The peace process is essentially dead. There is neither a workable process, nor is there any agreement on the nature of the peace to which a process is designed to lead. On paper there is a process: the 2003 Road Map (building on the 1993 Oslo Accords) in which President Bush set out a series of principles for the Israelis and Palestinians. In effect it was a step by step approach under which each side would take explicit confidence building measures. The Israelis would dismantle settlement outposts and freeze settlement activity. It would reduce restrictions on Palestinian movement on the West Bank. The Palestinians would bring violence to a halt and militias under control. Later stages would lead to an Israeli withdrawal, the resolution of final status issues and the creation of an independent Palestinian State. None of this has happened and both sides have systematically ignored the understandings that they made to the American Government at that time. Yet, if the rhetoric of the international community is to be believed, a peace based on two states living in peace and security side by side is achievable if only the two sides would make the necessary concessions or if they were pushed hard enough by the American Administration. I have my doubts.
Why has the process died? And are there now new prospects for peace in the aftermath of elections in Israel and the United States or must those prospects be further postponed until the Palestinians hold their own elections early in 2010? The Obama Administration seems anxious to reenergize a process and has designated former Senator, and Northern Ireland peace mediator, George Mitchell to head up that effort. The President has once again called for a settlement freeze and an end to violence. The Palestinian authority Prime Minister has called for the creation of a Palestinian State within two years. Prime Minister Netanyahu has outlined his vision for a demilitarized and truncated Palestinian State which recognizes and accepts Israel as a “Jewish” state. However his vision is far from what would appear to meet the Palestinians most basic demands. In the meantime settlement “thickening” continues apace. Peace seems as far off as ever.
The question thus remains: What would it take to achieve Peace? Or are the basic demands of the two sides fundamentally irreconcilable? When dealing with peace in this region, it is always well to look to the scriptures for the answer. There are two texts that we should keep in the back of our minds: Genesis 15:18 and Exodus 23:31. The first is the more familiar for it contains God’s promise to Abraham. In that verse: “The Lord made a Covenant with Abram saying, unto thy seed have I given this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” Cairo to Baghdad! But since Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim in some fashion to be descendents of Abraham, to whom in fact does this land belong? The Exodus text is geographically and demographically more explicit. Speaking to Moses after he has received the ten commandments and other laws, the Lord promises Moses: “I will set your border from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates, for I will give the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you.” So much for the non-Jewish tribes living in the region! In today’s world we are inclined to dismiss these promises, like much else in the Mosaic Law, as outdated or irrelevant. But the truth is that these texts underlie the extraordinary emotional attachment which many in the State of Israel, including its Prime Minister, have for the land west of the Jordan, or what Israelis prefer to call Judea and Samaria. To abandon even a portion of this land is in some ways a sacrilege, a betrayal of God’s promise to the Jewish people. Muslims, of course, do not share this interpretation of the Old Testament texts and regard the land, particularly Jerusalem as part of God’s covenant with them as revealed in the Prophet’s night flight to heaven from Jerusalem.
Outsiders are quick to put aside these fine biblical points and focus on practical outcomes. In theory, at least, there is an agreement: the end-result of any peace process must be two independent states living in security side by side: the State of Israel and the Palestinian State composed of Gaza and the West Bank. But that agreement covers over a multitude of differences some of which are apparent in the recently announced positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Must Israel be accepted as a “Jewish” State as the scriptures seem to promise? Is Israel nothing more than a national home for the Jews as the Balfour Declaration promised in 1918? Or is Israel a modern democratic state in which minorities have the same rights as the majority population? Must an independent Palestine be completely demilitarized and hence have only limited sovereignty? What will be the borders of that independent Palestine? Who will be its citizens? What will happen to the Palestinian Diaspora, in terms of return to Israel or to Palestine? Can Palestinians be permanently resettled in current host countries or in other third countries? Will the Palestinian State control any portion of Jerusalem? How can an independent Palestinian State be made economically viable? This is a formidable array of issues, yet all of these questions will have to be resolved before we can consider the two-state-solution inevitable. American administrations have tended to start by assuming the end result and then argue back to solutions for these specific problems. However the time may have come for the international community to reevaluate the basic assumptions which have underlain previous discussions of the two-state-solution. It is too easy to say that at Camp David II in 1999 and subsequently the next year at Taba all of these issues were essentially resolved and hence, if the Palestinians controlled violence and the Israelis withdrew from most settlements, all would be well and peace would be at hand.
This paper seeks to elucidate some of the difficulties in achieving a viable peace and to question some of the current assumptions about the nature of a two state settlement. It concludes that the problem is not one of process but rather of fundamental substance and that until one, or both sides, renounces long and deeply held beliefs and/or modifies its demands on the other, it is unlikely that any settlement, even one encompassing the concessions made and agreed to in 1999-2000 can be an enduring one.
