Getting Past Blame: Present Realities and How To Move Forward

Virtually any article, except for unusually long ones, necessarily narrows its focus and leaves out important aspects of the broad subject it is discussing. In facile, pseudo-intellectual attacks, those who disagree with such articles often point out what is not there, as if it is possible, in just a few pages, to consider the breadth and scope of any problem, much less one as complex as the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In the new edition of the London Review of Books, there is a pair of articles, however, which, when taken together, give a fairly rounded view of the situation as it stands now in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Making them perhaps more valuable and credible, the article criticizing Israel is written by a Jewish former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman; while the article criticizing the Palestinians is written by an American of Palestinian ancestry, Prof. Rashid Khalidi.

Khalidi continues a theme explored in his superb book, The Iron Cage:The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Palestinians are often portrayed, by themselves and others in very distorted ways. By pro-occupation zealots, they are depicted as far more powerful than they are, and powerful enough to constitute a substantial threat to Israel. That characterization is absurd on its face, and it is a measure of the hysteria this subject can generate that there is a significant, albeit minority, number of people who actually believe it. But they are also often portrayed by their own supporters, and even at times by themselves, as completely helpless actors who are pure victims and have no role in creating the situation they now find themselves in. Khalidi’s valuable self-criticism paints a more realistic picture.

In “Shared Irresponsibility,” Khalidi draws careful attention to the actions of both Fatah and Hamas in creating the split that exists now in the Palestinian political body and which finds its expression in a geographical split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Khalidi writes, “Fatah and Hamas have been fighting for control of a Palestinian Authority that has no real authority. The behavior of both has been disgraceful…In the four decades since the founding of the PLO, there has never been such a gulf between two parts of the [Palestinian] national movement.”

Khalidi shines a glaring light on the lack of strategy and the inherent contradictions in the actions of Hamas since entering the 2006 elections. The roles of governing leadership and spearheading a revolutionary movement are fundamentally incompatible, yet Hamas, Khalidi says, tried to play both. One might also say that Yasir Arafat tried the same thing, to a lesser degree, and Fatah’s mix of politicians and working with Israel and militias like the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade attacking it.

As Uri Avnery pointed out in his latest piece, “Oslo Revisited,” the Palestinians find themselves in a position that is extremely out of the ordinary. They are trying to set up the trappings of a government while still being under occupation, so that government has, ultimately, no real power, only that which is granted it by the occupying power. Avnery explains it this way: “Usually, when a national liberation movement reaches its goal, the change takes place in one move. A day before, the French ruled Algeria, on the morrow it was taken over by the freedom fighters. The governance of South Africa was transferred from the white minority to the black majority in one sweep.”

But the Palestinians are not shifting from a resistance movement to an independent government. They are stuck in a middle ground, one where the prospects of independence are remote and remain completely at the whim of Israel. Khalidi asks “how can [Hamas] claim to be a resistance movement and at the same time deal with Israel about practical matters such as the movement of water, fuel and food into Gaza, and of goods and people into and out of Gaza?” While Mahmoud Abbas, as leader of Fatah, has not had the political support necessary to stop attacks on Israel, he has clearly, for better or worse, chosen the path of politics over that of armed resistance. His new Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has essentially re-defined resistance for his government as non-violent. Hamas has made no such choice.

For its part, Fatah has refused to learn the lessons of its defeat in 2006. It has been supported in this refusal by Israel and the United States, even to the point where these two powers supplied arms to Fatah in support of their goal of deposing Hamas despite the results of that election in 2006. Hamas, as Khalidi points out, repeatedly offered to form a unity government with Fatah, but Fatah “…behaved as if their policies had been vindicated, as if they had an inalienable right to office…When some Fatah leaders…wanted to take up Hamas’ offer, Fatah diehards (and some Hamas hardliners) torpedoed the initiative, as they did the Saudi-brokered coalition government created in February 2007.”

