Israel-Palestine: a mountain to climb
Above all, the asymmetry of the status quo has to be addressed
- The Guardian, Thursday 11 April 2013 21.58 BST
The late journalist and author Amnon Dankner wrote a satirical column a few months before his untimely death in which he imagined that Israel had found a way of detaching itself, body and soul, from the Middle East and turning into the island it always wanted to be. Drifting westwards, it would finally find its true home on the east coast of the US. Dankner’s conceit captured a raw political truth: that there is no urgency, or even appetite, for negotiations with the Palestinians. The polling is consistent: 70% are for the two-state solution; 80% think it will never happen. The disillusion is mutual. Looking up each night at the twinkling lights of the settlers on the West Bank hills, Palestinians can be forgiven for thinking, after 20 years, that the prospect of ever living in a state of their own has gone for good.
The new US secretary of state, John Kerry, has just finished his second visit to the region this week on a mission to “kickstart” the talks. The image presumes an engine primed to roar into life, whereas the selective briefing from the first exchanges show the contraption lying in bits on the garage floor. The Palestinians want Israel to produce a map, and talk about borders and security first. Israel categorically opposes this and is wary of any gestures before the resumption of full negotiations. In addition, a lot has changed since the last talks. The ground that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, stands on, as a result of the regional earthquake all around him, has shrunk. He is now perched on a ledge, with Hamas in Gaza, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and many of his own Fatah colleagues watching how long he stays upright. No longer does he find himself surrounded by a phalanx of supportive Arab states.
But let’s assume what now looks unlikely comes to pass. What would have to change to make everyone think that this time, at least, meaningful negotiations are possible? The following list is by no means exhaustive, but it is one measure of how much has to happen. First, clearly the fastest route to the peace table is if Israel stopped building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Washington has to ensure there are consequences, such as reducing financial aid, if they don’t. You cannot define borders until you know what you are doing with the settlements.
Second, Palestinian unity should not be regarded as the consequence of a settlement put to the Palestinian people, but an essential ingredient of it. Both the Americans and the Europeans accept that no peace is possible without Palestinian national unity, but insist on a formula tailored to exclude Hamas. Once the deal with the Palestinians who recognised Israel is done, the Palestinians who don’t will be forced to accept, or so the current logic goes.
Not necessarily. By seeking the narrowest set of Palestinian interlocutors, you also ensure the weakest possible base on which to sell the deal. The consensus is to say that the worst thing that can happen to Mr Abbas right now is for the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to visit Gaza. At Mr Kerry’s insistence, Mr Erdogan has delayed. The path to peace may mean reversing that logic. A breakthrough would come if Hamas went further than recognising the PLO’s right to negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians, and announced explicitly (as opposed to implicitly) its readiness for a two-state solution on 1967 borders. A Palestinian state can not exclude Gaza.
Above all, the asymmetry of the status quo has to be addressed. The Palestinians have no leverage and Israel can seem to enjoy impunity, almost whatever it does. In legal and peaceful ways, the cost of the occupation has to rise. The saddest epitaph to Oslo is the network of bypass roads, tunnels and bridges that enable two parallel universes to exist. Separation infrastructure entrenches the illusion of a zero cost occupation. It is not the basis of a future Palestinian state, on which Israel’s own security depends, and to whose fate (to return to Dankner’s metaphor) it should truly remain attached.