Saturday, October 9, 2010

US Israel relationship: The peace process’ beggar’s choice

Seventh in a series of seven
parts: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7

At some point during the Ramat Shlomo/ Dalal Mughrabi crisis, the Obama administration realized that what they were doing was counterproductive, and abruptly stopped their pressure. The administration went as far as blocking the supporting tailwind they got from their own media, another fact indicating there are no anti-Israel intentions behind this administration's policies, or else they would have continued their pressure. What brought this about has been the subject of countless unproven tales, guesses, and speculations. Many have an understandable need to know the full story, but until reliable first hand information comes out, this is futile, a waste of time.

What matters now is to move the peace process forwards. Idealistic as it may sound, peace is the moral and ethical obligation of the elected head of any state founded on the sanctity of life. In the Israeli Palestinian context this peaceful resolution is most likely to be the two states solution. Debate aside; as far as the author of this series is concerned this is the best solution. But more importantly for this discussion, this is the solution the international community publicly committed itself to. The question is how to get there? The answer is, not by haste, not by force, and not by storm, but by constructing workable agreements and understandings on the myriad of lesser issues separating the two peoples. Issues that are less controversial in each society, therefore an agreement is more likely to be reached regarding them. It is known as a peace process from the bottom up. When trust is at extremely low levels the bottom is the only place it can restart. And right now the level of trust is low also between the Israeli public and the current American administration for reason explained earlier in this series, though things may not be as bad as they were earlier this year, 2010.

While the trust of the Israeli public in the current American leadership will be extremely useful in order to gain their trust in the peace process, that is not in the books right now. But that is just a means to an end, the end being regaining the trust in the peace process. And that can be done gradually. If further Israeli concessions do not lead to another wave of violence, more can follow. The peace process will advance measured step by measured step. This is possible due to a point of agreement between Israelis and Americans. The main disagreement here is whether Israel has a peace partner. The Americans are saying yes, but the Israeli experience from the implementation of the Oslo peace process created a lot of skepticism regarding that answer. But the more recent experiences show a Palestinian Authority willing and able to provide security and engaged in economic development. This suggests that Israel at least has a partner for security and economic development and co-operation. This partner for something is the common ground between Israelis and Americans. Even if that something is different as far as each of them believes. Since both Israelis and Americans have the same interest, the two states solution, Israel will not object to use these security and development agreements as a platform for the final resolution of the conflict. All Israelis need is a reasonable amount of confidence nothing dreadful will follow further concessions. Constant success will balance the bad experience from the Oslo years and the skepticism it created. From the point of view of peacemaking this can be the equivalent of the truce Israel had with Egypt and Jordan before the peace agreements with them.

For these renewed process to be successful the settlements freeze must end. The reason for that is plain and obvious, since this moratorium was announced Mahmoud Abbas has entrenched himself so deep in a rejectionist position, in took the pressure of the entire world to get him out of it and into direct talks with the Israeli Prime Minister. And even that only when the moratorium was about to expire. This behavior is the exact opposite of what is expected from a peace partner when gestures are made towards him. One explanation is that he is indeed not a peace partner. True or not, this explanation is highly subjective, based on the highly traumatic Israeli experience. The negotiators should not belittle that experience; they should address it as part of the accountability of the process itself. But Israel on its part must not let the traumas override other concerns and other explanations. The other explanation here has to do with the governability of Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, or what they might perceive as threats to it.

When it comes to the issue of concessions over the settlements, 17 years of negotiations and concessions taught us that there are two types of concessions, facilitating concessions, and final-resolution concessions. Facilitating concessions facilitate the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian entity, (currently the Palestinian Authority). They include the A regions handed over to the Palestinians at the beginning of the Oslo process. There the Palestinian Authority rules and no settlements activity can take place. And the promise made by the first Netanyahu government to the Clinton administration, not to build new settlements, a decision that prevents the settlements from blocking the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state. The removal of roadblocks and other travel restrictions are also facilitating concessions. These are also security concessions, and as such contain security risks for Israel and for Israelis.

Final resolution concessions are those related to the core issues of the conflict. They are the issue of the refugees, the fate of Jerusalem, the final status of the settlements, and recognizing Israel's right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people.

These issues are connected, if the Israeli premier makes a major concession on the settlements issue, an issue that divides the Israeli society and puts his administration on the line; the Palestinian leadership is expected to do the same. But they have constantly proven themselves unable to do so. When former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered most of the West Bank in 2000, former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat launched a wave of violence that scarred both nations. When Ehud Olmert offered similar concessions to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, Abbas did not return his calls. And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the settlements freeze – putting all the settlements and their future on the table, Mahmoud Abbas refused to engage in direct talks with him. This is a pattern that shows that the Palestinian leadership cannot take on its own challenging issues. Concessions on issues such as the "right" of return or Palestinian refugees could threaten their leadership and their ability to govern. Adding to the threat already posed by Hamas from the Gaza Strip and from within the West Bank.