Rather than address the issues that led to Fatah losing its once absolute hold on the top spot in Palestinian politics, they worked to undermine the outcome of the 2006 election, with the support of Israel and the US in a clear expression by all three of contempt for the democratic process. As Khalidi points out, “Neither movement was able to see that such deep divisions would mean that they had even less chance of achieving their national objectives.” In the end, both Fatah and Hamas have made an already desperate situation for Palestinians much worse.

Khalidi breaks with the common narrative of the Palestinians as pure victims and non-actors in their own issues. Thus, while Henry Siegman may go too far in blaming Israel exclusively for the impasse in the Middle East, his critique of the “peace process” as an elaborate scam is an important one.

Israel, as the far more powerful party, has far more potential to change this situation than the Palestinians do. Khalidi does not miss this point, but Siegman emphasizes it. There is a good deal of haze around Israel’s inactivity. It is not because of dishonesty that many defenders of Israel’s policies claim that Israel has given and given and the Palestinians, because of their alleged overwhelming desire to annihilate Jews that trumps all their other concerns, have responded only with escalating violence. The fact is, most of the people making that claim genuinely believe it. This is where the peace process “scam” has its greatest impact.

Oslo is seen in this context as a huge concession by Israel, while the fact that the Palestinians see the real concession as having been almost two decades ago, when Yasir Arafat conceded 78% of Mandatory Palestine to Israel. Oslo is perceived as having given an enormous amount to the Palestinians, because few people realize that Oslo contained no commitment to any kind of Palestinian independence. The Gaza withdrawal is not understood as what it was–a mere redeployment of Israeli resources which left Gaza completely isolated, its borders, shoreline and air space all completely under Israeli control in order to, as Ariel Sharon’s adviser Dov Weisglass famously put it “put the peace process in formaldehyde”, meaning that it would free Israel from pressure to withdraw from the West Bank.

But the most important point Siegman makes is about the political impetus for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. Siegman quotes former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan, circa 1977: “The question is not ‘What is the solution?’ but ‘How do we live without a solution?'” Dayan understood there was no peace without returning the Occupied Territories, and he believed Israel must hold on to those territories.

Much time has passed since then, and there is a general consensus supporting territorial concession in Israel. This is true despite the intentional setup of the Gaza withdrawal (see more on this here) and the campaign of deception and blame after the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks (more on this here). As Avnery says, “The concept of ‘the Whole of Eretz-Israel’ is finally dead. There exists a national consensus about an exchange of territories that would make possible the annexation of the ‘settlement blocs’ to Israel and the dismantling of all the other settlements. The real debate is no longer between the annexation of the entire West Bank and its partial annexation, but between partial annexation (the areas west of the wall as well as the Jordan valley) and the return of almost all the occupied territories.”

Still, the Israeli government is in no hurry to see this happen. There are various reasons, and the disproportionate influence of the settlers and their right-wing supporters both in Israel and abroad should not be underestimated. But the biggest reason is that the willingness to make peace is not the question; rather, the question is what price is one willing to pay for peace?

Israel is more than willing, as Siegman points out, to exchange some land for peace. The current discourse, which was also reflected in Ehud Barak’s so-called “generous offer” at Camp David, has Israel maintaining control over the major settlement blocs (meaning Gush Etzion, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim) and the Jordan Valley. This would leave the West Bank connected only by thin strips of land, at best, and would cut off the Palestinians’ access to Jordan. Essentially, what Siegman describes as “a number of isolated enclaves that Palestinians could call a state” is what is being offered. Not surprisingly, it is not being accepted. Equally unsurprising is that Israelis see this as intransigence on the Palestinians’ part, while the Palestinians are wondering why, after agreeing to surrender 78% of Palestine they are now negotiating how much of the 22% they get to keep.

Siegman reports on an interview with former Defense Ministry adviser Haggai Alon which describes how the Israel Defense Forces support the endeavors of the settlers. This is a major wild card within Israel, one that is not talked about nearly enough. the influence of the army is far greater than it should be in a country like Israel. Such countries generally agree that the government controls the military, but in Israel, the military wields considerable influence and often acts on its own impetus. While the government does sometimes react to this, the reverence of the military in Israel weakens the government’s hand considerably. When we further consider the major contributions to the settlement enterprise made in the Israeli government, as the investigator, Talia Sason began to detail a few years ago, we see a sort of schizophrenia in Israeli power centers that magnify the power of the settlers beyond any rational expectation.

