Last year, Israel’s new prime minister articulated his vision for peace in a way that met the minimal requirements of the new Washington administration. Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at Bar-Ilan University in June, envisioned that Israelis and Palestinians would “live freely, side by side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.”
Thus did Netanyahu reluctantly but specifically endorse the two-state concept he had been urged by Washington to embrace. But the embrace was less than fulsome, and Netanyahu immediately tacked on two conditions the Palestinians were sure to oppose. First, he insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as “the state of the Jewish people.” Second, he vowed to demand in the negotiations to come that “the territory under Palestinian control must be demilitarized with ironclad security provisions for Israel.” Some Netanyahu watchers felt that the veteran politician was playing the fox, sending the hounds off in one direction while slyly escaping via a back trail.
At the very moment Netanyahu embraced the two-state solution, many Israeli experts—particularly those on the left—were coming to believe that such a state would never be. Israeli scholars, strategic analysts, diplomats, and officials expressed considerable skepticism. Every attempt to move forward had been met with violence and rejection on the part of the Palestinians. The epitome was the second Intifada rioting, following the unsuccessful Camp David and Taba talks, which metastasized into suicide bombings, undisciplined police and militias, and a setback of many years for the negotiation process. The Palestinians’ actions said to many, if not most, Israelis that the Palestinians deeply reject a Jewish state and that whatever their leaders signed, they would struggle against it until death. (Israeli leaders, led by Ariel Sharon, at one time tried to go it alone: they evacuated settlers from the Gaza Strip and seemed headed toward establishing new boundaries and the makings of a Palestinian state unilaterally. When these withdrawals seemed to invite increased violence from the abandoned territories, the Israelis lost their enthusiasm for such unilateralism.)
On the Israeli side, settlement expansion, the expulsion of Palestinians from their Jerusalem residences on flimsy grounds, and the construction of roads calculated to seal off West Bank residents from Jerusalem contributed further to the pessimism.
Nor were relations with the new Obama administration initially promising, as President Obama broadcast an ill-timed demand for Israel to cease building or expanding settlements. There will almost certainly come a time when Israel must do that if it wants peace, but by beginning the process with a demand that ran counter to previous U.S.-Israeli understandings and including no counterdemand on the Palestinians, Obama struck many as stressing showmanship over substance.
THE AMERICAN ROLE
The U.S. role bears a closer look. Many accuse the late Bush administration of a herky-jerky effort to rekindle the peace process. During his presidency, George W. Bush absolved the Israelis of any need to negotiate with those “tainted by terror,” effectively abandoning Yasser Arafat to the sidelines. That administration has also been criticized for a series of unilateral declarations backing pivotal Israeli positions, such as rejection of the right claimed by Palestinian refugees to return to homelands inside Israel, the need for border modifications reflecting Israeli military success in the 1967 war, and a quiet agreement allowing existing Jewish settlements on the West Bank to expand. It is no accident that the number of settlers on the West Bank has increased dramatically since 2000, counting both the expansion of settlements and the establishment of caravans that in some cases quickly turn into more permanent communities.
But the Bush legacy is more balanced than might appear. Among the initiatives undertaken by the former president are several that are now basic to the Obama administration’s quest for peace. Through a document called the “road map,” Bush facilitated the discussion of critical issues that must be resolved as part of the coming negotiations. The development of democratic Palestinian political institutions was high on the list, as was the battle against terrorism. Bush also formed the so-called quartet of parties—the United States, the United Nations, Europe, and Russia—whose advice would be sought and support accepted. This American contribution will continue to be important to Israelis in light of the jaundiced view taken of their actions by many other nations.
The road map has not yet led to an Israeli-Palestinian accord, but it has produced a hardworking, progressive Palestinian Authority government led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. Roadblocks and checkpoints that had strangled Palestinian movement and commerce in the occupied territory have been lifted. The road map also has led to a resurgent West Bank economy and the development, with Western coaching, of a modern and progressive internal security system. The Palestinians have come so far in this regard that it is only with difficulty that one recalls the period of less than a decade ago when competing militias, formed by Arafat to splinter potential challengers to his rule, devolved into brazen gunslingers beyond Arafat’s control.
Additionally, the former president and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, recognized the growing importance of Iran as a preoccupation of more conservative Arab states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. No longer would those states argue that the entire Middle East be viewed through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Now representatives of these countries are quick to assure visitors that Iran is a far greater threat than Israel and that they are prepared to embrace any solution achieved by Palestinian representatives. Late in his administration, Bush would try, albeit unsuccessfully, to capture and bottle this sentiment.
The efforts by Bush and Rice to jump-start peace negotiations found expression in the Annapolis initiative, which, despite moments of promise, produced no firm deals because the parties informally decided to await the new Obama administration.
HAMAS AND OTHER HURDLES
Perhaps the biggest setback to the peace process was essentially a domestic Palestinian affair. Hamas loyalists rose up in the fields and alleys of Gaza in spring 2007 and overthrew Fatah’s centers of political power. The uprising embraced three days of terror, beatings, and murders, all in violation of a Saudi-brokered accord designed to allocate political power in Gaza and prevent just that sort of coup. A bitterly disappointed King Fahd, recalling the Mecca agreement, branded the Hamas leaders “oath breakers,” an insult rarely heard in diplomatic circles.
