On Tuesday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beaming beside him, President Donald Trump finally unveiled his “Deal of the Century” for Israel and the Palestinians.
This was more than an attempt to draw attention away from Trump’s impeachment and Netanyahu’s indictment, which was announced earlier the same day. While the announcement of the deal was intended to serve that purpose, its impact is going to be much greater.
This plan is constructed to ensure Palestinian rejection, and therefore many of its stipulations will never be implemented. But the plan’s real goals are to establish a new diplomatic frame of reference to replace the obsolete Oslo Accords; to establish Israeli annexation of settlements as an Israeli prerogative; and to maintain the U.S.’s role as sole arbiter of the conflict, even if it diminishes its own role in the region. It is very likely to succeed at these goals, and the happy acceptance of the “Deal of the Century” not only by Netanyahu but also by his primary political opponent, former Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Benny Gantz, is going to make it very difficult politically for any future U.S. president to completely reverse what Trump has accomplished. Read more at Responsible Statecraft
Last Friday, the State Department announced it would end all funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides many essential services for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The reaction to this decision has been mostly negative.
These are all important concerns. But none of them hits the mark of what the Trump administration—apparently at the urging of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without any consultation with anyone else in the Israeli government or defense establishment—is doing. This is not merely an attack on UNRWA, as serious as that may be. This is an attempt to destroy the Palestinian national movement. Read more at LobeLog
As midterm elections near, it is becoming clear that there is an opportunity in Washington to take the first few steps toward measurable change in U.S. politics around Israel and Palestine. Increasingly belligerent Israeli actions toward the Palestinians and toward Jews who oppose the occupation, a U.S. administration with unabashedly pro-settler leanings, and the decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift away from bipartisan efforts in the U.S. and depend on unflinching Republican support have combined to create a strong groundswell in the Democratic party for a change in policy.
This groundswell has not yet made a significant impact in Washington. Occasional letters of admonishment from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who is not a Democrat, but caucuses with them in the Senate), or Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have little impact on the ground. Meanwhile, after New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was photographed at a progressive conference holding a sign that read, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go,” he scrambled to disavow the sign, claiming he didn’t know what it said. Read more at LobeLog
The idea that “direct, bilateral negotiations are the only viable path to achieve an enduring peace,” is repeated often in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The truth of it is obvious; any
lasting agreement will require the full buy-in from both Israelis and Palestinians, and it is unlikely that an imposed settlement of the conflict would hold. The frequency with which this axiom is repeated suggests that an imposition of an agreement by outside actors such as the United Nations, the European Union or even the United States is a real possibility. In fact, virtually no one seriously suggests that an agreement simply be imposed on Israelis and Palestinians.
The real issue is how the statement is defined. In general terms, supporters of Israeli policies take this rule to mean that no pressure should be brought upon Israel, as any such pressure is seen as undermining bilateral negotiations. Opponents of Israel’s occupation, on the other hand, tend to see outside pressure, in the form of international diplomacy or economic pressure, as crucial to incentivizing both sides into serious negotiations and toward making the difficult compromises necessary to achieve a final agreement.
As the administration of President Barack Obama enters its final months, there has been a good deal of speculation about what, if anything, the outgoing president will do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Relatively free of political pressure, it seems to make sense that Obama would not want to leave this conflict as it stands, with a peace process in shambles, an increasingly isolated but aggressive Israel and a Palestinian population in deep despair and seeing violence as the only available, albeit futile, route open to them.
According to reports, the administration is considering several options: a United Nations Security Council resolution on the two-state solution, a resolution on the settlements or some combination of the two, either at the UN or in a statement of final status parameters by Obama. Any of these alternatives are staunchly opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters in the United States.
In order to counter such measures, the argument being made is that only bi-lateral talks can resolve the conflict, and therefore no outside pressures can be brought, in accordance with the Netanyahu government’s view that outside pressure is incompatible with direct negotiations.
In fact, outside pressure does not interfere with bilateral talks, it facilitates them. One example would be last year’s completion of the agreement to halt potential military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The United States and Iran were the key players, but the involvement of the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany – countries that had a variety of views of and interests in the agreement – clearly helped keep negotiations on track and helped both sides to make difficult compromises.
When dealing with a conflict between two peoples that are equally passionate about their nationalism, rights, fears and historical claims, but far from equal in terms of negotiating strength, outside influence is indispensable. The compromises both Israel and the Palestinians would need to make to come to a final agreement will be difficult and will face strong domestic opposition. As with Iran, international advocacy for compromise will be indispensable for embattled leaders in both sides.
