Friday, February 21, 2014

Israeli-Palestinian “Peace in our Lifetime”?

I just concluded watching an in-depth interview conducted by Ilana Dayan, one of Israel’s top TV journalists. Mrs. Dayan is our local version of Barbara Walters, and her show - “Evidence” (עובדה) focuses on strategic issues and the people behind them. The main interviewee this time was John Kerry – United States Secretary of State. The subject was the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It was a riveting show, and the subject certainly significant to anyone living in this region.

John Kerry had his fair share of defamations throughout his political career; especially during his presidential race vs.  G.W. Bush. That experience must have prepared him for Israeli politicians who didn’t mince words calling him “obsessive”, “lunatic”, or simply a “Nobel Price hunter”. Kerry has “invited” those attacks through his relentless pursuit of a peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians.

What makes John Kerry believe he can solve one of the toughest and most elusive problems in modern diplomacy? His predecessors in the job, people like Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton – all tried and failed. The interview with John Kerry certainly shed light on his character, personal history and his commitment to crack the tough nut of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
US Secretary of State John Kerry,
with Tzippi Livni (Israel rep) and Saeb Erekat (Palestinian rep)

I was impressed with Mr. Kerry’s background and his commitment. And I certainly wish him success - yet I fear his odds of success are slim. Why is that?

Throughout the interview Mr. Kerry emphasized that he views his and the US role as creating the framework for the two sides to agree. He reiterated several times that it is up to the two leaders – Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to make the ultimate decision. I for one don’t believe they will, for their own set of reasons.

My personal view is that Mr. Netanyahu needs an agreement to addresses the following minimum requirements before he can bring it to a vote in the Israeli Parliament:
  • Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State: one of the root causes of this century-old conflict has been Arab refusal to recognize “Jewish peoplehood” and the Jews right for a state of their own. Without such recognition, there can be no true ‘end of hostilities’ between the two sides.
  • Demilitarization of a Palestinian state: the West Bank is literally a ‘stone throw’ away from Israel’s main populous areas. Previous areas Israel withdrew from (e.g. Southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip) were quickly taken over by armed militias (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza). A rocket barrage from the West Bank to Tel Aviv is unfathomable. A Palestinian state should have a police force, but should not possess any major arms in the foreseeable future.
  • Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley: to ensure that rockets or other weapons and ammunition aren't smuggled into the West Bank area, Israel would need to guard that border with its own troops. This critical task cannot be “outsourced” to the UN, or any other party.
  • Annexation of major Jewish settlements: within the last 47 years, some large Jewish cities and towns developed in the West Bank. It is inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents will be forced to uproot at this stage. Israel is home to over 1.5 million Arabs, and it doesn’t make sense to uproot those people either. Some form “territory exchange” has to be agreed on, in order to include large Jewish settlements within the boundaries of Israel. 
  • Control over Jerusalem Old City: the old city of Jerusalem contains holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Under Arab control (1948-1967) Jews were denied access to their holiest place - the Western Wall. The centuries-old Jewish community in the old city Jewish Quarter was slain or deported. Israel is unlikely to yield control over these sites again.
  • Palestinian forfeit of their “right of return”: the demand to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their “old homes” in Israel will simply eliminate Israel as a Jewish state. A large number of Jewish refugees had to flee Arab countries in the aftermath of the 1948 war. Some form of cross-compensation agreement has to be reached, which will not involve repatriation of Arab refugees in Israel.
Given the current state of affairs, I believe Mr. Abbas can hardly agree to any of the above Israeli requirements. Here is why:
  • Legitimacy of the Palestinian President office: Mr. Abbas was elected as president of the Palestinian Authority in 2005 – for a 4 year term. He succeeded the revered late Palestinian leader – Yasser Arafat – who founded the Fatah movement. President Abbas was scheduled to stand for re-election in 2009, but he didn’t. One of the reasons presidential elections were not held since 2005, is the concern that the Fatah party is unlikely to win them. In fact, elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 ended with a land slide victory for the Islamic party Hamas. Given the broad display of support for Hamas throughout the West Bank and Gaza, it is no wonder that Mr. Abbas didn’t put himself up for re-election. He has stayed in office largely thanks to the support of the US, Western Europe and… Israel. All three wish to avoid a scenario where Hamas takes control over the West Bank (in addition to Gaza) through a “democratic process”. 
  • Limited representation: Mr. Abbas and his Fatah party aren’t accepted by Hamas as legal representatives of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, Palestinian people who live in neighboring Arab countries (and in Israel) aren’t represented by Mr. Abbas either. In fact, Mr. Abbas only represents the 2+ million Palestinians who live in the West Bank. There are another 8+ million people who consider themselves Palestinians and are not represented by Mr. Abbas.

