The War that Changed the Middle East

Fifty years have passed since Israel’s stunning military victory over the countries surrounding it in 1967. War transforms countries, regions, the entire planet as no other event can. And perhaps no war ever transformed a country and the entire region surrounding it as suddenly and as dramatically as the 1967 war did to Israel, the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the entire Middle East.

Consider where the region was on June 4, 1967. The Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing in the region, with the US enjoying an advantage, but still concerned with Soviet influence. Egypt, under Gamal Abdel Nasser, was a leader in both the global Non-Aligned Movement—which purported to resist the influence of either of the superpowers—and the rapidly declining Pan-Arab movement. Syria was already fighting with Israel. Its government in a state of flux that would not resolve itself until several years later, Syria was already the Soviet Union’s strongest ally in the region. Disunity among Arab governments in general was rampant, with uneasy relationships thwarting several attempts at alliances among different sets of countries. Read more at LobeLog

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.

The Palestinian Refugee Issue is Not Going to Resolve Itself

When I started getting serious about action on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the associated US foreign policy, I found it imperative to Talbieh Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordanconvince people that the Oslo Accords were doomed to fail. There were the obvious critiques of the accords: the lack of any sort of human rights framework, the absence of consequences for failing to abide by conditions or fulfill agreed upon commitments, and the formal recognition of Israel without any mention whatsoever of a potential Palestinian state. But I saw an even bigger obstacle.

Conventional wisdom has it that Jerusalem is the most difficult stumbling block. But I have always maintained that it is the Palestinian refugees that were the most serious obstacle to a negotiated solution.

When various compromises were discussed about Jerusalem, they were always regarded as controversial and difficult to sell. Yet in my experience, people on both sides saw pretty clearly how a compromise could be crafted. Israel was willing, at least in the past, to permit the Islamic Waqf to continue administering the Temple Mount while official sovereignty would belong to both sides–the Old City would be divided and the border of East and West Jerusalem would be part of the agreement on borders more broadly. No one thought this would be easy, of course, but Israel appeared willing to compromise on this issue, in part because it understood that this was not just a Palestinian issue, but one that the entire Muslim population of the world had a stake in. The parameters of an agreement were visible.

When the matter of the Palestinian refugees came up on the other hand, there was a visible disconnect between the sentiments among the Palestinians, both in and outside the Occupied Territories, and the diplomatic framework that was being discussed. Many observers believed that the path forward on the refugees was clearer than that for Jerusalem, even though this was an area that Israel, no matter who was in the prime minister’s office, was going to be a lot less flexible on.

They believed that to be the case because, from available evidence, it seems that Yasser Arafat was assuring the Israelis and Americans that he was prepared to essentially sacrifice the refugees’ right of return settling for some token number returning to Israel while the rest would get some sort of compensation package and some limited option of returning to the presumed Palestinian state. This was, of course, not what he was telling the Palestinian people, to whom he continually pledged that he would not compromise on the right of return.

While many hold Arafat responsible for the disconnect between diplomacy and reality, obviously not without some justification, the real problem was the disinterest that Israeli and US diplomats routinely showed toward the Palestinian people. One need go no further than to read books by key figures such as Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller. While the complexities of Israeli politics were always dealt with in careful detail, the Palestinian side was ignored to such an extent that virtually everything you see in the writings of these and other diplomats of the day about Palestinian opinion was obtained simply by asking the Palestinian leaders. Can anyone imagine Israel being approached that way?

The Palestine Liberation Organization leadership (PLO) under Arafat was neither prepared to hold the difficult national dialogue about possible compromise on the refugee issue nor to admit to their Israeli and US interlocutors that the right of return was as core a national Palestinian value as the land itself and that public sentiment strongly opposed the sort of compromise that Israel had, not without reason, come to expect.

This held true after Arafat’s death and Mahmoud Abbas’ assumption of the leadership. In truth, even Hamas has not specifically spoken about the refugees very often, although that is largely because its agenda, unlike the PLO after the mid-1970s, remained focused on liberating all of Palestine, which would mean the refugees could simply return. The result is that the national conversation on this issue never occurred, and all through the Oslo talks, even if one believed they had any chance of going anywhere, the refugee issue hung over the table like a pendulum with a razor-sharp blade, coming nearer to splitting the table with every passing swing.

The biggest danger was that, in the case of a miracle where Israel and the Palestinians were able to agree on a lasting peace deal, the refugee issue would shatter it. In several incidents, most recently with the revelations contained in the “Palestine Papers,” confirmation of the framework around the refugees caused great concern among Palestinians.