But external pressure would serve a more direct purpose in the case of Israelis and Palestinians. Israel currently has a government that, despite its Prime Minister giving lip service to a two-state solution, has worked hard to prevent one from ever coming about. Israelis who voted for Likud, the Jewish Home and other right wing parties, by and large, oppose the creation of a Palestinian state. Most Israelis see a Palestinian state as a huge risk, even if they support the creation of one. Meanwhile, Israel is an economic and political oasis in an unstable region, with the majority of its citizens enjoying a standard of living comparable to most Western countries. Without outside pressure, any Israeli leader, much less a right wing one, has no reason to take the tough, politically risky decisions that ending the occupation would entail.
On the Palestinian side, a fractured and divided leadership makes any political progress difficult. This is compounded by the loss of confidence among the Palestinian populace in both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and the failure of two decades of negotiations to free Palestinians from the occupation. The reality that any agreement will require compromise on both sides is complicated for Palestinians by their view that they have already sacrificed 78% of their homeland for the possibility of a sovereign homeland on the remaining 22%.
The political will required for an agreement with Israel is unlikely to be forthcoming from a Palestinian leadership that is perceived as corrupt and comfortable in positions of relative wealth and power in Ramallah. Only external pressure can push that leadership to make these decisions. The alternative is political chaos and an unknown future leadership that will almost certainly have to show more steadfastness than willingness to compromise, at least in the short run.
It is, of course, conceivable that the two sides might eventually talk again even without any outside pressure. But, as has been the case for over twenty years, talking does not lead to results by itself. The international community, especially the United States, is not merely justified in putting expectations on both sides and creating consequences for failing to meet those expectations; doing so is a requirement if there is ever to be a diplomatic resolution to this conflict.
The claim that outside pressure is the same as dictating a solution is simply false. Those making such a claim must be asked why. Opposing outside influence on both Israel and the Palestinians, and claiming that any pressure is the same as imposing a solution, is a sure way to block peace, to keep Israel and the Palestinians locked in conflict, and to prevent the realization of a two-state solution.
On Friday, yet another poll on the Middle East was released. They seem to come in a very steady stream, and once
Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat flanking John Kerry at the kickoff of the new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2013
you identify the questions, the results are almost entirely predictable.
But Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, regularly produces polls that are always worth looking at. Unlike most surveys of American views on US policy in the Middle East, Telhami tends to dig deep as opposed to simply establishing general opinions. The poll he released Dec. 5 includes some very interesting developments and reminders as to why things still aren’t changing—in the region or in Washington.
The most stunning development Telhami reported is that support among US citizens for a single-state in Israel and the Occupied Territories—where all would have full and equal rights—increased a whopping ten percentage points in the past year. The 34% who support that outcome now rivals the 39% who support two states, and it represents a jump of ten percentage points from a year ago.
What does this tell us? Most of the leading advocates for a one-state solution have based their advocacy on the idea that a single, secular and democratic state with equal rights for all represents the fairest, most just solution for all parties; that the two-state solution could not possibly fully address the grievances of Palestinian refugees; and that two states would leave most of the best land in the former area of pre-1948 Palestine in Israeli hands. (Two-state advocates have generally argued that partitioning the land was the fairest way to maintain security for Jews, who needed a state, and allow the Palestinians an opportunity to build an independent state of their own.)
Did a whole bunch of two-state advocates suddenly decide that the one-staters were right all along and that the single, democratic state was the more just option? This seems unlikely, especially since the two-state solution has been, and still is seen as the pragmatic choice.
No, that shift is the result of the despair that the collapse of the Oslo process has produced. Those shifting opinions are also coming from a realization that Israel is lurching ever rightward, making a two-state solution less likely in the near term, while settlements expand and make it increasingly difficult to conceive, much less achieve, two states in the longer term.
Of course, a one-state solution was never seen as a viable option among US citizens, much less in Washington. But now it has nearly as much popular support as two states, even while the discourse on Capitol Hill has not changed a bit. One reason for the split between the public and its representatives is included in this poll.
When asked whether the United States should favor one side or the other in the conflict, 64% said the US should favor neither, 31% said the US should favor Israel, and only 4% said it should favor the Palestinians. This is fairly consistent with long-term trends; most US citizens believe their government should be acting as a neutral arbiter in the conflict or not be involved in it at all, and polls have reflected this for a very long time.
But the minuscule figure who believe we should be favoring the Palestinians, as opposed to the significant minority that support favoring Israel, goes a long way toward explaining why policy and the Washington discourse is not following, even in a small way, the national discourse and gradually shifting views among US citizens. The Palestinians are a generally disliked group—essentially seen as “the bad guys.” Even among Democrats, who, for the most part, exclude those who base their support for Israeli policies on the Bible (most of these so-called Christian Zionists are overwhelmingly Republican), only 6% favor siding with the Palestinians, as opposed to 17% who favor siding with Israel.
