Peace and reconciliation or victory over the other?

Benjamin Pogrund

Benjamin Pogrund

Benjamin Pogrund advocates peace – a two state solution – on Comment is Free.

The idea of two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace is endorsed by most of the world. The one-state solution that some support is a non-starter. Yet the chance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict is diminishing. It is imperilled by unceasing growth in the number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank, known officially in Israel by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria. In 1972, 1,500 Jews lived there; now, it is more than 289,000. The more settlers and the bigger their settlements, the less possibility of creating an independent and viable Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip is out of the equation at this stage because of failure by Fatah and Hamas to agree on a joint government.

Israel has repeatedly promised to halt expansion on the West Bank. It has done so through its leaders and by going along with the road map of 2003, the Wye Plantation agreement before that, the Annapolis accord and so on. Despite this, last year the number of settlers increased by 4.9%, and the year before by 5.5%.

The ongoing process will be challenged on 18 May when the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be in Washington DC for his first meeting with US president Barack Obama. The extent to which Obama insists that Israel keep its promises – and more importantly, how far he will go for fulfilment – will determine the future of the Middle East.

Obama has already declared his aim: the two-state solution. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton agrees. It’s also the policy of the Palestinian Authority. The European Union wants it. So does Russia. The Arab League has offered acceptance, with qualifications, through its Saudi peace initiative.

Former president George W Bush also wanted two states. Israel told him it would curb settlement growth. It did not. Every now and again secretary of state Condoleeza Rice visited Israel and gave a press conference to announce that she was telling the government to curb settlements. She was ignored.

The three years up to January this year tell the story. Ehud Olmert was prime minister. He began as a rightwinger, believing in Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank, which it has occupied since the 1967 war. But he changed: during his last two years in office he increasingly supported a Palestinian state; by his last cabinet meeting he was saying passionately that Israel had to end its occupation. He warned that Israel was doomed if it stayed: its Jewish majority was threatened by Arab numbers and an apartheid situation would arise if it remained.

However, his government’s actions consistently contradicted his words. Statistics provided by the Peace Now movement, using census and UN details show that 5,111 new “housing units” (meaning anything from one to 20 apartments) were built from January 2006 to January 2009, and tenders were issued for more than 1,500 housing units.

The same pattern occurred in the “illegal outposts” set up without formal government permission. Israel has promised to evacuate them. But not one was evacuated during the three years; instead, the outposts acquired 560 new structures – mainly caravans but also permanent buildings. At the start of Olmert’s tenure, 475 roadblocks and checkpoints existed in the West Bank. Their purpose was and is security. With less tension and suicide bombings ended, the number was supposed to be reduced. Instead, according to the UN, by January this year there were more than 600.

East Jerusalem also features. It is intended to be divided and be a shared capital for Israel and Palestine. But the 250,000 Palestinians who live there have vast difficulty in getting permits to build houses and when they build illegally they are targets for demolition orders. At the same time, housing for Jews is fostered: during the three years, tenders were issued for 2,437 new housing units. These will add to the existing Jewish residential areas in East Jerusalem, which occupy 35% of the area and house 190,000 people. As far as is known, Olmert – who resigned as prime minister to face corruption charges – has never explained the discrepancy between his words and official deeds.

The fact is that the settlers do pretty much as they want. Many are driven by religious messianic belief that God gave Judea and Samaria to Jews and it is their right and duty to keep it so forevermore. Although the settlers are a tiny minority of the Israeli population they have become the tail that wags the dog. Successive governments have backed away from reining them in out of fear of violent resistance.

The settlers and their supporters – who include those who believe in possession of the West Bank for security purposes – permeate the government. That has enabled the illegal siphoning off of millions upon millions of shekels from departmental budgets to provide houses, build roads and lay on electricity and water to settlements and outposts – and to guarantee permanent protection by the army.