It is not always easy for others, including myself, to fully grasp the importance of the refugee issue to Palestinians. Nor is it fully understood by others how deeply Israeli Jews fear this issue. For the Palestinians, refugees are a deeply personal as well as a national issue. After all, the accepted estimate of the number of Palestinian refugees is approximately five million, and the total global population of Palestinians is eleven million. So, pretty much every Palestinian has refugee relatives, many of them living outside the Palestinian Territories. Families, in other words, have been sundered for 66 years.

Palestine-Refugee-KeyThen there is the reality, often vastly underestimated, of how central the refugees are to Palestinian nationalism. They are as core a value as the land, Jerusalem, anything. The key to the lost home in Palestine is the overriding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, and it is the symbol of the refugee.

This is not to say that some practical and negotiated agreement cannot be reached on the issue. But thus far, that hasn’t been even remotely attempted. Instead, Israel has insisted that the right of return be forfeited and their Western allies have concurred, as have, in a more circumspect fashion, many of the regional Arab leaders, Lebanon being the main exception. That makes the issue even more sensitive, if that is possible, because for most Palestinians, the framework in which the refugees have been discussed is a surrender, and one that they do not believe the PLO leadership has the authority to make (many Palestinians argue that the right of return is an individual as well as a collective right and as such cannot be negotiated away in a collective bargaining framework. There is considerable basis for this argument).

What is needed is a national conversation, and that will take time. The debates need to happen in communities, in coffee shops and in mosques as well as on the internet and in the halls of the Palestinian Authority. Over time, a general consensus of what is and is not going to be tolerable for the majority of Palestinians, including the refugees themselves, will emerge. From there, realistic negotiations on the issue can manifest.

This needs to happen because it is the only way to turn the refugee problem from a poison pill that would almost certainly torpedo any agreement into part of the solution. The Israeli public also needs to know what the Palestinians want from the right of return.

There is no subject that the Israeli Jewish public is more united and rejectionist on than the refugee issue. Outside of the radical anti-Zionist left–a small portion of the population–you will be hard pressed to find an Israeli Jew who would agree to any significant return of refugees. You’ll find it equally difficult to find an Israeli who would acknowledge any right of return. The refugees, you see, touch on the most intimate identity crisis for Israeli Jews: the fact that Israel could have only come into existence by forcing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out.

This “original sin” is not something that Israelis can simply live with as we in the United States can live with the legacy of slavery and the genocide of the native population here. In the US, we have left too few natives to be worried about any claims to the land, and they are far too disempowered. Slavery is considered a historical shame, but the ongoing issues of racism are largely seen by whites as the legacy of Jim Crow laws (read: apartheid) rather than of slavery. These horrific crimes are regarded by most of the white US as history, however sordid.

Israeli Jews cannot do that. No doubt, the leaders of the Zionist movement in the 1940s believed that, by now, the Palestinians would have resettled in various Arab countries and that Israel could make peace with that past in a similar way to the United States. But that view did not take into account the fact that Palestinians were going to be in refugee camps nearby, would refuse to assimilate (or be barred from it) into the countries they fled to, and would maintain a sense of national identity that kept them–much like Jews throughout the centuries–as strangers in strange lands.

The reality of the Palestinian exodus from Palestine from 1947-49 was largely known in Israel all along. In the late 1980s, Israel’s “New Historians” produced controversial, but generally accurate tomes documenting that the Palestinians did not leave of their own volition or in response to broadcasts from Arab leaders telling them to do so. They either fled or were very frequently driven from their homes.

Many Israelis are aware of all this. But, as with most nations, the people of Israel want desperately to believe in the righteousness of their country’s creation. Moreover, there is enormous fear of what the world would think if this history became more commonly known, especially in the United States and other friendly Western countries where, among supporters of Israel, this history is largely unknown or papered over with some rather incredible myths (e.g., the Palestinians of 1948–all 800,000 and more of them–just picked up and left). Even acknowledging the Palestinian right of return threatens this, creating a situation where history, even when known, produces a visceral discomfort and threatens the Jewish self-image of a just and decent people trying to finally create a home for ourselves.

By itself, that could be overcome. But for Israelis, that sensitivity is piled on top of a fear of Palestinian return that borders on hysteria. And this fear is greatly exacerbated by the lack of clarity about Palestinians’ ambitions regarding the right of return. Israeli Jews treasure, more than anything else, having a homeland where they are the majority. Having such a homeland is also very important to many Jews living in the diaspora. That importance is every bit as strong as worldwide Muslim concern over the fate of Jerusalem.

