It is often said by mediators that a good deal between two sides is one which leaves each side equally unhappy. That is the essence of a negotiated settlement where two parties have diametrically opposing demands and are trying to find a peaceful way to resolve their differences. Indications are that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to find a way to come to some of these middle ground positions in an effort to present a plan to Israel and the Palestinians that has some chance of acceptance.
Certainly, there is no shortage of naysayers on either side of the conflict. Israeli cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ze'ev Elkin have been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to walk away from the talks and reject Kerry's imminent proposals. Similarly, officials on the Palestinian side of the table, including PLO Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo have indicated that Kerry's proposals will not be acceptable to any Palestinians.
At the same time, there are a number of high ranking Israeli cabinet ministers, including Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid who maintain that a deal that is acceptable to Israel is within reach. Any such deal, from the Israeli side, could necessitate a change in the current Israeli government. Given statements made by Minister Naftali Bennett, he and his party would leave the government rather than agree to the type of peace plan being presented by Kerry. On the other hand, there is significant skepticism in Israel that the Palestinians will accept this type of deal, even if Kerry can get the Israelis to agree. Moreover, Israelis have real concerns as to whether the current Palestinian leadership could deliver the type of "peace" contemplated by the agreement. Statements by various Palestinian officials seem to suggest that this type of deal will not be good enough and the Palestinians will reject a U.S. brokered proposal, yet again.. But that remains to be seen.
What are some of the key issues?
1. Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State and Resolution of the Palestinian Refugee Issue.
In a sense, these issues are very closely related. From an Israeli perspective, the UN partition plan in 1948 contemplated a two state solution - one state for the Jewish people and one state for the Palestinian people. There can be little historical dispute that the Palestinians rejected the plan and declared war on Israel. Over the course of that war, some areas were seized by Jordan and Egypt that would have been parts of the Palestinian state. Other areas were captured by Israel and many Palestinians fled those areas. Yet between 1948 and 1967, the Palestinian and pan-Arab animus was still directed at Israel with the goal of eliminating Israel's existence. Such was the Arab rhetoric leading up to the 1967 war and the 1973 war - and for many years afterwards. It is still the rhetoric of Hamas.
The reason that Israel has insisted on recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" as part of a peace deal is to signify that both sides accept a two state solution as a permanent peace deal. It is not a stepping stone towards greater conflict. Israel would recognize a Palestinian state with all of the trappings that a state might have, subject to security considerations. The Palestinians would be expected to do the same and would agree to Israel's right to exist.
What does a two state solution really mean? It means that each side gives up its dream, goal or aspiration of taking over all of the territory held by the other side. It also means that each side solves its own refugee problems within the borders of its territory. For the Palestinians, this type of deal should leave them free to bring every single Palestinian refugee, from across the world, to the nascent Palestinian state, if they so choose. Should that not be the purpose of a two state resolution? Since 1948, Israel has absorbed millions of refugees, including Jews who were no longer welcome in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iran and other Arab countries. The Palestinians will need to do the same and absorb the Palestinian refugees in their new state.
Most Palestinians have continued to demand the "right to return" to Israel. This insistence is nothing more than a rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and the expression of an intention to override Israel demographically. It is, quite simply, for Israel, a non-starter. If, as some suggest, Palestinians continue to insist that a large number of Palestinians be permitted to return to Israel rather than the new Palestinian state, this would be a deal breaker, in my view.
2. Status of Jerusalem
Under the U.N. partition plan, Jerusalem was going to become an "International City." It was never envisioned as part of the Palestinian state and certainly not its capital. Between 1948 and 1967, much of Jerusalem was held by the Jordanians, with little push by the Palestinians to declare it the capital of Palestine. In 1967, Israel recaptured parts of Jerusalem, including the old city and ultimately annexed most of the city. Regardless of what some countries in the world might formally maintain, Jerusalem is not "occupied territory" as defined under the Geneva conventions. It was not legally held by Jordan nor was its status clearly defined. Since Israel has controlled Jerusalem, from 1967, the holy cites have been fully accessible to the different religious groups that claim access to them. The Muslim Waqf has controlled the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy cites have been overseen by Christian authorities. This contrasts with the picture that existed in Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, during which time Jews were barred from attending the Jewish religious cites in old Jerusalem.
