Friday, 2 April 2010
confronts its nightmare scenario
April 2, 2010
With the peace process at a standstill, Palestinians are turning to a calculatedly provocative alternative, writes Paul McGeough.
There is nowhere to hide amid the armies of envoys and negotiators, analysts and commentators who are dug in across the windy wastelands of Middle East diplomacy.
So when Hillary Clinton congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu for his ''unprecedented'' gesture of a partial freeze on expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, someone inevitably would come along and burst her bubble.
Uncharacteristically, Clinton had left herself no wriggle room.
''The President … wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position,'' she said during a joint press conference with her Egyptian counterpart last May.
But in cutting analysis before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee early last month, Professor Daniel Kurtzer, now of Princeton University but formerly a heavyweight American ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, explained how the ''unprecedented'' had been diluted to become partial and short-term locally - and diplomatically insulting.
''The fact is that settlement construction activity has not stopped for even one day in the West Bank or East Jerusalem,'' he said. ''And Israel has even expanded economic benefits to out-of-the-way settlements, as a kind of compensation for the government's decision not to make new housing starts in settlements for 10 months.''
It was a slow boil, but in fobbing off the White House, the Israeli leader sowed the seeds for the current spectacular rupture in US-Israeli relations - with no expectation of peace any time soon.
This Obama-Netanyahu moment involves two out of four of what are called the ''final-status'' issues in the jargon of the peace process - and if we were up to speed here, we would hesitate even to use the term ''process'', because that implies an end point that seems to recede beyond an increasingly distant horizon.
The issues in play are Jerusalem as a shared capital and the controversial settlements. The other two are national borders and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
All four get parcelled up in what is called the two-state solution - a Jewish home called Israel and a neighbouring Arab nation called Palestine. But for all the intermittent excitement, there's been virtually no progress on any of the four final-status issues. And if they cannot be agreed, does the two-state solution remain a viable objective?
Palestinian minds have already turned to a calculatedly provocative alternative - collapsing the entire institutional facade of the Palestinian Authority and instead, to campaign for Israel's demographic nightmare of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
In such a state the fast-growing Palestinian population would become the majority - ending Israel's right to claim itself as a Jewish state and, in the absence of citizenship rights for all, smashing its claim to be a democracy.
Working on the principle that if Palestinians are to be denied a full state, they should not settle for a half-way house, the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is canvassing options that would be increasingly problematic for Israel, Washington and the region.
In a paper written late last year, he suggests ending security co-operation with Israel and nullifying the Oslo Accords - both of which would require Israel to secure the West Bank, instead of having the Palestinians do it for them, and thereby effectively managing the occupation for Israel.
The Israeli commentator Ehud Yaari sees the same prospect, arguing that Netanyahu needs to act on what Palestinian goodwill remains in the hope of finding an accommodation before the two-state possibility erodes to the extent that a search for alternatives begins.
''In other words,'' he writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, ''the Palestinian community will accelerate its collapse into Israel's unwilling arms, in effect accomplishing by stealth the sort of Arab demographic dominance that Israeli leaders have sought for decades to avoid by occupying, rather than annexing the Palestinian territories.
''Such an annexation in reverse would leave Israel no choice but to coexist alongside an Arab majority within the whole of Palestine - as it existed under the British mandate.''
It's not a novel idea. Extremists on both sides - Hamas among the Palestinians and the fundamentalist settler movement in Israel - have long laid claim to the land from ''the river to the sea'', but each claiming that it be controlled by their side.
Nor is it such far-fetched stuff in terms of on-the-ground realities.
Canvassing Israeli rejection of Palestinian statehood, the former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind wrote recently: ''Israel is left with two options - the first is that the West Bank, with or without Gaza, becomes a part of Israel with equal rights for its citizens … the alternative would be a nominal autonomy for the Palestinians with the Israelis retaining real control, [which] would be compared by many of Israel's opponents with the Bantustans created by the South African government in the bad old days.''
Rifkind's theme is taken up by others. Arguing that Israel had ''locked in the irreversibility of its colonial project'', Henry Siegman, formerly national director of the American Jewish Congress, writes: ''As a result … Israel has crossed the threshold from 'the only democracy in the Middle East' to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.''
Writing for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre's Noref Report before the eruption of the current crisis, Siegman argues that Netanyahu's contempt for Obama's ''freeze'' demand might have the saving grace of bringing about an international realisation that the two-state solution would have to be imposed through ''forceful outside intervention''.
Siegman's point is that the absence of continued talks exposes the deliberate irreversibility of the Israeli settlements, thereby legitimising the kind of ''determined third-party initiatives'' that could make a two-state outcome a reality.
Without going into what he means by ''forceful'' and ''imposed'', Siegman concludes: ''An imposed solution has risks, but these do not begin to compare with the risks of the conflict's unchecked continuation.'' But here, he executes a semantic U-turn: ''Furthermore, since the adversaries are not being asked to accept anything they have not already committed themselves to in formal accords, the international community is not imposing its own ideas but insisting the parties live up to existing obligations.''
