Sunday, March 24, 2013

President Obama Speech in Israel

Peace is Necessary, Just and Possible

Last week President Barack Obama visited Israel. I can’t help but admire the guy. He is charismatic, eloquent, attentive and smart. Just the kind of guy you’d like to see at the helm of a country. I didn't watch every single event, visit or conversation he was engaged in, but I saw enough to be impressed. I particularly liked his speech to young Israelis, which he delivered to a crowd of over 2500 students from all over Israel. The punch line was that Israelis need to strive for peace.

Obama said that peace is necessary for Israel’s security, economic prosperity and its relationships with the rest of the world.  He added that peace is the just thing to do, for the Palestinians who aspire for self-determination. And finally he said that peace is possible, especially since the outcome is known: two states for two people.

President Obama talking to Israeli students

Yes, I agree with President Obama that peace is necessary - nobody wants to live in a state of war forever. I also agree with President Obama that peace is just – no moral person enjoys depriving other people their basic human rights.  But is peace possible? And if so, when? On that I am far less certain than President Obama.

Why am I uncertain about the possibility of peace? Let me count the ways:

Who do we negotiate with?
The Arabs who consider themselves Palestinians divide into the following groups:
a.       Those who live in the West Bank under the rule of the Palestinian Authority.
b.      Those who live in the Gaza strip under the rule of Hamas.
c.       Those who live in refugee camps in other Arab states, such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
d.      Those who live in Israel and carry an Israeli citizenship.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is currently controlled by the Fattah party and its president Mahmud Abbas.  Mr. Abbas claims he represents all the Palestinians and can negotiate on their behalf. However, the Hamas movement rejects the legitimacy of the PA; those living in neighboring states aren’t directly represented by the PA, and those living in Israel are formally represented by the Israeli government.

Within the West Bank itself, the last presidential elections were in 2005, won by Mahmud Abbas. The last legislative elections for the PA were held in 2006, and were actually won by the Hamas. As a result of outside involvement, Mr. Abbas and his PLO party were kept in control over the West Bank. The Hamas movement took over the Gaza strip through a bloody coupe.

Given this fragmented representation, who is Israel supposed to negotiate a peace agreement with? Will the Hamas, who has sworn to destroy Israel, ever endorse a peace agreement signed by Mr. Abbas?

What borders serve as a baseline?

Let’s assume for a minute that the Palestinians as a whole do accept the principle of two states for two people. The PA is adamant that a solution must be based on the”1967 borders”. This implies that Israel should withdraw to its borders of June 4th, 1967. However, there are no “1967 borders”. What does exist, are the 1949 Armistice lines (Green Line), which were part of the cease fire signed between Israel and its neighbors.  The state of Israel wasn't recognized by its neighbors at the time, and therefore had no agreed-upon borders.  Jordan, who was party to the cease fire and controlled the West Bank till 1967, withdrew its forces behind the Jordan River. The 1994 Jordan-Israel peace agreement established the Jordan River as the border between Israel and Jordan, side-stepping the question of future Israel-Palestine border.

In the absence of any previously agreed-upon border, should the Palestine-Israeli border be drawn based on the situation today, or the one in 1949?

How to reconcile security and autonomy?

This is perhaps one of the key challenges that need to be properly addressed. Prior to 1967, Israel was subject to attacks originating from the West Bank. Some were instigated by Jordanian soldiers while others by Palestinian terrorists. At its narrowest point, pre-1967 Israel was barely 15km wide - hardly a defensible position.

The two major West Bank uprisings (1st and 2nd Intifada) have left deep scars in Israelis memories. Palestinian suicide bombers regularly blew themselves in the midst of cafes, buses and shopping centers killing and injuring dozens of innocent civilians.  Furthermore, Israel withdrawal from Gaza has shown that armed militants can easily move in and fire rockets and mortars at neighboring Israeli towns. A similar scenario played out at the West Bank would paralyze most of Israel and will make life here unbearable.

Currently, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its general security service (Shabak) operate daily within the West Bank, taking preemptive measures against suspected, would-be terrorists.  While the PA is closely cooperating with Israeli security forces to clamp-down on terrorists, it unknown how its policy will change once Israel moves out of the territory. Israel will also demand control over the Jordan River border, to ensure that weapons and militants don’t cross it freely into the West Bank.

The security arrangements demanded by Israel are likely to conflict with the desired autonomy and sovereignty of a Palestinian state.

How will Palestine handle Jewish residents?

There are over 600,000 Jews living in towns and villages located in the West Bank. Many live in large cities that expanded over the past 40+ years. At the same time, there are over 1,500,000 Arabs living within proper Israel.

Suppose we arrive at a mutually agreed border between Israel and Palestine. Some Jewish towns will likely find themselves located within the borders of Palestine, just as there are Arab towns today located within the borders of Israel. What will be the fate of Jewish residents in Palestine? Will the PA insist on deporting them all and confiscate their property? What does that imply for Arabs living within Israel? Should they be deported as well to Palestine as part of a “population exchange”?

Israel has historically shown willingness to accommodate Arab residents within its borders. Will Palestine be willing to do the same for Jews?

What about the “Right of Return”?

Outside the West Bank and Gaza, there are about 3,000,000 Palestinian refugees who live in Arab states, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. They are descendants of Arabs who fled Israel in 1948-49 and unfortunately were never encouraged or allowed to integrate into their new home states. The PA insists on the right of these refugees to return to Israel as part of a peace agreement. If Israel were to absorb over 3 million Arabs within its borders, it will cease to exist as a Jewish state. It is not even clear that the West Bank could even absorb 3 million people within the borders of a Palestinian state. Many of these refugees will have to give up their “right of return” and agree to settle down in the countries they are in.

Will Arabs recognize a Jewish State?

Israel wants the PA to recognize it as a Jewish state - with Israel being the state of the Jews, while Palestine the state of the Arabs. After all, this is the main idea behind the “two-state for two-people” solution. Not so fast…

PA leaders are only willing to recognize Israel as a “state of all its citizens” – Arabs and Jews alike. Not as a Jewish state. This isn't just a subtle semantic difference. It counters the core idea behind the formation of the state of Israel as a “Jewish and Democratic state”. This refusal by the PA is of great concern to Israelis. It means forming Palestine as an Arab state, turning Israel into a bi-national state, and raises the specter of eventually the two merging into an Arab dominant state.

Back to President Obama’s speech:

Yes, peace is necessary, and yes it is just. But frankly I am afraid it is very difficult to achieve it now days. I listed some of the key obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, and surely there are a few I left out.

Add to the mix the fact that the whole Middle East is in turmoil. Egypt is grappling with the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”, Syria is trapped in a bloody civil war, Lebanon is tittering at the edge of one, and Jordan is trying its best to fend off threats to the crown. Not exactly an atmosphere where Israeli leaders are likely to take risks, especially ones that can seriously jeopardize the security of the state.

So what would I do? 

I believe we have no choice but to work hard at the problem. Maybe the PA will flex its positions. Maybe the Hamas will acknowledge that destroying Israel isn't a realistic goal. I would not make any “bold moves” that will put Israel at risk. There is no room for fumble here. But I bet there are many small steps we can take that will help move the peace ball forward – a few yards at a time. 

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