The Futility of the Israeli-Palestinian "Peace Process"
I have made a habit in recent years of attempting to avoid discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is for a multitude of reasons, though foremost among them is that I believe that not only is a “solution” as defined by most outsiders impossible, but that its primary pre-condition, a realistic appraisal of the actual balance of forces on the ground, is absent both among the participants themselves and the rest of the world. Beyond that, analysis of Israeli actions and the Palestinian issue tend to take place in unique echo chambers divorced from any sort of wider geopolitical or historical context, that attempting to engage with morality or justification is an often pointless endeavor. Pointless, not least because establishing that one side or the other is committing “immoral” or even “illegal” acts does not bring anyone closer to coming up with useful suggestions. Plenty of people seem willing to provide advice to the Israelis and Palestinians on what they should not be doing, or what end goal they should be willing to work towards, but no one seems willing to commit to what they should be doing today.
Nonetheless, having decided write down my thoughts on the conflict in Gaza, it seems to make the most sense to start at the heart of the problem, which does not lie either in Gaza or Israel’s anxiety about security, but rather in the misunderstanding of diplomacy that seems to chronically affect anyone who attempts to write about the Middle East. In diplomacy, agreements are reached between two sides that have something to exchange, and while they are consequently compromises, they are not compromises in which both sides find the “middle ground.” Rather the weaker side, having less to bargain with, will inevitably get the worst of any agreement.
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sides are about as far away from equals as can be imagined. Israel does not need Palestinian recognition, cooperation or even abstention from violence, in order to exist or even prosper, at least not in the short run. Israel already controls everything within its 1967 borders and the entire West Bank, and exercises a de facto international protectorate over Gaza.For the Palestinians or their foreign supporters to think that they can somehow offer Israel land it already controls in exchange for territory it also already occupies is the height of absurdity.
The insistent belief among both casual observers abroad and international leaders (who should know better) that this makes sense is at the root of the failure of the multitude of peace plans.
Even on the matter of security the Palestinians can offer little, as Israeli security forces have improved their effectiveness to such a degree that Palestinian terrorism is a nuisance more than a serious threat. As tragic as rocket attacks have been, the Israeli economy is still the fastest growing in the region, one reason why Hamas has adopted kidnappings as a tactic, abandoning low-profile economic targets in favour of high-profile emotionally resonant ones.
The security situation is mirrored diplomatically. For all that the European left has been roused into fits of apoplexy over the recent incursions into Gaza, Israel has rarely been more secure internationally in its history than it is today. Egypt’s new military regime sees international Islamic fundamentalism, and therefore much of the Palestinian national movement, as a threat. Israel’s traditional Sunni foes, Syria and Iraq, are imploding. Syria’s collapse has crippled Hezbollah, while Iran’s attention and resources have been sucked into the maelstrom of Iraq. The growing sense of anarchy has led to unprecedented security cooperation with the Saudis.
On a wider scale, Israel is on the best terms it’s been on in decades with Putin’s Russia and has new technological partnerships with China; India’s new prime minister is the first in that nation’s history to have visited Israel. Even in the West, the ire of Europe’s leftists is more than balanced by the rising anti-Islamic sentiment on the right, which is likely to limit any action in favour of the Palestinians.
The only sour areas are relations with Barack Obama, whose ability to do damage is limited by American public opinion exercised through Congress. Any damage to American opinion has in any event far less to do with Palestinian considerations than with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ill-conceived decision to enter US domestic politics on the Republican side during the 2012 elections, alienating liberals generally. Rather than reinforcing this resentment, the Gaza operations remind many of the discontents why they were pro-Israel in the first place.
In effect, all the Palestinians can offer Israel are abstract promises of international legitimacy and the prospect of normalised relations with the Islamic world. The former have some value, but are definitely not worth anything approaching the full price. The Palestinian claims to land in the region are similarly worthless in concrete terms, as the Palestinians don’t actually control any of the territory they purport to legally own. Palestinian recognition of Israel might pave the way to recognition of Israel by the Islamic world, but few Israelis would bet on it given the degree of bad blood in the region, the likely terms of any agreement, and the role that an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Israel occupies in the modern Arab psyche. Most likely, any agreement would be followed by hostility and demands for the ‘liberation of Palestine’.