Israelis are desperately afraid that if they cease blocking the right of return, even to the extent of merely acknowledging the existence of such a right, there would be a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel, which would ultimately make Jews a distinct minority. True, many argue, Jews are doing pretty well as a minority in many countries; but many countries in the world are completely bereft of any Jewish population, especially in the Arab world. And, while they won’t name it, Jews also have the same visceral fear of Palestinians that white South Africans, whites in the US and in other places have had of those they oppressed: the fear that anger over those years of oppression will result in yet another incident of Jewish persecution.

It’s easy for me to say that the fear is born only out of prejudice and misplaced feelings, that the truly hateful among the Palestinians, like the truly hateful among the Jewish Israelis can be dealt with much more efficiently when Palestinian grievances, so long left to boil, are finally addressed. But for most Israelis and Jews in many other places, they look at the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, places where the cycle of oppression kept spinning with death greasing the wheel. Given Jewish history, it’s an understandable fear.

But it’s also a fear that must be dealt with, not pandered to. When Arafat convinced Israelis that the PLO had backed off liberating all of Palestine and would settle for the lands Israel conquered in 1967, it made a big difference in Israeli perceptions of Palestinians. Even in the toxic atmosphere of 2014, such clarity from the Palestinians on refugees would have a similar effect. This would be true even if the Palestinians’ stance turns out to be (as I believe it would if the popular will was reflected) that each and every refugee should be offered the options of return, return to a Palestinian state (if a two-state solution is ever reached) or compensation, and it is up to each to choose for her or himself. At least Israel would know what the bargaining position is.

The International Crisis Group undertook what I consider to be the first serious effort at finally taking the veil off this critical issue by releasing a report entitled, “Bringing Back the Palestinian Refugee Question,” on Oct. 9. It is a serious and pragmatic analysis of what Palestinian leaders and people can do to begin to bring this question out of the shadows and, crucially, to the center of diplomatic efforts. The recommendations include renewing and revitalizing local leadership councils in refugee camps, improving conditions for refugees as well as supporting refugees in building lives wherever they are without worrying that they are sacrificing their claims as refugees, and beginning the sort of national dialogue I have been discussing.

Now is the perfect time for such efforts, although Israel and the United States will oppose them. Even Abbas has realized that his old strategy has failed and he needs a new one. Refugees, long marginalized, have an opportunity to raise their voice and have it impact Palestinian negotiators in the future. And, despite the fact that Israelis would be vexed by such a development, it is an absolute necessity if there is ever to be a resolution to this conflict, be it one state, two state or whatever else.

This strategy will be uncomfortable for the Palestinian Authority. But it must materialize for the region to move towards substantive rather than illusionary visions of peace. We must hope that good sense can overcome fear.

From 2006: Honest Brokers? US Presidents and the Middle East

I have discovered an article of mine from 20067258702972_d11e56b4ea_z still online. It is a review I wrote for the journal Global Understanding of William Quandt’s book, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab–Israeli Conflict since 1967. Despite being eight years old, it is striking how much of this piece remains relevant. It will also serve as a preview of some more current work I am doing. I hadn’t seen the piece since its initial publication, so I’m happy to share it with you here. I hope you find it as valuable as I do.

Tragedy and Perfidy: The Figure of Mahmoud Abbas

An edited version of this article first appeared in LobeLog

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with U.S. President Barack Obama this week, following in the footsteps of

Abbas and Obama confer at the White House

Abbas and Obama confer at the White House

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the month. But unlike Netanyahu, Abbas is a much less heralded, or even well-known figure in Washington. And, above all, he is a man with far fewer options.

With a deadline looming at the end of April by which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had promised first to broker a permanent Israel-Palestine agreement and, later, a more modest goal of a framework for continuing talks, Abbas arrived in Washington with little to offer and less room to make further concessions. It’s a familiar position for the Palestinian leader, one he has been in since 2004, when he assumed the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) upon the death of Yasir Arafat.

Arafat was a universally respected leader to the Palestinian people, even, grudgingly, among his rivals; a fighter who had proven his worth in conflict. Abbas, by contrast, had long been Arafat’s number two, but he was more intellectual, having been an advocate, a resistance politician and a fundraiser for most of his time in exile and then after his return to the Palestinian Territories in 1994. Continue reading