The Hamas factor bedevils those who would otherwise see a clear path to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and at least some hope of an agreement. Although the uprising encouraged Israeli and Fatah leaders to sweep the West Bank clean of Hamas political activists and damaged the standing of Hamas and other Iranian clients in the eyes of moderate Sunni states, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority still lack control of their own territory. Diplomats from several countries in the region express hope that Egypt, which has seized the initiative in trying to bring Hamas back into the fold, will succeed; others note Hamas’s long-standing interest in being recognized by and included in the Palestine Liberation Organization, in which Fatah exercises political control.
None of this means an accord is near or even will be achieved within the plausible two terms of the Obama administration. But among Israeli and Arab diplomats and other veteran observers, there is surprising optimism.
First, despite a blundering start, the Obama administration seems to have a clear view of what a final settlement would look like and a commitment to get the parties to the negotiating table.
Second, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, who oversaw the breakthrough in Northern Ireland, has returned to Mideast peacemaking, his first effort having been aborted by the second Intifada. Mitchell’s record for both fairness and perseverance is well known, and his voice carries moral weight that neither party is anxious to defy.
Third, the parties themselves have no delusions regarding what is possible. The Camp David negotiations of 2000, together with the coda at Taba, pointed clearly to the direction any final accord must take:
- A return to the 1967 boundaries, with adjustments to accommodate some Israeli settlements around Jerusalem.
- A land bridge owned or controlled by the Palestinians connecting Gaza with the West Bank, a connection not available to Palestinians before 1967.
- A solution to the refugee issue by which some Palestinians would be invited to return to their old villages for family reunification but the bulk of the refugees would accept monetary compensation and relocation, most in the newly created state of Palestine.
- Complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and citizens from the West Bank, with a handful of settlements in the Jerusalem area remaining part of Israel.
- A division of sovereignty reflecting where Jews and Arabs live in Jerusalem and its environs, with special provisions made for the administration of holy places in a way that preserves their identity; Israelis would be ensured visiting rights to Jewish holy places in the West Bank such as Hebron but forbidden to build settlements.
- Severe restrictions on the armaments of a Palestinian state: jet fighters, heavy armor, and missiles and artillery exceeding an agreed-upon range would not be permitted; instead, the Palestinians would be equipped with only the weapons and transportation useful to a well-armed security force or militia.
The nub of the agreement would not be materially different from the one offered by former Israeli prime minister (now minister of defense) Ehud Barak. Some political observers suggest that no Israeli government could concede so much and yet remain in office, but the political picture suggests otherwise. For example, the right-wing religious party Shas might well withdraw from a coalition government should the prime minister negotiate a deal that Shas believes too generous. But in losing Shas, Netanyahu would almost certainly gain Barak’s dovish Labor Party, which would rejoin the coalition to lend support to the deal.
The major elements of this deal have been negotiated before—at Camp David and Taba and in the virtual agreement secured by Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates in Geneva. Whether they can be packaged in a way that the parties find acceptable will largely depend on the standing, or the clout, of President Obama as he begins to use the power of his office to do more than simply offer encouragement. If Obama is seen to fail in places like Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan, his hopes to deliver the Middle East will fade. But if others see him as a serious strategic player on the world stage, much will be within his reach.
WAITING FOR THE RIGHT MOMENT
A final word about the two principals. Israel is by no means blameless in the long-standing dispute. It has occupied conquered territory, expanded settlements with a calculated eye toward making them permanent, imposed a military regime on Arab residents of the West Bank while governing Jewish residents under civilian law, and, for too long, averted negotiations with the excuse of not talking to terrorists. But when Israel was confronted by Anwar Sadat with the choice of land or peace, it chose peace.
Moreover, a seat at the negotiating table reserved for the PLO remains vacant, the organization intoxicated by its pipe dream of establishing “a secular democratic state in all of Palestine.” For years it found backers in the Arab world willing to join it in challenging Israel’s right to exist. Long after the Six Days’ War of 1967, the Arab League and its PLO colleagues were still reciting the three no’s: no negotiation, no recognition, no peace. And always there was an almost mystical belief that something still on the horizon would come along to deliver the Palestinians from their predicament.
At one time the rescuing hero was to be pan-Arabism, with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser leading the minions. Next it was the Soviets and their mighty arsenal, which would permit the Arabs to atone for their 1948 shellacking. Then it was the oil weapon, which would be invoked with surgical precision, in the end requiring the United States to abandon Israel to maintain access to energy. Finally, it was the fanatical religious movements: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and Iran, proffering arms, training, and equipment for those wanting to march under one Islamic banner or another. Most opinion surveys find Palestinians no longer entranced by miracle solutions.
How would the Israelis respond to a true opportunity to clinch a deal? Twenty-three years ago, as a correspondent in Israel, this reporter had the opportunity to ask Netanyahu—then Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, how he felt about “land for peace.”
“We don’t trade land for peace,” Netanyahu replied. “We trade peace for peace.”
One suspects that in his heart today, Netanyahu cherishes the land Israel has captured in its wars for survival and believes that in the long run it is a better defense than pieces of parchment bearing signatures of Palestinian negotiators. But the world and even the United States are not hospitable to that point of view, particularly when Netanyahu’s counterparts are progressive, honest, and committed to improving the lives of their fellow Palestinians. Netanyahu, a courageous, highly intelligent, and perceptive man, will probably know when it’s time for a strategic change as opposed to a mere tactical adjustment. Just as the hard-line prime minister Menachem Begin saw the virtue of an honorable peace with Egypt, so may Netanyahu one day conclude that changes in his world and his region require a fresh approach to the Palestinians.