At the close of an international gathering in November 2007, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed “to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations, and shall make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008.” President Bush heralded the agreement and said: “We meet to lay the foundation for the establishment of a new nation: a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security.”
So here we are, well over five years later, and prospects for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians are again teetering on the brink of failure. It’s “reality check time,” John Kerry said the other day. As his frustrating shuttle diplomacy continues, four old issues pose major obstacles. These go way beyond the latest Israeli-Palestinian duel over a prisoner release, which prompted Kerry’s remark.
Issue number one is mutual security. During the current talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suggested that a longterm NATO presence would be an acceptable way “to reassure the Israelis and to protect us.” “Do you think we have any illusion that we can have security if the Israelis do not feel they have security?” he asked. This very wise perspective also belonged to South Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung, whose “Sunshine policy” for engaging North Korea in the late 1990s sought to reassure the North that the South wanted more contact, not a way to absorb it. The Netanyahu government unfortunately doesn’t buy this formula for mutual security. He wants, and may well get, additional US military assistance to finance another security fence, drones, and weapons in the futile belief Israel will be more secure.
The second major obstacle is the meaning of Israeli statehood. Should Israel be defined as a “Jewish state”? The Netanyahu government demands this; for the Palestinians, the issue may be a deal buster. To define Israel as a Jewish state eliminates citizenship for Palestinian and other Arab residents; and it denies the “right of return” that Palestinians have demanded ever since Israel’s founding, when a million or so of their people fled to neighboring countries. Kerry reportedly has in mind to balance recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” with recognition of a new “Palestinian” state, but that doesn’t resolve the problem. Separate but (in theory only) equal doesn’t work anywhere. The Palestinians say they have already recognized Israel’s right to exist, and that should be sufficient.
Third is the settlements. Even though the Israelis are supposed to stop building new settlements in occupied areas—following a 6-month long investigation by the UN Human Rights Council, its report in 2013 said Israel “must cease all settlement activities without preconditions”—Israel has not done so, in violation of the Geneva Conventions (www.nytimes.com/2013/02/01/world/middleeast/un-panel-says-israeli-settlement-policy-violates-law.html?ref=world). Israeli right-wingers, who think every inch of “Eretz Israel” is sacred, believe Israelis have a right to build anywhere they wish. But negotiations in such circumstances cannot succeed; to the contrary, new construction invites violence and even (according to the UN council’s report above) subjects Israel to charges of war crimes. Back in November, Kerry actually called the settlements “illegitimate,” but he has since backtracked.
The fourth obstacle is the status of Jerusalem, easily the most emotional issue on the peace agenda. Many ideas for making the Holy City available to all faiths have been suggested over the years, such as internationalizing control of Jerusalem, creating a mechanism for joint Palestinian-Israeli administration, putting the UN in charge, and dividing the city into Palestinian and Israeli zones. Neither side has shown a willingness to accept any of these alternatives.
On all these issues, the US stands with Israel. That circumstance will make the Israeli rightists, Israeli’s longtime supporters in the US, and the powerful AIPAC (American-Israel Political Affairs Committee) happy; all of them would just as soon see Kerry’s mission fail. They needn’t worry, however, since Kerry’s peace plan is very much in Israel’s favor. Look at what happened the other day when Abbas, frustrated over Israel’s failure to release additional Palestinian prisoners as part of the peace process, announced he would seek (as is his right) Palestinian membership in 15 international agreements, such as the Geneva Conventions. Kerry and Netanyahu immediately rejected this move, which could also trigger Congressional sanctions against the Palestine Authority. What that sequence of events illustrates is how little maneuverability the Palestinians actually have to act in their own best interests, compared with an Israeli government that on most issues merely has to say “no” and watch Washington jump.
In his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006), President Carter wrote:
” . . . Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land. In order to perpetuate the occupation, Israeli forces have deprived their unwilling subjects of basic human rights. . . .Two other interrelated factors have contributed to the perpetuation of violence and regional upheaval: the condoning of illegal Israeli actions from a submissive White House and U.S. Congress during recent years, and the deference with which other international leaders permit this unofficial U.S. policy in the Middle East to prevail.”
Sadly, very little has changed since then, making a true peace process as unlikely to take place now as at any time since Carter brokered the 1978 Camp David accord.