A government lawyer, Talia Sasson, appointed to investigate the illegal outposts, reported four years ago that the state was undermining its own rule of law. She has been ignored. None of it could be possible without the army’s active connivance. No Israeli can do anything on the West Bank unless the army agrees and helps. That is also a cause for government apprehension: the officer corps has changed in character and the proportion who are religious has increased to about one-fifth. They live in settlements, or have family or friends there. Will they accept orders to evacuate, if necessary by force?

The settlers and others who support them are deliberately creating facts on the ground to undermine the chance of a Palestinian state; and even if one comes into being to ensure that it is so divided and weak as not to present any security threat. The intention is also to establish a ring of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem to cut off the city from the West Bank so that it cannot serve as a Palestinian capital. Meanwhile, the new rightwing government’s policy on dealing with Palestinians is still being prepared and its statements are confused. Netanyahu, for example, says he wants to resume peace negotiations without conditions with Palestinians; in the next breath he says Palestinians must first accept Israel as a Jewish state.

Washington is sending strong signals: on Tuesday, Joe Biden and John Kerry told the pro-Israel Aipac lobby annual conference that Israel must freeze all West Bank building and make further concessions to the Palestinian Authority. It’s also reported that two weeks ago Obama proposed a new deal on Palestinian refugees to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

But will Obama wield a stick if Israel does not embrace a two-state solution and work with Palestinians to get swift agreement on the core issues of ending the occupation, borders, Jerusalem, the Holy Basin and refugees? How big a stick is available as he contends with the economic catastrophe, domestic problems and Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan? How can he drive an Israeli government to do what it doesn’t want to do?

Benjamin Pogrund advocates peace – a two state solution – on Comment is Free.

19 Responses to “Peace and reconciliation or victory over the other?”

  1. zkharya Says:

    There has been some pretty big stick wielding, such as recommending Israel sign the nuclear NPL and restricting access to F-35 computer technology. We’ll see.

  2. PetraMB Says:

    I’m really not happy about this line of thinking that Obama should “wield a stick” to get Israel to do what we supposedly don’t want to do. Obama is praised everywhere as the big healer, bridge builder and what have you — and, as a matter of course, this is taken to mean that bad boy Israel has to be put in the corner. Well, last year, Olmert and Livni presented the Palestinians with a proposal that would have given them a state on the equivalent of 100 percent of pre-1967 Westbank/Gaza territory, with East Jerusalem as their capital. Guess what the answer was?
    As far as I know, the licensed building Pogrund is talking about has taken place in the settlement blocks that Israel intends to keep in exchange for land swaps, and there is plainly no other realistic option; moreover, the principle of solving the problem of the settlement blocs with land swaps was actually accepted by the Palestinians in Camp David, and it was part of the Clinton parameters.

    At the outset of the Annapolis talks, Abbas also seemed to accept this approach when he defined Palestinian demands in quantitative terms, i.e. 6250 squarekm of territory — and that’s what was offered, that’s what was turned down. This is one reason why many Israelis (me included) doubt that it is really about territory. What is holding up an agreement now is mainly the fact that there is no Palestinian politician who can say: OK, any realistic negotiated 2state solution involves land swaps, and giving up the fantasy of a “right of return” to Israel. This is something that has to be said and endorsed by the Arab League, and that is something that Obama is apparently trying to get from Saudi Arabia et al.

  3. zkharya Says:

    Hi Petra, could you please provide a link for info on what was offered to and by who at Annapolis? Thank you.

  4. Susan Says:

    I’m always wary whenever anyone says that the time for a two-state solution is running out. It always follows that the reason why there won’t be a two state is Israel’s fault alone. It makes me doubt the seriousness of their support for a two-state solution.

    • Jonathan Romer Says:

      For anyone who really thinks that a two-state solution is becoming impossible, and who also is sincerely interested in a peaceful future for the Middle East, a one-state solution comprising Jews and Palestinians in the old Mandate territories is not the only, and certainly not the rational, option. It would be a recipe for a one-state war; one that would make the bloodletting to date pale by comparison.

      If some permanent alternative to the two-state solution needs to be found, the obvious candidate would be the annexation or federation of Gaza with Egypt and the West Bank with Jordan. The commonalities of culture, language, religion and history make this the obvious choice for people not blinded by the desire to destroy Israel.