One of the key Palestinian demands is that East Jerusalem, including the Old City, become the capital of the new Palestinian state. Once again, this is something that is simply not going to happen any time soon. There would be no political will in Israel for dividing Jerusalem and certainly no appetite for Israel to relinquish the one place in the world that is holy to the Jewish people. So Secretary of State Kerry has proposed using suburbs of Jerusalem, including Kafr Aqab or Abu Dis and calling those suburbs "Greater Jerusalem" or some other terminology so that "Jerusalem" can still be listed as the Palestinian capital. While this would be unpalatable to many on both sides, it may be a reasonable resolution of the issue, especially when combined with the fact that Palestinians would continue to control the Muslim religious sites in Jerusalem as they do today, even though the Dome of the Rock sits on the very spot that was once the Holy Temple.
3. The Settlements, the Border and Security
The United States has proposed a formula involving an approximate total amount of land for each side, equal to the 1967 borders. The idea of "land swaps" would mean that Israel would keep the largest major settlement blocs while giving up other areas to the Palestinians. There are certainly many on both sides who oppose this proposal entirely.
Many Palestinians have demanded that Israel withdraw, entirely, from all land that Israel has held since 1967. This would include major residential blocs, some of which were inhabited by Jews before 1948 (such as parts of Gush Etzion). Some Israelis have demanded that Israel retain the vast majority of the West Bank and refuse to agree to turn over any territory, whatsoever. Neither side is likely to get everything it is after in a negotiated settlement.
Media reports suggest that the settlement issue would be resolved through a number of approaches. Under Kerry's proposals, which have not yet been formally announced, Israel would keep or annex the largest settlement blocs, but it would also agree to evacuate some areas of the West Bank on which there are now Israeli settlements. Palestinians would receive other territory, with the total territory under Palestinian control for the new state the approximate equivalent of the 1967 borders.
The real challenge is security here, particularly security for Israel and even for Jordan. Israel can ill afford, from a security perspective, to agree to the establishment of another fundamentalist terror-sponsored regime on its borders. After Israel evacuated Gaza, the Gazan people promptly elected the rejectionist, terrorist group Hamas as its leadership. Shortly afterwards, Hamas began lobbing rockets at Israel. A repetition of this, in a different area, would be entirely unacceptable to Israel and would threaten Israel existentially. Kerry's plans have apparently floated various approaches to address this security concern including a continuing, but gradually lessening Israeli presence in the Palestinian state or some type of U.S. presence. This could present one of the greatest challenges for Israel and one of the biggest leaps of faith that Israel would have to make to agree to a deal.
Israel has a very small margin of error here the wrong decision or concession on security issues could be suicidal. That is not to say that this is the plan of the current Palestinian leadership. But looking at events in Syria, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is reasonable for Israel to insist on security measures that will be honoured and verifiable, irrespective of the type of Palestinian government that might get elected. Some of these precautionary security terms are likely to be unacceptable to the Palestinians and that is where Kerry is working with both sides to try to find some way to reach a deal.
There are, of course, numerous other issues. After all, many books have been written about this issue, from various historical, political and other vantage points. I have reviewed some of them elsewhere on this blog.
The real question is what is going to happen now - and will anything come of this. Most Israelis apparently remain unconvinced that a deal will be possible, according to recent Israeli surveys reported on by YNet News and Haaretz. Many Palestinians have signified that they would view this type of deal as a "sell-out" and would reject it entirely. So it is far from clear that there will be any kind of resolution. Nevertheless, here are a few possibilities:
1. Israel could agree to the deal, whether unconditionally or with some reservations. In order to do this, it appears that Israel's government would change, at least somewhat. It is likely that Bennett would leave the government and that Labour, under the leadership of its recently elected new leader Yitzhak Herzog would join. It is unclear whether some or all of the "Yisrael Beitenu" MKs would leave the government and if they were to leave, whether Netanyahu could still cobble together a majority that would support the deal. If a Netanyahu-led government were to support the deal, my sense is that a deal could also win support in an Israel-wide referendum, even if the margin of victory was slim.