The first and possibly the easiest issue is the process itself. At the moment there is no real process. The Israelis and Palestinians have no formal framework within which to meet, and even if such a framework existed it is uncertain who could speak with sufficient authority. The Netanyahu government controls a substantial majority in the Knesset, but some of the government’s components are viscerally opposed to the territorial and other concessions that would be necessary to achieve a durable peace. On the Palestinian side, until there are elections early in 2010 it will not be clear who can speak for the Palestinians, divided as they are between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. On both sides a government of national unity would be desirable. On neither side does it currently exist. At the heart of the question is whether there should be a bilateral process or one in which outsiders have a critical role.
Over the past 50 years almost every conceivable form of process has been tried: Security Council authorized mediation, shuttle diplomacy by the American Secretary of State, informal facilitation by the Norwegians, formal mediation by the Americans at Camp David I and II, involvement of major outside powers such as the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations). None has worked. At the end of the day the two parties to the conflict have not wanted a solution on the terms being offered to them. It is unlikely that the current process involving the efforts of Senator Mitchell will be any more successful unless there is a willingness to address the core issues and to recognize the extraordinary difficulties which they represent in practical terms. Many would argue that whatever formal process evolves direct and forceful pressure by the American government on Israel and the Palestinians would be required to achieve success. History suggests such pressure is unlikely.
The first and most difficult of all the issues is territorial. While Israel may be willing to surrender 90+ percent of the occupied territories and even compensate the Palestinians with chunks of Israeli land (particularly land where Arab Israelis now live), it is no means clear whether such a state separated into two non-contiguous areas, and divided by a network of Israeli security roads would be viable. One can imagine a tunnel, or an overpass, or a trench connecting Gaza and the West Bank, but absent an Israeli decision to evacuate all West Bank settlements, where over 300,000 Israeli settlers now reside, it is hard to imagine territorial viability as we understand it Europe or North America. The territorial issue points immediately to the settle issue. Over the last twenty years the Government of Israel has systematically built up settlements in land occupied in 1967. Over 200,000 settlers now live in or near Jerusalem and another 300,000 now live on the West Bank. Moving these settlers and compensating them for their move would be an extraordinary effort, even assuming that they were willing to move peacefully. At Camp David it was assumed that most of the contiguous settlements would remain including those in Jerusalem, but that many, many others would have to go. Israel’s bitter experience in dislodging a much smaller number of settlers from Gaza is hardly a cause for optimism.
If the Jerusalem settlers are not to be dislodged how does one resolve the demand of both sides that Jerusalem be the permanent capital for both states. In the Israeli case that demand is accompanied by an insistence that the city not be divided. Again many ideas have been put forward over the last half century, including some form of corpus separatum under United Nations trusteeship or administration, a form of condominium, a system of guaranteed access to the holy places for all religions, with the city remaining under the civil administration of Israel, and divided sovereignty, the Palestinians being given the Arab quarter of the city as their capita, the Israelis retaining the remainder. In this last proposal, perhaps, a solution is possible assuming that Israeli politicians can be persuaded to give up cherished rhetoric about the permanent unification of Jerusalem.
If these questions are difficult enough two others are even more daunting: the nature of the Palestinian State and the future of the Palestinian Diaspora. Prime Minister Netanyahu has outlined the thinking of many Israelis on the former issue. He insists on a demilitarized Palestinian State with no army, no self-defense capability and no control over its airspace. It is easy enough to see the rationale for the Israeli position. Withdrawal form Gaza did not provide Israel with security. If anything, Israeli security was diminished. If so, the only logical guarantee of Israel security is not a paper agreement but the permanent and verifiable demilitarization of Palestinian territory. Under this view buffer zones and international peace keepers will not be sufficient. For Israel a toothless Palestinian state is a necessity. Distances are too short to provide the security that the Israeli people so desperately want. But in all honesty one must ask, whether the Palestinians can accept being treated like no other state in the international community. We have had too much experience in the 1920s and 30s of the consequences of trying to impose and sustain demilitarization, to think that future Palestinian leaders would permanently accept second class status in the international system. Perhaps an interim demilitarization would be possible, say for 10 to 15 years, assuming that the two states during that period would have learned to live as good and cooperative neighbors.
