A Palestinian construction worker pours water next to a new housing development in the Jewish neighborhood of Har Homa in east Jerusalem, June 3, 2009. Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu is under U.S. pressure to halt settlement expansion.
"What are They Smoking?"
Op-Ed, BitterLemons-International.org -- Middle East Roundtable, volume 7, issue 18
May 14, 2009
Author: Chuck Freilich, Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
Ever since the "peace process" began following the 1973 Yom Kippur war, every American administration has been committed to promoting it. Eight administrations later, peace on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks remains illusory. The Obama administration promises "change we can believe in", with a new, more intensive approach. Is there some hidden grand scheme here, or are they "smoking something"?
The fundamental conditions on both tracks remain unchanged, or worse. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas 93.5 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap for the remainder and a division of Jerusalem. Abbas abjured, raising the question of whether he, like Arafat, is willing to make any deal with Israel that does not meet 100 percent of Palestinian demands. More forgiving explanations are that he refused because he could not have delivered, or that he hoped to get more from the new administration, but neither is encouraging.
The Palestinian Authority, an oxymoron if ever there was one, remains hopelessly divided between the West Bank and the Hamas mini-state in Gaza, the putative unity government having failed to materialize once again. Rather than unity under Abbas, it is more likely that Hamas will win the next elections and take over the entire PA, at which time prospects for peace will truly be dead. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has just made clear once again the kind of "peace" he envisages: a ten-year ceasefire in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal, including Jerusalem, and unlimited right of return for the 1948 refugees. He is definitely "smoking something". The next round in Gaza is probably imminent.
The new government in Israel, presumably by way of creating a new obstacle that it can concede and grant to US President Barack Obama as a "concession", has refused to endorse a two-state solution, though this is clearly the only viable option for preserving a Jewish and democratic Israel. By convincing the world that it is Israel—which favored a two-state solution in 1936, 1947, Camp David 2000 and most recently under Olmert—not the Palestinians, which objects to this, Netanyahu has caused severe damage to Israel's image. Moreover, his obstinacy has played into the hands of those who wish to create a fallacious and dangerous linkage between the peace process and the Iranian nuclear program, the last thing Israel should want.
Assuming that the nearly miraculous happens and that both Netanyahu and Abbas are captivated by the Obama magic, can the Palestinians conceivably deliver on an agreement in the coming years? Will the Israeli coalition last?
This "optimistic" portrayal does not mean that a new attempt to promote peace should not be made. Rather than a dramatic breakthrough, however, the focus should be on that which may be feasible, first and foremost ensuring that Abbas is still the head of the PA next year. To this end, Israel must freeze settlements, a step essential for its own future. Recent measures that have led to improved PA security and governing capabilities in the West Bank must continue and the US must convince Abbas that an agreement approximating Olmert's proposal is the only viable option.
The idea of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank first could prove to be the means of reuniting the PA in the long run by eventually re-incorporating Gaza. At present, however, it is unlikely that either Abbas or Netanyahu could deliver on such an agreement, or that it could actually be implemented. Moreover, NATO's refusal to provide Obama with forces of consequence in Afghanistan is indicative of the international community's lack of willingness and ability to deploy the forces necessary to prevent the West Bank from becoming another Gaza, with all of Israel's major cities within short rocket range.
Recognizing the difficulties, some advocate going the comparatively more straightforward Syrian route, or even a broader regional approach in which agreements on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks would be pursued simultaneously, taking advantage of the Arab Peace Initiative. The latter approach certainly seems to be a function of "smoking" a heavy hallucinogen. Unlike the West Bank, from which a majority of Israelis has long favored major withdrawal in exchange for peace, an even larger majority opposes withdrawal from the Golan even for peace, assuming that Syrian President Bashar Assad is serious about it. Moreover, past experience has shown that pursuing multiple tracks simultaneously leads to mutually reinforcing hard-line positions rather than greater moderation.
Although Assad has repeatedly expressed interest in talks, he has not indicated any willingness to compromise on the critical issue that prevented agreement at Geneva in 2000: the minute differences in the definition of the 1967 border. Furthermore, he recently stated that true normalization with Israel was contingent on resolution of the Palestinian problem. Unless these are just tactical opening positions, nothing has changed in Syria's approach and the belief that Netanyahu will go further than Barak did at Geneva is again probably a function of what one is "smoking". Assad's intentions are worth exploring, but the fundamental question, whether Israel should cede the vitally important Golan in exchange for a freezing peace—probably little more than non-belligerence—with a regime that may not be in power in the long term, remains a value judgment.
Chuck Freilich is a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. Currently he is a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School and a Schusterman fellow.
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