When he appeared before Congress, the former ambassador Kurtzer was searing on the shortcomings of Washington's conduct of the peace process.
''We have known for years that interim, incremental or step-by-step approaches will no longer work,'' he said. ''We know that confidence-building measures, in a vacuum, do not work and instead inspire lack of confidence. We know that building peace from the ground up, while important, cannot work in the absence of serious negotiations within which this edifice of peace will fit.''
But he does not favour imposing a settlement. Opting instead for velvet-gloved persuasion, he urges the Obama administration to draw up a ''substantive set of ideas'' to get the parties focused on what Washington will support - and not support - as elements of a final deal.
His suggested blueprint is hardly surprising - territory to be split according to the 1967 border, with swaps of equal size and value to represent 100 per cent of the land; Israel to retain a limited number of settlements but all other settlements and settlers to be evacuated; Jerusalem to be divided demographically to become two capitals for the two states; in the Old City of Jerusalem, both sides should adopt a common approach to management rather than to seek sovereign control; refugees would be allowed to return to the new Palestinian state but Israel to decide how many Palestinians could return to live within its borders and refugees to be compensated.
The Israeli commentator Yaari thinks Netanyahu could find a half-way house - the only problem with which is that Netanyahu has long talked of a half-way house that has never been acceptable to Palestinians.
There is an air of desperation in the detail of Yaari's proposal for an armistice - a formal cessation of hostilities that falls short of a peace treaty.
Claiming that many Israelis and Americans refuse to see that Palestinians instinctively distinguish between ''independence'' (an end to occupation) and ''sovereignty'' (statehood), he argues that ''most'' Palestinians want to be rid of Israeli control but not necessarily by dividing the land - a claim that sits oddly with regular high Palestinian public-opinion belief in the two-state arrangement.
Arguing that variants of the two-state solution are unacceptable, he writes: ''Which is precisely why it is in the Israeli government's interest to pursue an armistice that establishes provisional borders for a Palestinian state.''
Instead of ''freezing'' settlements, Yaari wants to get on with removing them from within the armistice boundaries of the new Palestinian state and he wants to give some interim ground on the other final status issues.
He would ''transfer some Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem'' to the Palestinian state and allow Palestinians to ''help'' manage the holy sites. Work could begin on compensation and resettlement assistance for refugees in the new Palestinian state and the most realistic armistice boundary would be the route of the wall or ''separation barrier'' - notwithstanding that it shrinks the size of the West Bank by about 9.5 per cent.
''Israel must offer Palestinian statehood for less than peace before the Palestinians and their leaders abandon the two-state model altogether,'' Yaari writes, seemingly from a time warp - he is proposing the sort of deal that might have been acceptable in the mid-1990s, but now it has an air of being too little too late and for the wrong reasons.
The analysts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley opt for a similar interim arrangement - but in casting it in different terms they do not necessarily make it any more acceptable … to either side.
They commend the notion of Israelis and Palestinians living in a single state as intellectually attractive and morally pleasing, before knocking it down as politically fanciful. ''Today, in effect, a single state reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, in which Palestinians are imprisoned in Gaza, occupied in the West Bank or discriminated against in Israel,'' they write in the The New York Review of Books. But they propose lowering the bar in the peace process might produce an interim arrangement that would more accurately reflect the feelings of the two sides - ''begrudging mutual acquiescence as opposed to earnest acceptance.''
In challenging the two-state concept, they pose an awkward question: ''Why so widely embraced in the abstract, has it been so stubbornly rejected in practice?''
One explanation would be an absence of international diplomatic heft over the years. But they find another by putting the two peoples on a different kind of analyst's couch, a process by which they identify the flaw as a promise to close a conflict that began in 1948 while virtually all that it is preoccupied with springs from 1967.
''If the object is to end the conflict and settle all claims, these matters will need to be dealt with,'' they argue. ''They reach back to the two peoples' most visceral and deep-seated emotions, their longings and anger. For years, the focus has been on fine-tuning percentages of territorial withdrawal, ratios of territorial swaps, and definitions of Jerusalem's borders.
''The devil, it turns out is not in the details. It's in the broader picture.''
These days the broader picture is challenging terrain. The manner in which Netanyahu has circled his wagons does not look good. Instead of bringing more moderate elements of the Israeli political spectrum into government, he opted for a hawkish right-wing kitchen cabinet in which the talk is free and frank - and the spirit of compromise is meagre.
''We're talking about something that is diseased and insane,'' the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth this week quoted a Netanyahu confidant who was accusing the White House of taking a ''patently Palestinian line''.
''The situation is catastrophic. We have a problem with a very, very hostile [US] administration - there's never been anything like this before.''
Inadvertently perhaps, he revealed the extent to which for some in the Israeli establishment, the peace-process always was a dead end.
Speaking as though Obama had taken leave of his senses, he vented: ''This president wants to establish the Palestinian state and he wants to give them Jerusalem. You could say Obama is the greatest disaster for Israel - a strategic disaster.''