The one-state solution is a shibboleth for Western liberals: no one in the region favours it or thinks that it would be anything other than a disaster. It would make comparative birth-rates into a threat to any political equilibrium, and therefore turn women into tools of war, and children into political weapons.There is one other motivation for Israel to seek an agreement: the so-called ‘demographic’ time bomb, the prospect that the combined non-Jewish population of the West Bank, Gaza and Israel-proper will outnumber the Jewish population. This is undeniably an undesirable outcome for Israel, but is far from imminent.
Had the trend towards global democracy and an international system of human rights law of the 1990s continued, Israel would have found itself under enormous pressure to either grant the Palestinians citizenship or independence. In the current global environment, Israel will likely be able to avoid that outcome for the foreseeable future, at least as long as Hamas remains a possible winner of any Palestinian elections. In the post-Morsi era, most of the region favours an Israeli government to any increased role for the Brotherhood.
Any agreement in the foreseeable future will thus be negotiated in an environment of unprecedented Israeli superiority; it is far from surprising that Israel’s terms and behaviour reflect that. It is easy to say that Israel has moved to the right since 2000 in terms of what it has been prepared to offer; rather, Israel’s need for an agreement has declined, and with it what Israel is willing to offer in negotiations.
Any serious agreement will therefore reflect this new balance. Israel will receive security guarantees within any prospective Palestinian state, which will be disarmed, and control of its external borders, either directly or through proxies. While Israel is not committed to maintaining every settlement, the decision on how many and which to give up will have far more to do with security concerns about the cost of defending isolated outposts than with Palestinian wishes. Of the 350,000+ Jews in the West Bank, the overwhelming majority will remain after any agreement. Complaints about Palestinian historical claims and the right to return will be met with the reminder that almost a million Jews were also driven from their homes in the Arab states, and that moral ledger is far from clear.
This may seem a dark and pessimistic picture for the Palestinians, but there are historical precedents that should provide them with optimism that a bad deal genuinely signed between unequals can turn into something far more favorable over time. The Irish too suffered under the repression of their neighbors, and their bid for freedom was also complicated by a Protestant settler population that by 1920 made up more than an eighth of the population.
Michael Collins, the leader of the IRA was sensible enough to realize that the 1922 Treaty, while humiliating in requiring allegiance to the English King and partitioning his country, was also the best deal he was going to get. More importantly, Collins unlike other Irish leaders was brave enough to sign it, an act he compared to acceding to his own death warrant; he was committed enough to wage a civil war against ex-comrades who refused to accept the will of the majority. That Civil War cost him his life, but his death demonstrated to the British the commitment of the Irish government to peace in a way no signature ever could. The British raised little protest when Ireland declared a Republic fifteen years later and left the Commonwealth.
Today it is hard to imagine a Palestinian Michael Collins standing up and urging the Palestinians to accept the harsh and one-sided terms with which they will almost certainly be presented. The challenge for outside actors like the United States and Europe is therefore not to moderate these terms, though both should of course try, but rather to convince the Palestinians that the bad deal they will be offered is the best deal they are going to get. This is not a pleasant goal, nor an easy role to play, which may be why the United States and Europe have chosen to do the opposite: providing a sufficient illusion of progress to raise Palestinian hopes, while pursuing policies and terms that ensure that an agreement is impossible. This is especially true of Europe, whose public and private expressions of sympathy have fanned the flames of Palestinian expectations for decades, encouraging false hopes of outside support, which have led them to reject deal after deal as their position has deteriorated. If Europe wants to genuinely help the Palestinians, it should attempt to disabuse them of these expectations, while promising to provide financial compensation to soften the blows.
Until and unless the Palestinians’ friends abroad recognize these realities and work to help the Palestinians themselves to do so, there is unlikely to be any serious prospect of peace in the region. The Palestinians have to face the fact that they are going to be ill-treated by their enemies; the least their friends can do is try to tell them the truth.