Why would Abbas agree to any of Israel’s terms? If he accepts some, or all of them, he will be labeled as “traitor” by Hamas and other Palestinians who do not recognize his authority sign an agreement on behalf of the “Palestinian People”. Plus he will likely be assassinated shortly after signing such an agreement.

If I were in Mr. Abbas shoes, I would play the “hard to get peace partner”. I will (reluctantly) participate in the negotiation process, while pursuing maneuvers that lead to an impasse. I will do my best to blame Israel for the talks’ failure. This strategy will ensure continued financial support from the US, Europe (and Israel), and secure jobs & income for my Fatah cohorts. Plus it will help me avoid the wrath of Hamas and other Palestinians. Wouldn’t you do the same?

But Mr. Abbas isn’t the only one wishing the peace talks would fail - so does Mr. Netanyahu; why?
  • Right-wing coalition: Mr. Netanyahu heads a political coalition with a core conservative view. Many Israeli parliament members within his own ‘Likud’ party, his close political ally ‘Yisrael Beiteinu ’, and his coalition partner ‘HaBayit HaYehudi‘ strongly object the proposed terms of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Simply put, Mr. Netanyahu may lose his Prime Minister position if he tries to force the issue with his own coalition members. He will actually need to rely on his government opposition votes to get an agreement approved.
  • Personal convictions: Mr. Netanyahu has been known for his right-wing views. He strongly objected in the past to proposed concessions to the Palestinians. While he indicated his commitment to a “two state” solution, many suspect this was a lip service intended to alleviate the diplomatic pressure from the US and Europe.

If I were in Netanyahu’s shoes, I would play the “willing to negotiate partner”. I would raise demands that are highly reasonable, yet are likely to be turned down by the Palestinians. My goal would also be achieving an impasse, while blaming the Palestinians for the talks’ failure.

I suspect that both Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu believe that “time is on their side”. Mr. Abbas enjoys the mounting international pressure on Israel, and believes that “a deal tomorrow will be better than a deal today”. In the meantime, personal safety and economic prosperity of Palestinians in the West Bank continuously improves, so why rush into a deal with Israel? Especially since it will likely put an end to his Presidential role, and perhaps even his life.

Mr. Netanyahu on the other hand watches how demographics change in the West Bank – every year without an agreement brings more Jewish settlers and more construction. This expands and solidifies Israeli territorial control on parts of the disputed area. Why should he rush into a deal where the outcome is giving up precious territory along with risking rocket attacks on Tel Aviv?

Any negotiation class talks about the importance of striving towards a “win-win” solution. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, I believe that both parties do not see a clear “win” in the short term. And both parties believe their negotiating position will only improve over time. It is therefore rational for both sides to wait. 

Israelis want to end the conflict – but on their terms. I believe that most Palestinians have given up on their aspirations to destroy Israel, but aren't quite ready to make the painful compromises needed for a peace agreement.

So here we are… We have a determined, well intentioned US Secretary of State who’ll do whatever it takes to entice the parties to reach an agreement. But can he force both sides to make concessions they do not want, or aren't ready yet to make? I believe that’s not the case - at least not just yet.

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future" (Yogi Berra)

Knowing that, I predict that “Israeli-Palestinian peace won’t happen anytime soon”. The implications are that a few more cycles of violence, pain and suffering will take place before the parties are ready to reach an agreement. I hope to be proven wrong...

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your analysis and while I am no authority on these matters, agree with it, for what it's worth.

    Still: Is Mr. Kerry wrong for trying? In history, we have seen so many surprises after decades, even centuries, of horrible warfare. Sometimes peace happens.

    One thing I am pretty sure of: A settlement won't happen without communication. Talks are a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for compromise.