One last chance for the two-state solution?

The real test of any new peace talks
January 23, 2013

Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks to the president; “he believes he exercises greater control over the US Congress than Obama”

One of Israel’s most respected political scientists recently dismissed the idea “that simply engaging in negotiations will automatically foster a peace agreement” between Israel and the Palestinians. Writing in Haaretz, Shlomo Avineri, a former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, called it “a fantasy proven baseless by the experience of the past 20 years.”

In this he is unquestionably correct. He is off base, however, when he maintains that previous peace initiatives have failed because they tried to resolve questions about the terms of a “permanent status” deal. He argues that even the two sides’ most moderate positions on these core issues are too far apart, making agreement impossible. He therefore proposes that the peace process shift from discussions of the endgame and Palestinian statehood to incremental improvements—“interim agreements, trust-building exercises, unilateral steps and other mechanisms,” that would serve as building blocks for broader future agreements. But this is the most deceptive illusion of all. For what the 20 years of failure to which Avineri refers prove above all is the bankruptcy of incrementalism and confidence-building measures. They were the hallmark of the stewardship of Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator for President Bill Clinton, and discredited the peace process.

That illusion should be resisted particularly by those now considering a new attempt at peace talks. European Union countries, led by Britain, France and Germany, are reportedly preparing to present Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new government with a new initiative for negotiations with the Palestinians. The initiative is prompted by the anger of European governments at his announcement in November of plans for new construction (see map, left) in East Jerusalem’s E-1 corridor and other sites around Jerusalem that would effectively exclude the prospective Palestinian state’s capital from East Jerusalem and would also destroy the territorial contiguity of such a state.

The closing off of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians is a deal breaker that forecloses a two-state solution: the creation of a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel. It would also pre-empt any new initiatives President Barack Obama may be considering in his second term with a new team that is likely to be more resolute in its determination to preserve the two-state option.

It is untrue that negotiations that focused on the endgame drove the parties further apart. There were only three such negotiations: the Camp David Summit between prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000, the Taba talks that followed, and the negotiations between prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the time of the Annapolis Conference in 2007. Despite their failure, each one advanced the process beyond where it had been.

At Camp David, Palestinians accepted the annexation of the settlement blocs—new towns that Israel has built in the West Bank—and Ehud Barak agreed to the sharing of Jerusalem. The Taba talks that followed narrowed the differences even more. The Olmert-Abbas negotiations of 2007/8 brought the parties even closer together, and according to the principals would have led to an accord had their negotiations not been interrupted by Operation Cast Lead in December, Israel’s military offensive against Gaza, and by Olmert’s resignation.

The peace process was brought to a complete halt only by Netanyahu’s government. Not only did he refuse to address the endgame, but he would not even agree to recognise the pre-1967 border (before the Six-Day War when Israel captured land from Syria, Jordan and Egypt) as the starting point for territorial negotiations. He reacted hysterically when President Obama was about to propose in his address to the State Department on May 19, 2011 that negotiations must begin from that point. Netanyahu called the president and demanded that he remove that proposal from his address. The president did not comply, but he also did not follow up and translate his speech into policy.

The requirement that Israeli-Palestinian talks begin from the 1967 line was so upsetting to Netanyahu and his government because they are unalterably opposed to Palestinian statehood anywhere in Palestine. Obliterating the memory of such a border (going so far as to remove that border from Israeli governmental maps) is therefore seen by Netanyahu as an essential step towards that goal.

To be sure, Netanyahu committed himself to a two-state solution in his landmark speech at Bar-Ilan university in June 2009. Some naively invoke that commitment as evidence that a resumption of the peace process is justified. Tzipi Hotovely, a leading member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, recently explained to these naïfs that the Bar-Ilan speech notwithstanding, Netanyahu has no intention of ever carrying out the evacuation of West Bank settlements. His commitment to the two-state solution was “tactical,” she said, “intended for the world,” but “the Likud will not evacuate settlements.”

The Palestinian people have known all along how utterly disingenuous was Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech. Not only was this self-evident from the facts Netanyahu and his government were creating on the ground, in the form of the West Bank settlements and building in largely Arab East Jerusalem. Senior Likud officials were also the founders and leaders of the “Land of Israel” Knesset Caucus that was established for only one purpose: preventing a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine. At no point did that caucus provoke a murmur of protest from the US or from the Quartet (the joint attempt by the US, UN, EU and Russia to mediate the Israel-Palestinian peace process). Imagine their reaction—or the reaction of the US Congress, for that matter—if President Abbas’s cabinet members had established a “Land of Palestine” Caucus within the Palestinian Authority.

Indeed, even when Netanyahu announced plans to build extensively in the E-1 corridor, the best that the US and the EU were able to say is that such a plan would be an obstacle to peace and to a two-state solution. There were no intimations that such a plan, if implemented, might trigger sanctions against Israel or end the American and European insistence that Palestinians can achieve statehood only in negotiations with the man who has been systematically dismantling what chances for such an accord might still exist.

What Middle Eastern experts, not to speak of the US and European governments that are calling for a return to negotiations, cannot get themselves to acknowledge is that Netanyahu does not accept Palestinian statehood anywhere in Palestine, and will do everything in his power to prevent it because he and his government want the West Bank for themselves. It is that simple. They are convinced that with their vast military superiority over the Palestinians, they can have it all. That is an obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution that neither incrementalism nor reconfiguration of parameters for resumed negotiations (a subject to which leading US Middle East experts last year devoted an entire book) can overcome. Anyone who still does not understand this simple reality, or who refuses to address it, has little to contribute to a discussion of this subject.

To be sure, Israelis remain concerned about retaining the financial, military and diplomatic support of the US, but Netanyahu is convinced this is not a problem. He believes he exercises greater control over the US Congress than does President Barack Obama.

