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By Andrew Wilson
When President Barack Obama visits the Middle East next month, he will need to decide whether to invest the energy of his administration into resuming the peace process. The failure of his efforts in 2009 remains an object lesson. American involvement could have more fruitful results elsewhere than in a Middle East where both sides remain mired in fear and mistrust.
The United States won’t—and can’t—force Israel and Palestine toward peace. As the focus of American foreign policy pivots to the Pacific and elsewhere, it will be primarily up to Israel to make the first move. Throughout Palestinans’ efforts to achieve recognition as a state at the UN General Assembly, the United States stood at Israel’s side, affirming its position that although a Palestinian state is a desirable goal, no such state can exist without a negotiated agreement. Israel has positioned itself as wishing to enter into negotiations that it will pursue with good faith, but has done little recently to back up that claim . President Obama will now be testing Israel to determine if its position is sincerely held.
While the final shape of Israel’s government remains to be determined, the appointment of Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister and Israel’s negotiator with the Palestinians is a positive sign. Livni is the politician most vocal in her wish to achieve a two-state solution that gives the Palestinians a viable state. If the current estrangement of Prime Minister Netanyahu from Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party continues, Netanyahu will be positioned where he is not beholden to the settlers. This will give him the political room he needs to engineer Israel’s withdrawal from those settlements that become part of Palestine.
If Israel decides to negotiate in earnest, it will not be out of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, as laudable as such sentiments would be, but because it understands that resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is in its national interests. Chief among them are the demographic threat that a large Arab population poses to Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, and Israel’s growing international isolation, which damages its strategic position vis-à-vis Iran.
First, if Israel does not disengage from Palestine, there will soon be more Arabs than Jews living in land under Israeli sovereignty. If it is to remain a democracy, sooner or later Israel will have to give its Arab population equal rights or face being labeled an apartheid state; yet in doing so, Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. Israel has no way out of that dilemma except to disengage from occupied territory.
Second, Israel needs diplomatic and military support to deal with Iran and its nuclear threat. Yet its continued occupation of the West Bank has created diplomatic isolation. Last November’s vote in the UN General Assembly on recognizing Palestinian statehood, with 138 in favor and only nine opposed, shocked Israel’s government. Meanwhile, Europeans express their displeasure by taking measures to restrict trade on Israeli goods manufactured in the West Bank. All this is not good for Israel’s strategic position in dealing with Iran, because Israel does not have the military capability to deal with Iran without the support of the United States and Europe. Also, Israel’s security position with respect to Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon could significantly deteriorate if its international isolation continues to worsen on account of the Palestinian issue.
When Obama visits Israel, he should make it clear to Netanyahu that the future of negotiations is entirely in Israel’s hands. What Israel has to do to get the talks moving is to freeze settlement construction and release Palestinian prisoners held under administrative detention. Then the Palestinians will be obligated to negotiate, skeptical though they might be of Israel’s intentions, because Israel will have met its demands. Without such a gesture from Israel, however, Palestinian leaders will have little reason to depart from their current game plan of building international pressure against Israel, which seems to be working well in the short term. But they will be hard-pressed not to enter talks with a newly compliant Israel, because ultimately without an agreement with Israel they cannot have a state.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he is for negotiations without preconditions, and he blames the Palestinians for making demands, notably a freeze on settlement construction, before it will enter into formal talks. Nonetheless, the onus is on Israel to make an effective and substantial gesture. This is because in the context of bilateral talks, Israel holds most of the cards. Israel can build walls, settlements, and change the “facts on the ground” with impunity. It has done so repeatedly and in ways that evidently contradict Israel’s stated intention to offer the Palestinians a viable state. The international community has belatedly come to understand this, particularly in reference to Israel’s announced plans to build in the E-1 zone east of Jerusalem, which has caused an outcry because a geographically contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank well-nigh impossible without it.
It is important for Israel and the Obama administration to understand the Palestinian reasons for their reluctance to enter into negotiations without preconditions. Mistrust of Israel and the asymmetry of power are real concerns.
The Palestinians have not forgotten the lesson of the Oslo Accords. Signed in 1993, the Oslo Accords divided the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C. According to the agreement, Israel would withdraw from Area A (urban population centers) immediately, and five years later there would be final-status negotiations leading to withdrawal from Area B and Area C. However, 20 years later, in 2013, Israel remains firmly planted in Area C. Israel’s ostensible reason for holding on to Area C is that it is needed as a security zone. Yet for 20 years it has been building settlements there as if to solidify its permanent sovereignty over most of the West Bank. The Palestinians are not about to be lured into another round of negotiations like the Oslo Accords where, from their point of view, they were ensnared into relinquishing territory by an Israel government acting in bad faith.
In this regard, Israel would do well to indicate that it will no longer use security concerns as a reason not to withdraw from Area C. This stumbling-block to fulfilling the Oslo Accords must be dealt with up front. In this age of long-range missiles, land has less strategic value than it had 20 years ago. It is time for Israel to indicate that it is willing to work out a security arrangement with the Palestinians, which might include leases on military installations inside Palestine, which will permit Palestinian sovereignty in the Jordan Valley. As an opening gambit for talks, such a move will indicate to the Palestinians that this time Israel is serious about delivering the West Bank as a contiguous state.
The Palestinians are not blameless in contributing to the current impasse. The violence of two intifadas traumatized Israeli society and ratcheted up Israeli fears, and the missile attacks after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza led many Israelis to question Palestinian intentions as to whether they would ever accede to peace with Israel. That said, under the administration of President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians of the West Bank have been behaving with remarkable restraint, choosing nonviolent resistance and diplomacy as paths to pursue their goals. While formerly the Palestinians could be labeled as terrorists because of their use of violence, their current restraint and persistence in seeking a peaceful solution to their plight has won them admiration and respect the world over.
Some might argue that Israel would be justified in declaring only a partial freeze in all settlements outside the major settlement blocs, because in any final status agreement it will inevitably retain the Jerusalem suburbs that it has carved out for itself. Yet aggressive settlement construction in disputed areas such as the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Hamatos has made it unlikely that the Palestinians would accept a partial freeze on Israeli terms. A complete freeze will clear the way for negotiating a border in a process that affords equal consideration to the needs of both parties.
It is time for Israel to step up and demonstrate leadership for peace. A complete and unconditional settlement freeze, along with a substantial prisoner release, would demonstrate to the Palestinians, and the world, that Israel is ready to negotiate and is sincere in seeking a two-state solution.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
[Photo courtesy of Vector Portal]