A Peace Without Peace?

Speaking of Israel, David Samuels has actually met with more of the key players on all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than anyone I know, so it behooves anyone with an interest in same, and in the latest Administration moves (and Israeli and Palestinian responses thereto) to check out his latest on the subject.

To refresh everyone’s memory: as of 1988, when Jordan ended all territorial claims to the West Bank, Israel faced a difficult strategic problem: the only way to get out of ruling millions of Palestinians, and thereby becoming a bi-national state, was to negotiate with the Palestinians directly, rather than with Jordan. As Israelis generally understood, there was a natural asymmetry between the two parties that would work to the Palestinians’ advantage in negotiations. Specifically, the Israelis needed an agreement. Establishing some national entity other than Israel as the home of the Palestinians was the key Israeli objective, and that could not be achieved without Palestinian assent. But the Palestinians didn’t need an agreement. A one-state “solution” was a perfectly viable alternative – indeed, in many ways a preferable one to partition, from a Palestinian perspective.

But, if you think about it, why did Israel need an agreement? Once Israel withdrew from the Palestinian population centers, and allowed them to establish a government, wouldn’t that foreclose the otherwise inevitable end in bi-nationalism? Even if a de-facto Palestinian state refused to recognize Israel – even if it were still at war with Israel – wouldn’t the mere existence of such a state change the character of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, from one of “how do we share the territory between the river and the sea” to “how do we settle our border disputes/water use disputes/outstanding refugee claims/etc” – the kinds of disputes that are common between states.

Oslo was, arguably, the first phase of unilateralism, because even though there was an agreement and a handshake, what was agreed to was not peace or anything resembling peace. All that was agreed was a willingness to keep negotiating – the Palestinians conceded nothing fundamental. Except the most important thing: they conceded to the creation of an entity with whom Israel could negotiate, with territory under its control and a government of sorts. They agreed, in other words, to create the nucleus of a Palestinian sovereignty that was distinct from Israel.

Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza was the next phase in the Israeli strategic retreat, more obviously unilateral in character. Leaving Gaza meant letting Hamas take over. Letting Hamas take over meant certain security risks – but it also meant creating the fact that Gaza had its own political destiny. It might reunite with the West Bank; it might not. But that fact that was established was that Gaza would decide which it would be. That’s another fact of sovereignty, and whether Israelis understood it or not it was the main thing they got out of the Gaza withdrawal.

I confidently believed at the time that, had Sharon not had a stroke, he planned to continue with a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, a withdrawal that would mean abandoning many settlements (though none of the large ones), leaving the Palestinians in the West Bank with a substantial contiguous territory. Israel would, in essence, have hung on to everything it wanted to achieve through negotiations – much more than they would actually be able to get at the table. The Palestinians would get their de-facto state: precisely the state that Israelis wanted them to get.

Whether such an outcome would have been just or not isn’t really the question I’m addressing; my point is that Israeli policy has been, since Oslo, aimed at creating a de facto Palestinian state to end Palestinian statelessness, which is the biggest threat to the legitimacy of the State of Israel, on terms that concede as little as possible in terms of Israel’s own territorial objectives. Peace has been a secondary goal at best – the goal has been to achieve a strategic retreat on the most favorable possible terms.

(Obviously not every Israeli has been pursuing these goals – there are genuine idealists on both the left and right, on the left aiming for something like a comprehensive peace, on the right aiming for something like an apartheid state. But I would argue that the broad center of the Israeli political spectrum has always been pursuing something like what I describe above.)

Returning to Samuels’s piece: what he argues, basically, is that Obama has left the door open for Israel to pursue something very like this objective, if Netanyahu has the sense to see it. The next phase of the so-called “peace process” would involve the following, according to President Obama:

Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Palestinians are not going to agree to permanent borders without settling Jerusalem or the refugee question – and neither are Israelis. So this “agreement” on the “territorial outlines” of Palestine just means another unilateral Israeli withdrawal, this time from the various settlements that nobody expects to be incorporated into Israel in the context of an agreement. The Palestinians would be agreeing merely to allow Israel to leave – and thereby achieve another Israeli diplomatic objective: the creation of a contiguous Palestinian entity in the West Bank, further entrenching the reality of the division of the land between two sovereignties, one Jewish, one Palestinian Arab.

All of that sounds very persuasive, and I have little doubt that Ariel Sharon would understand it – and act on it. But Netanyahu? I doubt it.

The most serious obstacle to achieving the above has a name, as it happens. And the name of that obstacle is Hebron. Hebron is an overwhelmingly Arab city in the heart of Judea. It’s also home to a substantial Jewish settlement, probably the most intensely ideological settlement in the entire West Bank. It’s also one of Judaism’s holiest cities, burial place of Abraham and his family – and is holy to Muslims for the same reason. If Israel does not withdraw from Hebron, then Israel will have to maintain a substantial military presence in the heart of any Palestinian entity – the occupation will not end and be transformed into a border dispute. But to withdraw from Hebron would be to declare, in a very literal sense, that nothing is sacred.

Which would be a good thing, in my humble opinion. But I can’t see Netanyahu doing it.