As ridiculous as this may sound, there are good reasons for that belief. The main TV commercial in Netanyahu’s campaign for reelection in January to his third premiership of the country featured his last address to the combined US Senate and House of Representatives, whose members jumped up from their seats to applaud wildly every second sentence in his speech. The speech included the suggestion that the West Bank is “disputed” territory, not occupied territory, to which Israel has as much a claim as do the Palestinians, a claim rejected by the whole world, the only exceptions being residents of the Capitol building in Washington.

But it is not only the behaviour of the US Congress that gives Netanyahu and his supporters the confidence that the US will always have their back. It is a notion reinforced by President Obama as well. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September of 2011, he admonished Palestinians, saying that they could achieve statehood only through negotiations with Israel. He thus removed the issue from the realm of international legality and turned it over to the man he knew, from the experience of his first two years in office, will never allow that to happen.

Both formally and politically, what the president said is untrue. Formally, the right to self-determination by a majority population in previously mandated territories is a “peremptory norm” in international law. The implementation of that right was one of the primary purposes of the UN’s establishment, and international courts have confirmed it is a right that even overrides conflicting treaties or agreements. The only reason the Security Council has failed in its clear responsibility to implement the Palestinians’ right to self-determination is Obama’s threatened veto.

Practically, it is true that given its overwhelming military power, and the virtually uncritical support it receives from the US in the exercise of that power, Israel’s government can and will continue to block Palestinian statehood. But that is a reason not to subject the Palestinians’ peremptory right to self-determination to an Israeli veto. Instead it is a reason to demand that the UN exercise the role assigned to it by its charter. Israel’s engagement with the Palestinians will cease to be the historic fraud it has been only when its government comes to believe that its continued stonewalling will lead to America’s support for intervention by the Security Council. That is yet to happen.

The problem is that too often the policy proposals of experts and diplomats are shaped in response to the claims made by the protagonists, but not by realities on the ground. Israel’s government insists it has no choice but to continue its occupation because it has made many painful concessions, and promised more, only to run up against Palestinian refusals to consider reciprocal concessions. It will put to you that in return for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s magnanimous unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, President George W. Bush agreed to allow Israel to take in the main settlement blocs.

However, Israel has not offered a single concession on any of the issues in dispute. On every one, whether borders, territory, Jerusalem, refugees, water or security, it wants the concessions to be made by Palestinians. Not a single concession has been offered by Netanyahu on Israel’s side of the 1967 border.

As to the alleged “gift” of the settlement blocs to Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this at a joint press conference with Israel’s then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni in February 2006:

“The United States position on [unilateral changes in the border] is very clear and remains the same. No one should try and unilaterally predetermine the outcome of a final status agreement. That’s to be done at final status. The President did say that at the time of final status, it will be necessary to take into account new realities on the ground that have changed since 1967, but under no circumstances should… anyone try and do that in a preemptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status.”

Netanyahu has famously accused Palestinians of demanding that Israel “give and give, while they only take and take.” This comes from the head of a government that has already helped itself to more than 60 per cent of the West Bank. Here is what Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, had to say on the subject. When challenged to defend his claims for the importance of the 1993 Oslo Accords (and for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Peres said, “Before Oslo, the Palestinian state’s size should have been according to the 1947... UN map. In Oslo, Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22 per cent of the West Bank. I don’t know any Arab leader who would give up 2 or 3 per cent. He gave up 22 per cent.” (But instead of acknowledging that this concession was a gut-wrenching one-sided Palestinian contribution to peace, Peres described it as “our greatest achievement.”)

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If Netanyahu and his new government are not to continue on their certain road to apartheid, President Obama would have to leave no doubt in their minds that the “special relationship” between the US and Israel has its roots in shared values, and an Israeli government that acts in egregious violation of those values undermines that special relationship. International law grants native populations of former colonies the right to national self-determination. An Israel that denies Palestinians that right—in this case, in the territories beyond the pre-1967 border—while at the same time denying them full and equal Israeli citizenship is not a democracy but an apartheid state.

Is President Obama up to that challenge? Nothing in his performance during his first term in office would indicate that he is. However, two recent developments hold out some hope. The first, as indicated above, is his nomination of Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State and Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence—two men who have few illusions about the reason for the failure of the peace process and the courage to speak the truth.

The second are intimations of a new European initiative to present to Israel’s new government a set of clear parameters that establish the pre-1967 border (with provision for equal land swaps to compensate Palestinians for Israel’s retention of the large settlement blocs) as the starting point for resumed peace talks. It is a parameter that by definition precludes Israel’s unilateral annexation of all of East Jerusalem. Another parameter would preclude a large scale return of Palestinian refugees to their previous homes in Israel.

Because the UK, France and Germany are reportedly all on board, it is likely this initiative will also receive the backing of most—perhaps all—EU countries. More important, its sponsors are likely to have received assurances that even if Washington will not lead the effort, it will not block it. If so, that would indeed be a significant change of direction. Ironically, the chances of this initiative’s success will only be strengthened if the new Israeli government proves even more rigidly opposed to Palestinian statehood.

But no one should be deceived about the chances of such an initiative if it does not contain the one condition that is the litmus test of its seriousness. That is that if the parties do not accept the parameters or are not able to reach an accord by a certain date, the terms for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will be determined by the UN Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter. If it lacks that provision, or the provision faces the threat of an American veto, the initiative will be as phony as Netanyahu’s commitment to a two-state solution in his Bar-Ilan speech.

For nothing short of the threat of being turned into a pariah by the entire international community because of its apartheid regime will persuade Israel’s electorate to bring back a government that will safeguard the country’s democratic character and accept a viable and sovereign Palestinian state along its border.