The settlement freeze is therefore a threat to the governability of the Palestinian peace partner. But in the long run it is also a threat to the governability of the Israeli peace partner. The settlements freeze is difficult to enforce. Besides the use of means of law enforcement, it requires political and economic pressure on the leadership of the ideological settlers, and the co-operation of the general population of the settlers. And that can be achieved only with a time limit, or a major Palestinian reciprocal gesture, the kind Mahmoud Abbas is unwilling or unable to provide. This pressure in all its forms will finally erode. And the extremists will find a way to bypass these restrictions. They are numerous, they know the terrain better, and they have done it before. The outposts, illegal or not, are a successful method of bypassing the Israeli government’s decision not to built new settlements. And since the settlement freeze includes all the settlements, the longer it continues the more likely it is to push the moderates towards the extremists. Whatever form this resistance will take, the mere images of an unenforceable moratorium will undermine the governability of the Israeli peace partner. This will create two lame duck peace partners, sending to hell the credibility of the peace process, again!

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is a low intensity conflict; therefore it has greater room for mistakes then other trouble spots, but this too will end. It is important to remember that all rulers have their weakness, putting them in a position that enhances their weakness, and they will became lame ducks. And needless to say the peace process won’t work with two lame ducks peace partners.

While it is highly apparent that this stick, the settlement freeze, cannot be pulled out from between the wheels of the peace process without bruising every one involved. After that bruising everyone will have to return to the talks, if they want peace. The solution to the problem created by the settlement freeze is the same type as the solution to the conflict will be. It is a solution where no one is happy, the settlers won’t get the building spree they fantasized about, and those who insisted on a complete settlement freeze will have to stomach low level of construction.

Beside lack of trust, and threats to the governability of the peace partners, a successful peace process must address the opposing narratives each side holds. Right now both Israeli and Palestinian economies are growing. It is a major encouragement for optimism, but until each side tries to understand the other’s narrative, and bridge the two, this optimism is wishful thinking. The opposing narratives are the reason why the core issues are so difficult. They are deep held national consensuses for both sides. And for each political entity it is the source of legitimacy in the eyes of its population, a source of legitimacy for the very existence of that political entity.

The Israeli narrative is the more flexible one, changing somewhat along the political spectrum. However the Palestinian narrative is still refusing to acknowledge any legitimate Israeli claim. But the biggest problem coming from the Palestinian narrative has to do with the role violence. As a strategic weapon the Palestinians had abandoned violence because it had failed disastrously. But the legitimacy of it was not abandoned; on the contrary, it is cherished and preserved by various means. Stone throwing in “non-violent” demonstrations, enforcing violently a boycott of produce from the settlements by burning them rather then returning them and finding alternatives, and commemorating mass murderers like Dalal Mughrabi and Yahya Ayyash, the father of suicide bombings. These are all different expression of the preservation of the sanctity of violence. In each of those actions, there is a component of violence that is not necessary to achieve the declared goal it is used for. For example, like any nation the Palestinians have a right for their own national heroes. But the criterion for these heroes is the high number of unarmed Israeli civilians they killed, rather than individuals who faced overwhelming odds. Even if we accept a claim that says that this practice is not evidence that shows that Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah are not peace partners, we must not forget that the core value of peace is the sanctity of life. Therefore no peace process can stand on the sanctity of violence. This contradiction will either erode or explode any peace agreement.

This may lower the optimism expressed in the mainstream media in the early weeks of September, but how truly optimistic this optimism was? Think of the reasoning that said that this time it would work because both sides are extremely skeptic. This is the same rational as that of a person taking pride in ones own humility. This absurdity is therefore not a sign of hope but another mark of desperation.

In this peace process, all of us who want peace are beggars facing limited choices. We cannot take the choices we yearn for but do not have. It does not mean that we should give up on peace making. It does mean we should treat it like all duties of government, requiring good judgment, accountability, responsibility, realism, and credibility. Even if the actual chances for peace are worse then described here, at the end, all those who want to continue living on this land, Israelis and Palestinians, are beggars as well, facing no choice other then living together. This is another desperate argument, but beggars can’t be choosers. So, as US emissary George Mitchell had said, we need to keep trying. But trying for the sake of trying is not enough, something basic the public debate seems to have missed.

Related link:
Delusions of "peace:" Breaking the conspiracy of silence

Dvar Dea

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