      • Brian Goldfarb Says:

        If this is so obvious an alternative to the “conventional” 2-state solution (and if only it _were_ such an option), then why do you think, Jonathan, that Jordan gave up any claim to the West Bank some decades ago, or that Egypt never annexed Gaza between 1949 and 1967 (or if was the de facto controller of Gaza between those dates, it gave up such control with the peace treaty with Israel in the 1970s)?

        Presumably, in Jordan’s case, because they didn’t want any more of those pesky Palestinians physically within _their_ state, where they would form a majority over the “native” Jordanians. And the Egyptians probably quailed at the thought of ever more members of the Muslim Brotherhood, to say nothing of the problem for both of dealing with the refugee camps in both places.

        This, of course, is exactly the scenarion that all those Israeli politicians come round to, however reluctantly, when they contemplate a future _without_ a separate Palestinian state.

        • Jonathan Romer Says:

          Brian,

          No argument from me. There are real, practical and political reasons why both Egypt and Jordan would refuse to absorb Gaza and the West Bank respectively (and why Lebanon will refuse to permanently settle the Palestinians rotting in its camps). But these objections are not greater than the ones that prevent a single-state Israel/Palestine solution — they are less, for the reasons I gave.

          Threatening Israel that the opportunity for a two-state solution is almost gone is a bogeyman to frighten children with. Proof, if you need it, is in the response to Netanyahu’s failure to endorse two states: The panicky insistence that there must be two states came from the Palestinian, Arab, European and US sides more than from Israel. If two states becomes impossible, Israel might have to live with ongoing, low-grade war, but the Palestinians would be the ones left with no path to self-determination. I was simply trying to make that point in another way.

        • Jonathan Romer Says:

          And I hate this new, threaded format for comments, that turn 3rd and 4th level replies into blank verse with three words to a line.

        • Bill Says:

          It’s really fun when it’s one character to a line!

        • Jonathan Romer Says:

          Brian,

          One more try; I’m having a hard time expressing what I mean to say. Either not enough coffee or too much, I expect. You said:

          If this is so obvious an alternative to the “conventional” 2-state solution ….

          I wasn’t offering Palestinian federation with Egypt and Jordan as a reasonable alternative to a two-state solution, or didn’t mean to. I was trying to say that, when people try to threaten Israel with a one-state future consisting of Israel and the territories combined, the obvious reply is that combining the territories with Egypt and Jordan makes a damn sight more sense. Every argument for why this couldn’t or shouldn’t be done is even truer in the case of an Israel/Palestine single entity.

        • Bill Says:

          “I wasn’t offering Palestinian federation with Egypt and Jordan as a reasonable alternative to a two-state solution, or didn’t mean to. ”

          Isn’t that just a retread of the “3-state solution” (dissolve the PA into Jordan and Egypt)

        • Jonathan Romer Says:

          Isn’t that just a retread of the “3-state solution” (dissolve the PA into Jordan and Egypt)

          Yup. Given the inequities of power, wealth and control, even if it were to be presented as “Federation”, it would mean “Palestinian autonomous region” at best, and assimilation at worst.

  5. Inna Says:

    “Given the inequities of power, wealth and control, even if it were to be presented as “Federation”, it would mean “Palestinian autonomous region” at best, and assimilation at worst.”

    Well, here’s the thing. I remember a poll a while back where something like 1/3 of the Palestinians in the West Bank wanted a federation with Jordan.

    Which, of course, begs the question: what do the Palestinians want?

    I notice for example, that Netanyahu to send a conciliatory signal to the US wanted to give a village to Lebanon. Well, the citizens of that village (who are Israeli citizens) are suing Israel–they want to stay in Israel you see.

    So Netanyahu is upset–he didn’t get his conciliatory gesture but is that the worst that could have happened?

    It’s easy for you and me to say (in essence) this Palestinian belongs in a state with that Palestinian and this Arab in a state with that Arab. But maybe we (as good democrats) should ASK that Palestinian and that Arab about what THEY want?

    Regards,

    Inna


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