Siegman also makes the important point that UNSC Resolution 242 is being interpreted by Israel as meaning that its “‘…default setting’…is the indefinite continuation of Israel’s occupation.” But logically, since “…242 declares that territory cannot be acquired by war…if the parties cannot reach agreement, the occupier must withdraw to the status quo ante.”

This, of course, is not realistic politically, but it needs to be maintained as a standard if progress is to be made. Siegman’s formula for a breakthrough is more dubious:

“1. Changes to the pre-1967 situation can be made only by agreement between the parties. Unilateral measures will not receive international recognition.

2. The default setting of Resolution 242, reiterated by Resolution 338, the 1973 cease fire resolution, is a return by Israel’s occupying forces to the pre-1967 border.

3. If the parties do not reach agreement within 12 months (the implementation of agreements will obviously take longer), the default setting will be invoked by the Security Council. The Security Council will then adopt its own terms for an end to the conflict, and will arrange for an international force to enter the occupied territories to help establish the rule of law, assist Palestinians in building their institutions, assure Israel’s security by preventing cross-border violence, and monitor and oversee the implementation of terms for an end to the conflict.”

Points one and two should be obvious, and must be the basis for action for anyone who is actually interested in a peace that is realistic. Point three, however, is a lot more fanciful.

The issue is not to get the Security Council to accept the first two steps, since most of it does. The trick is to get the US to accept it, which is far more difficult. Points one and two should be obvious, and must be the basis for action for anyone who is actually interested in a peace that is realistic. Point three, however, is a lot more fanciful. If one and two were actually accomplished, step 3 would be unnecessary. The existence of suitable conditions for those first two steps would mean that reaching a resolution would be much easier than is conceivable now.

Moreover, we’re in this situation in part because of the inability of the international community to resolve this issue, from the days of the British Mandate, through the 1947 Partition Resolution, through 242 and 338 and right up to the present day. Advocating trying that course again is the definition of insanity, repeating the same action over and over in hope that the result will be different next time.

Consider for a moment what would happen if the Security Council tried to take control of the West Bank. UN troops have arguably the worst track record on the planet in any sort of combat situations. And they would be under fire from both Palestinians and Israel settlers. There is simply no way conceivable that they would be even close to as effective at preventing attacks on Israelis as Israel is and would, quite obviously, be unable to stop Israeli attacks on Palestinians. Moreover, this is not a matter of simple disengagement. Palestine cannot survive without Israel, while the reverse is not true. That’s one of the problems. The UNSC would not be able to do anything about Israel’s control of goods and services into the Territories. No, this is no solution, it’s a recipe for making matters worse.

I note this is different from a call for international protection. That’s a much more limited mandate than what Siegman is suggesting. That’s something we should and do support. No, what Siegman fails to recognize here is that the reason no solution is forced on Israel is that no solution CAN be forced on Israel.

In fact, he has the answer in his own article. the key point he makes there is that Israel is satisfied with no solution. The reason for that is that the political cost of the occupation is ridiculously low. The way that changes, primarily, is US and Israeli public opinion. The former is much more movable, which is why it is so strongly resisted by so-called “pro-Israel” types. But it is also the key to moving the latter.

Now, we know most Israelis want peace and are willing to give up all or most of the West Bank for it. All things being equal, Israeli leaders would take peace as well. The question is what are they willing to give up for it, and the answer, heretofore, has been not much. The preference for no solution is based on the super-low political cost of maintaining the occupation, particularly since the EU, US and even the UN all play their roles in helping Israel to do that. That’s also what we are most likely to be able to change. The imbalance of power is always going to be there. But the cheapness of this occupation for Israel does not have to remain eternal. No easy task, but it is possible to change that.