2. Israel could agree to the deal, as above, but the Palestinians could reject it, either in connection with the ongoing talks or as part of some form of referendum. This is probably the outcome that most Israelis anticipate, although there are signs that Abbas may be prepared to agree to a proposed deal, even if he does so conditionally or with some reservations. It is unclear what the Palestinians will do if these talks fail. They may look to the world community to try and exert economic pressure on Israel by advocating boycotts and divestment. Some countries in the world have already been susceptible to these overtures. Or they may declare a third intifada. Either of these approaches would likely be disastrous for both Israel and the Palestinians and would probably set back a peaceful resolution by another twenty or thirty years, at least.
3. The Palestinians could agree to the deal, as above, with some reservations or unconditionally. However, Bennett could then cause the collapse of the government and Netanyahu could prove unable (or unwilling) to put together a coalition that would support the deal. This could result in new elections in Israel or it could bring about a new right wing government that includes the religious parties and that has no interest in any type of peace deal. In this scenario, (i.e. if the Netanyahu government were to fall) my guess would be that we would see a new election fairly quickly, though I am not about to predict the results. It seems to me unlikely that Netanyahu would cling to power by cobbling together a far right -wing government. I think he would be more inclined to hold an election.
Stepping back from all of this, there are many reasons for pessimism and it seems unlikely that we will see an Israel-Palestinian peace deal any time soon. There are so many complicated issues, so much "bad blood," and so much hatred. Yet, as I have told some of my friends, we are living in an age which has seen the collapse of the U.S.S.R; a peaceful resolution of the dispute in Ireland; the end to South African Apartheid; and many other world changes that people would have believed to be possible in our lifetime. So maybe, just maybe, a peace deal between Israel, the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states will be another one of those historical moments.
It seems to me that both sides need this type of deal if they truly wish to avoid sentencing their children and grandchildren to generations more of bloody conflict.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
After reading and reviewing the wonderfully optimistic book Start-Up Nation, I decided to "balance" it by reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is a self-described liberal Zionist with a serious interest in Judaism and in the future of Israel. His book is an attack on Israeli policies with respect to the disputed territories and a call for action in the form of a boycott of West Bank products. Unlike other members of the anti-Israel left, Beinart calls for those boycotting West Bank products to make an equally vigorous effort to buy products and patronize companies from within Israel's "green line." This, he proposes, is intended to offset the idea that boycotting the West Bank is "anti-Israel."
Beinart's book is well written and interesting but ultimately, somewhat flawed. His view of Israel's role in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians is either naive or willfully blind in that he seems to place the blame for just about everything squarely on Israel's shoulders. There is little discussion in the book of Palestinian extremism, nor is there any real discussion of a legitimate compromise proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Moreover, throughout the book, Palestinian acts of terrorism are minimized or downplayed. Beinart even finds a way to blame the failure of Camp David and the subsequent 2nd Intifada on Israel, even though he concedes that Arafat does not even appear to have made a genuine counter-proposal in response to the huge concessions that were proposed by the Israelis. Nevertheless, Beinart's focus on the urgent need to reach a peace deal with a two state solution is intended to benefit Palestinians and Israelis and is laudable.
His chapter entitled "The Crisis in Israel," focuses on the discrepancy between Israeli democracy and equality of rights within the "green line" area and the current situation in the disputed territories. There is nothing new here about the idea that Israel is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in trying to reconcile the idea of a "Jewish State" with the goal of a liberal, democratic State, while trying to find a way to resolve the issue of the territories. The current status quo threatens not only the lives and living conditions of the Palestinians but also threatens Israel's condition as a viable liberal democracy. It is hard to disagree with this part of Beinart's analysis and many Israelis, on the left and in the centre of the Israeli political landscape would agree.
Beinart then switches over to the United States, where he paints a grim picture of American Jewry. Characterizing the vast majority of Jews as liberal democrats, Beinart rails against "America's major Jewish organizations" as having lurched to the right. A particular focus of his attacks is Abe Foxman, National Director of the ADL, who is "beholden to no one but the philanthropic dollar." Beinart attacks the ADL and the AJC (American Jewish Committee) for supporting the policies of the Israeli government and for failing to "challenge the occupation." He even manages to defend former President Jimmy Carter, despite the overwhelming evidence that Allan Dershowitz has put forward with respect to Carter's ill-will towards Israel.
