu who has occupied the Prime Minister’s office ever since.

Something very similar could happen in 2015. Although the current Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, is not at all fond of Netanyahu, he is also from the Likud party and, while his domestic policies are relatively liberal, he is no friend of the two-state solution. He might not necessarily want to give Netanyahu the first crack at forming a government, but, if he believes Bibi has the better chance of forming a governing coalition, he will bow to precedent.

And Rivlin may well be forced to that conclusion, whether he likes it or not. Even if Labor wins a seat or two more than Likud, it would likely win no more than 24 seats. Assuming Herzog and Livni could convince all of their potential allies to join a coalition (that would mean Yesh Atid, the new Kulanu party, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Meretz), they would get 40 more seats at most, but that, frankly, is a pretty optimistic projection. They very likely would need at least one other party to join them, but there is only one other realistic possibility: Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman would surely demand a plum cabinet position (probably Defense), and he would be in a position  to bring down the government any time he strongly disapproved of its policies.

Such a government would be exceedingly difficult to cobble together in any case. Lieberman’s party has always been sharply critical of the religious parties who would necessarily have to make up part of the Herzog-Livni coalition. The orthodox parties are themselves unpredictable and share mutual hostility not only with Yisrael Beiteinu but also with other secular parties like Yesh Atid. Meretz, the only left-wing Zionist party remaining these days, would also take some convincing, given the rightward tilt of the remaining members of the coalition.

Despite Livni and Herzog’s own positions, the government outlined above would also be somewhat less than passionate about a two-state solution. Kulanu, led by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, is open to some evacuation of land but is unlikely to support a resolution based on the 1967 borders; Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas both theoretically support some kind of two-state solution but both also have a generally hawkish outlook. Together, they constitute nearly half the purported government. Less than a mandate for peace, especially considering that Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi in opposition would fiercely oppose any concessions — perhaps even discussions — with a Palestinian leadership they have repeatedly labelled “terrorist.”

So, an extremely unstable coalition government whose interest in reviving a peace process, let alone striking a deal, would be lukewarm at most is the best-case scenario, even with the news that Labor-plus-Livni might win a plurality in the Knesset.

That analysis presumes that the current polls reflect what will happen in March. Of course, they don’t. The campaign hasn’t even begun yet, and a Herzog-Livni ticket isn’t the most marketable for Israeli television. Israeli supporters of a two-state solution cling to Livni as a last, albeit highly flawed hope. They understand that, as a former prominent Likud member and from a family that was part of the aristocracy of Likud and its predecessors, she is not a peacemaker at heart. Herzog might be one but he is bland and thoroughly Ashkenazi (the most influential and wealthy of the Jewish ethnicities in Israel but no longer the majority). That image will work against him in the popular vote.

Israeli political campaigns are often a contest between preachers of hope and preachers of fear. In unsettled times like these, when Israelis are concerned about a growing number of unpredictable, even random, Palestinian attacks, as well as their growing sense of isolation from Europe, fear tends to do well. Historically, fear has served the Likud and other right-wing parties, especially HaBayit Hayehudi, very well.

There is a chance, albeit a very small one, that the preachers of hope can win. They’re not preaching a very high hope, merely one that is more hopeful than the demagoguery of Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett. And they have found an unexpected ally in Moshe Kahlon.

Kahlon, head of the new Kulanu (“All of Us”) party, appears to be drawing votes away from Likud, as well as from Yesh Atid. Like Livni, he is another of the former Likud pragmatists who do not identify with the extreme nationalist camp in Likud that has come to dominate that party after living for years on its far-right fringes.

It was Ariel Sharon who provoked the Likud split in order to thwart the party’s opposition to his plan to remove settlements from Gaza and a few from the West Bank as part of a larger strategic plan to pre-empt growing international pressure for a comprehensive solution. Others, like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, went with him. Now Kahlon  is following a similar path. While he says he could support some sort of land-for-peace arrangement, Kahlon, who is more focused on economic issues in any event, has never endorsed a two-state solution. Indeed, in the past he has rejected it as impractical.

The fact that Kahlon is now deemed a suitable partner for the dreamed-of Herzog-Livni government tells you a good deal of what you need to know about how such a government might behave. Nonetheless, Kulanu will appeal strongly to the Likud old guard. For those who supported former Likud ministers like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor — indeed, those who saw Benny’s father Menachem as the exemplar of Likud leadership and reject the fanatic ideologues who dominate the party today — Kahlon offers an alternative, as well as to other centrist voters who are disappointed in parties like Yesh Atid and Kadima before it.

With Kulanu taking some votes from Likud’s centrist flank and HaBayit HaYehudi continuing to gain right-wing votes at Likud’s expense, it is unsurprising that polls give Labor-with-Livni a chance to win the most seats. But does this mean Israel’s steady rightward drift has stopped?

Not necessarily. The overall view that the conflict with the Palestinians is unresolvable remains strong. At the same time, the growing split among Israeli Jews in reaction to the rise in ethnic and religious violence since last spring may prove an important factor in the election. While more Israeli Jews appear to embrace anti-Arab racism of the kind that benefits the far right represented by Bennett, more and more Jews are expressing alarm over that trend, although they, too, are loath to really examine the roots of that tension: the institutional racism and marginalization of Arabs in Israeli society.

Still,  a considerable portion of Israeli society, including some religious and conservative sectors, want to see a reduction in tensions between Jews and Arabs. They are also concerned about the relationships between Israel and the U.S. and between Israel and Europe. While Bennett and his ilk think Israel should act even more defiantly toward the rest of the world, these actors are genuinely worried about the consequences of such an attitude. Many are also concerned about the country’s growing economic stratification.

Those forces of relative reason are confronting a growing wave of nationalist extremism in Israel. As a result, the most hopeful result of the election, at least at this point, is the creation of a center-right government. Of course, if the Herzog-Livni ticket would be willing to bring the non-Zionist, communist party, Hadash, and the Arab Ra’am Ta’al party into the government, along with Meretz, that would indeed change the political trajectory. But that is even less likely  than a sudden and egalitarian Israeli decision to actually end the occupation. So, outside observers must for now cling to faint hope that things will go from incredibly bad to slightly less incredibly bad. Such is the state of Israeli politics.

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Israel’s President Is More Complex Than You’d Think

Some people are surprised by some of the things Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said and done. That just shows a real lack of historical Reuven_Rivlinperspective on the Israeli political scene.

In the United States and Europe, the Israeli right, epitomized by the Likud Coalition, has always been the “opponent of peace,” while the Labor Party and, later, Kadima were the “pursuers of peace.” This was always a false dichotomy. It would have been somewhat truer to say that supporters of Likud were usually, but far from always, opposed to the two-state solution that Oslo envisioned, while Labor and Kadima supported it.  Continue reading