The issues of borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and security arrangements are essentially bilateral matters between the Israelis and the Palestinians, although in some cases requiring outside guarantees and support. However the issue of the Palestinian Diaspora touches virtually every state in the region. Lebanon is host to over 500,000 Palestinians, virtually all of whom have lived in camps for over 40 years, Syria has 200,00 and Jordan more than a million. Smaller numbers still reside in the Gulf States and Egypt. And, of course, the vast majority of those living in Gaza are not native Gazans but displaced persons/ refugees from 1947, who do not really regard Gaza as their home. The Diaspora does not merely pose questions about the right of return to Israel, but to the very nature of the Arab states that are Israel’s neighbors. Both sides now appear to agree that all of the Palestinians scattered about the Middle East can not return to their homes and farms in Israel from which they were displaced in the 1948/49 war. Israel might accept a few old people, but it is inconceivable that any substantial number could return, since their return would only further exacerbate the demographic challenge in maintaining the Jewish nature of the Israeli State. So then where do these refugees go? Or do they stay were they are in perpetuity?
This is not just a theoretical problem. According to UNRWA there are over three million Palestinians exiled from their homeland. It is clear that if they can not go back to the Israeli portion of pre-partition Palestine, they also all can not go back to the Palestinian portion. The absorptive capacity of the fledging Palestinian state can not accommodate all or even most of them. Some to be sure will want to return, assuming that economic conditions on the East bank make such a return desirable and financially feasible. But can they stay where they are? In Lebanon where they have been confined to camps for over five decades, their incorporation into Lebanon would almost certain unravel the carefully constructed balance of the Lebanese state between Sunni, Shia and Christian. In Jordan, where they enjoy substantial civil rights, their formal incorporation as citizens would further “Palestinize” the Jordanian state and potentially undermine the Hashemite dynasty. The truth is Arabs don’t like Palestinians, and no one wants to keep them permanently. Perhaps a portion of the Diaspora could be given the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia and northern Europe. No doubt they would welcome such an option, but would the hypothetical receiving countries agree?
Finally any solution will depend on the willingness of the international community, and particularly the United States, to come up with the economic resources that would make the resettlement of the refugees possible and a Palestinian State economically viable. The United States has poured billions of dollars into Israel over the last thirty years. The result is a spectacular economic success story. Unfortunately there has been no comparable transfer of resources to the Palestinians, and the result is also there for the entire world to see: desperate poverty, extraordinary levels of unemployment and few realistic ways for an independent Palestinian state to survive economically. All of that will have to change if the two- state solution is to work.
This is not just a question of whether new administrations in Israel, the United States (and Palestine) can and will make a difference. Of course, the policies and personalities of each administration are important. What is needed is a radical change of focus by the international community. This will require credible collective guarantees of Israel’s security, a massive multi-lateral aid program to develop Palestine and eliminate the dramatic economic disparities between the two states, a decision to create a nuclear free zone including Israel, and a willingness to stand up to the Israelis on critical issues such as settlements. On the Israeli side there must also be a radical renunciation of the claims arising from that biblical promise to the Jews. All the West Bank settlements must go. The Palestinians in turn will have o accept the irreversibility of the creation of the State of Israel. While the Palestinians are in many respects the victims of an unjust system imposed by the western powers in the aftermath of the Second World War, that injustice can not be undone. They must pay the price of western guilt and of a set of false assumption about the area going back over more than an hundred years (A land without people for a people without land, as some believed in the pre-War period).
Are we asking too much of all the parties? An honest, answer would probably have to be in the affirmative. It is hard to persuade the powers of the region to make what for them are existential choices for the sake of a durable peace. It is unlikely that the international community, focused as it is on so many other issues, will give the necessary economic and political priority for the Arab-Israeli dispute as long as there is relative quiet in the region. Palliative measure will be offered; partial solutions will be proposed; sustained pressure will be avoided; and the sore will fester across the terms of the three presidents/ prime ministers.
This paper has started form the premise that the answer is a two state solution in the context of which all outstanding issues are resolved. It would be well to remember that there is conceptually at least another solution. Two states to be sure, but the second not an independent Palestinian state based on Gaza and the West Bank. That state would be a fusion of Palestine and Jordon, creating in effect a Palestinian state with its capital in Amman (or possibly in Jerusalem). Until the Six Day War, Jordon exercised sovereignty over non-Israeli Palestine, (as Egypt did over the Gaza Strip). A return to that situation is not inconceivable although it runs counter to the promises made to the Palestinians by the United States and others.
All of this leaves us far from a just peace in the Middle East. Each side believes it has right on its side, and in the case of Israel at least God as well. Both sides see themselves as victims. Although there are men and women of good will on both sides who seek a just peace, a healthy pessimism is in order. A new peace process may be launched in the course of the Obama Administration, but the chances that such a process will achieve a lasting and durable peace are relatively remote, absent a radical rethinking on the part of all the players. One can only pray that that will happen.
Based upon an Address to the Council on Christian Approaches to Defense and Disarmament, Bratislava, Slovakia, September 5, 2009.