In a chapter entitled "Is the Occupation Israel's Fault?," Beinart minimizes the security threat to Israel that an immediate withdrawal from the territories would entail by arguing that Israel is already within rocket range of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. He suggests that Israel should rely on its "credible deterrent." Of course, this is not been a great success with respect to Gaza from which Israel has faced numerous rocket attacks after withdrawing its forces. Beinart then runs through the peace deals offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and concludes that these offers were rightly rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient, even though, he concedes, "there is a dispute about whether Arafat made any offer at all." While there were (and still are) clearly disputed issues, including the future of Jerusalem (in particular the Temple Mount), the issue of Palestinian refugees and the exact nature of the land swap envisioned, Beinart seems to suggest that Israel should have fully conceded its position on each of these issues. Moreover, despite the fact that the issue of "land swaps" was supposedly negotiated down to a difference of 4% of the total area of the West Bank (the Israelis proposing to keep 6% and the Palestinians proposing 2%), Beinart also lays the blame for this failure on the Israeli side. From Beinart's viewpoint, the dispute comes down to the disputed West Bank city of Ariel, which Israel refused to agree to dismantle.
Beinart goes on to describe subsequent events when former President Bill Clinton outlined parameters that "went well beyond Barak's proposal at Camp David": "Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle, but then offered reservations that rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless." Beinart paints former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza as part of a "hidden agenda" to allow Israel to continue to hold the rest of the West Bank. By way of contrast, on the Palestinian side, even Hamas gets off lightly. Its charter, calling for Israel's destruction is downplayed and Beinart justifies Hamas' decision to fire missiles into Israel. Again, he concedes that "Hamas had been killing Israelis since the 1990s," but somehow makes the case that if Israel had just lifted its blockade against Hamas and ceased any attacks (including retaliatory attacks), everything would have been wonderful and the Hamas rocket attacks would have ceased. None of this is intended, on my part, to argue that the situation in Gaza is very good. However, I think it is fair to say that if the Palestinian leadership took a different tactic following Israel's unilateral withdrawal, there could have been significant economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza that would have greatly improved the situation for Gaza's Palestinians. Instead, Gaza's leadership focused on amassing weapons, firing rockets and public relations exercises instead of working towards an arrangement with Israel that would have ameliorated conditions for Gazans.
In a chapter entitled "the Jewish President," Beinart reviews President Obama's credentials as a liberal, philo-Semitic president, whose own daughters attended a Solomon Schecter Day School in the Chicago era. Describing Obama as having been influenced by the late influential Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.), Beinart also describes the connection between Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Chicago's Temple Solel, who was one of Obama's "earliest and most prominent supporters." Overall, Beinart describes Obama as sharing a liberal Zionist view of Israel with a range of influential Jewish friends. According to Beinart's description, this would include pressuring Israel to make concessions with respect to the occupied territories, but in the name of preserving a liberal Zionist vision of Israel rather than as a way of attacking Israel.
As much as Obama is described in the book as a supporter of everything that is good about Israel, Netanyahu is no doubt, in Beinart's view, the devil incarnate. Describing Netanyahu as an heir to the chauvinistic Jabotinsky school of right wing Zionism, Beinart traces Netanyahu's political lineage from Jabotinsky to Benzion Netanyahu (Prime Minister Netanyahu's late father) to Netanyahu himself. Along the way, he suggests that Netanyahu is a racist, advocates a policy of physically transferring Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank, and sprinkles in selective quotes from Netanyahu's 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, and its 2000 reprint, A Durable Peace. Overall he describes Netanyahu as a monist Zionist, who "subordinates external moral considerations to Zionism itself." He also reviews Netanyahu's close connections with AIPAC and wonders about the source of Netanyahu's electoral campaign funding. While Beinart may ultimately be accurate in his description of Netanyahu's reluctance to agree to the type of peace deal that Netanyahu's predecessors were being pressured to sign (if only the Palestinians would have also agreed), Beinart omits the massive swing in Israeli popular sentiment that followed the collapse of the peace talks and the onset of a new wave of violence. In a sense, Beinart's book advocates boycotting Netanyahu as much as any given policy. Ultimately, with the recent change to Netanyahu's coalition to now include the Kadima party, it remains to be seen whether there is any accuracy to Beinart's description.