You’ll be hard pressed to find another issue where public opinion among those who favor some type of intervention is so lopsidedly opposed to helping the downtrodden and dispossessed. For such an entrenched policy, which has the most powerful and active foreign policy special interest lobby pushing to maintain it, this lack of sympathy for the Palestinians is a major obstacle to change, no matter how much the discourse might shift.
That discursive shift has had the effect of seriously diminishing the positive view of Israel in the United States. The Netanyahu government has contributed more than its share to that cause, of course. But so have the efforts of Palestinian activists and other pro-peace groups who have made an issue of Israeli rejectionism and the flaws in US policy.
But none of that has changed the view of the Palestinian cause in the United States. As Telhami’s poll and a long line of polls preceding it imply, most in the US believe that Palestinians’ rights should be respected in the abstract, but Palestinians are still seen as the less sympathetic combatant in this conflict. And Israel’s diminishing image hasn’t changed that.
Nor is there sufficient support for punitive actions against Israel for settlement construction. Sixty-one percent of respondents in this poll said the US should do nothing or just stick to making statements against settlement construction. With a mere 39% supporting more concrete action, Congress will feel very safe in continuing its absolute opposition to any pressure on Israel to desist from this practice.
All of this helps explain why, despite Israel’s reduced appeal in the United States and despite the increasing popularity of a solution that protects democracy rather than Israel’s Jewish character, nothing has changed in Washington. But if the mood among the US public continues in this direction, could that change?
It could, over time, especially considering the profound partisan differences in how Democrats and Republicans view the conflict. That should be a clarion call for those who still want to see a two-state solution emerge. Right now, Israel is pursuing various permutations of a single-state solution, but one where institutionalized discrimination privileging Jews over Arabs is strengthened. The Israeli right can push this agenda in the vacuum created by the apparent death of the two-state solution.
Yet the notion of two states need not die. The Oslo process was flawed from the very beginning. It was born out of documents and agreements that never explicitly stated that a Palestinian state next to Israel was a goal, nor did they offer any sort of human rights guidelines, let alone guarantees. Efforts in Oslo to restrict violence were horribly lopsided, with a laser-like focus on Palestinian violence while virtually ignoring the violence of the occupation itself, as well as that of many of the Jewish settlers. And while the very structure of the occupation provided both Israel and the United States with methods of coercion and pressure against the Palestinians, nothing of the kind was regularly exerted against Israel when it failed to fulfill the letter or spirit of agreements.
Oslo and the two-state solution became synonymous and, as a result, when the process failed, many came to believe that it was the very notion of two states that was fatally flawed. The despair leads more and more to abandon the two-state concept entirely. But that need not be.
It is entirely possible that one state is a better solution, or that Israeli settlement expansion through the West Bank and East Jerusalem already have too much momentum and have gobbled up too much land for a viable two-state solution to be possible. But the failure of Oslo, in and of itself, tells us nothing about whether a two state scenario could work. A two-state model—that includes basic standards of human rights and equal rights (political, civil and national) for all people between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, including Gaza, and includes penalties for both sides for failures of compliance based on a broad but clear, internationally agreed upon vision of the final agreement—could still work.
Undoubtedly, support for a single, secular and democratic state is growing. As people of good will continue to work to resolve this long, bloody and vexing conflict, it is an idea that needs to be considered. It is increasingly popular and based on notions of fairness, and stands against myopic nationalism and ethnocentrism. But it shouldn’t be the only option. A two-state vision, one very different from Oslo, should accompany it. In addition to the conditions I mentioned above, it should also include agreements of cooperation on commerce, economics, resources (especially water) and security. It should not mean Palestine would be de-militarized and eternally vulnerable, enjoying only partial sovereignty. Instead, security for both states would be ensured, and prosperity for both states would be promoted, by interdependency, based on treaties and agreements.
Both two-state and one-state scenarios have weaknesses and inherent flaws that can doom them. Given the hopelessness with which Israelis, Palestinians and all who care about the issue are facing now, we need to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. While those who believe in such scenarios work to promote their one-state visions, two-state supporters need to immediately re-align their vision and reset the two-state idea. What’s needed in Israel and Palestine is not stubborn ideology, but a willingness to accept the best idea for moving forward. And the way to start doing that is by opening minds to new possibilities rising out of the inevitable failure of the process that laid exclusive claim to “peace” for twenty years.