Beinart's antipathy towards Netanyahu comes through even more clearly as Beinart describes the public clashes between President Obama and Netanyahu. Noting that Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 Presidential election, Beinart argues that he and many others were hopeful that Obama could lead a shift in U.S. policy to bolster the liberal Zionist vision of Israel that they shared and bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories. But Beinart goes on to describe a series of confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu and concludes that Obama was completely "humbled" as a result of pressure from AIPAC and other powerful, sometimes unnamed, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian sources. Ultimately, Obama was forced, as Beinart describes it, to back down from insisting on a complete settlement freeze and was publicly embarrassed and humiliated in the process. Of course, another possibility is that Obama began to rethink some of his policies with respect to Israel but that wouldn't fit too well with Beinart's thesis.
Beinart's chapter on the future of American Jewry hits closer to home since his description is also somewhat applicable to Canadian Jewry - and even Israeli Jewry. Jewish families who send their children to Jewish day schools are the ones who are continuing to carry on Jewish traditions and minimize the likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. These families, especially in the United States, but in other areas as well are predominantly Orthodox. This means, in Beinart's view, that the number of actively involved, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews is steadily declining, relative to the overall population of committed Jews. Since these liberal Jews are the people who would share Beinart's view of a liberal Israel, their influence is steadily waning in the Jewish community. I have to note that this is also the case in Israel, which provides full state support for Orthodox schools but does not have a sufficient number of liberal, Jewish schools in which children can learn about and practice liberal Judaism. For Beinart, the net result is a prediction that the major American Jewish organizations will come to be dominated increasingly by Orthodox Jews with an illiberal agenda. This type of change is also occurring in Israel and has led to many different challenges pitting Orthodox Jews against others who advocate an egalitarian, democratic agenda. The ultimate result, if Israel does not save itself now, according to Beinart, would be a lurch towards a non-liberal version of Jewish Zionism at the expense of the liberal Zionist vision that many of the founders of Israel originally shared, and which included principles of democracy and equality for all Israeli citizens.
Beinart's solution to all of this is to propose a modified version of the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction" ("BDS") campaign. He calls for people to refer to Israel as being divided into two parts - "democratic Israel" and "non-democratic Israel." He also calls for a boycott of settlers and their products while tempering that with an "equally vigorous embrace of the people and products of democratic Israel." He proposes that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights not be included in the definition of "non-democratic Israel" since the Palestinians in those areas can actually obtain full Israeli citizenship.
If the only existential issue that Israel faced was dealing with the territories, Beinart's analysis might make some sense. But he dramatically minimizes that true existential threats to Israel. He barely mentions the 2006 war with Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the other threats that Israel faces. In short, he has a very rosy picture of how Israel might defend itself from attacks that would emanate from very close range following a full withdrawal from the territories. Moreover, given the fact that he has shifted the blame for the failure to reach a peace deal to Israel, almost entirely, he implicitly absolves the world from the need to pressure the Palestinians equally.
With the two sides, according to Beinart, having come as close to a deal as he describes, one would think that it would make sense to pressure both sides. For example, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that Israel will accept a "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees. Most Jews living in surrounding Arab countries left or were expelled following the establishment of Israel. Moreover, one state was designated as a Jewish state and the other as a Palestinian state. Sure, the Palestinian state should be entitled to offer an unlimited right of return for Palestinians from anywhere in the world who wish to return to the area and live in the Palestinian state. But to this point, even as Beinart describes it, the Palestinians appear to be demanding the right to have refugees return to and live in Israel, while having a Palestinian state that is virtually, if not completely, free of Jews.
Many in Israel, on the left and even the centre of the political spectrum will agree with Beinart's overriding thesis that Israel cannot continue as a liberal democratic country without reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. And many would like to see that deal concluded as soon as possible and believe that Israel should be willing to make significant concessions to reach a deal. Yet many in Israel, even those on the centre and the left, have real concerns, based on experience from the last go-round, that the Palestinians are not prepared or are not politically able to make corresponding concessions that will be required to reach a deal. The central flaw of Beinart's book is that he downplays this possibility and places virtually all of the blame on Israel, which allows him to advocate joining the BDS crowd, with a modifying twist. A more balanced recount of historical events might have led Beinart to advocate pressuring (or boycotting) both sides in an effort to reach a lasting deal.