‘FINALLY, IT should be noted, the majority of Jerusalem’s Arab population prefers to live under Israeli rule.’.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a pragmatic move that increases the likelihood of peace. It is, as the Trump administration noted, “a recognition of reality.” By clarifying the bargaining space, this policy also has the potential to become a first step toward reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Two basic realities must be understood. The first, stated to the point of being a platitude but true nonethe- less, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated. The second is that, practically speaking, Israel is the stronger party of the two. When a situation is complicated, progress is best made by removing the complexity. This can be best done by eliminating fantastic positions from the negotiations.
Of the three often-cited final-status issues deemed central to any agreement, only one can realistically be called an issue. The other two are non-issues, whether we want them to be or not, due to the political realities.
The two non-issues are the division of Jerusalem and the question of the return to Israel by descendants of Palestinian refugees. This leaves only border status as an actual final-status issue.
The right-of-return issue is a non-issue for obvious demographic reasons.
Israel was intended to be and was recognized by the United Nations as the sovereign nation of the Jews. The return of large numbers of descendants of refugees obviously negates that.
The division of Jerusalem issue is a non-issue because Israel, the stronger party, will not be externally forced into dividing its capital, nor is there a domestic political incentive for it.
Obvious to anyone familiar with Israeli politics is that favoring the division of Jerusalem is political suicide. Neither the mainstream Right nor the mainstream Left support it, with the leaders of both such groups in Israel’s most recent elections forcefully having rejected the idea. The majority of the population rejects dividing Jerusalem as well, with The Jerusalem Post having recently reported: “74% say they reject the idea of a Palestinian capital in any portion of Jerusalem, with the implication being that they prefer a united Jerusalem.”
Finally, it should be noted, the majority of Jerusalem’s Arab population prefer to live under Israeli rule. Therefore, any actions making it inescapably clear that the division of Jerusalem is a non-issue and not up for negotiation, is an action that simplifies and clarifies the bargaining space and thus makes concluding an agreement more likely.
One might claim that a bargain without Jerusalem is also a non-starter for the Palestinians. If this is the case, then there is simply no overlap in acceptable bargains, and a negotiation will not be concluded. This may very well might be the case, but if it is, the status quo is likely to remain.
The Palestinians cannot threaten anything diplomatically or otherwise that could be considered worse in the eyes of Israel than dividing Jerusalem. Furthermore, they cannot threaten violence on the scale of the Second Intifada, simply due to Israel’s far tighter security control making that, even if desired, impossible.
Herein is the importance of Israel being the stronger party. Since ancient times, it has been clear that when it comes to bargaining, the stronger party has the advantage in setting the terms. “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Thucydides. and Crawley, 2008).
Not only is Israel stronger militarily, economically and diplomatically than the Palestinians, but a continuously increasing power disparity in favor of Israel has been the trend over this decades-long conflict.
Therefore, without making a moral judgment, it is simply the case that the status quo favors Israel. And it is up to the Palestinians to accept a bargain or risk bargaining in the future from an even weaker position. The Palestinian issue is no longer a priority for major powers that are distracted by a rising China, an assertive Russia and a volatile and nuclear-capable North Korea. Nor is it a major priority for Arab states that increasingly view Israel as a potential strategic asset against the much more salient threat of Iran and view the Palestinian issue as a minor wave in the turbulent sea that is the Middle East.
If a bargain is to be concluded, simplifying the bargaining space makes doing so far more likely. The American decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy is a major first step toward decisively convincing the Palestinians of what is already true: The division of Jerusalem is not up for negotiation. A major influx of refugees into Israel is likewise not negotiable. This should also be made clear.
This leaves only one real final-status issue: borders. This still requires a very difficult bargain. But that is a major simplification, the details of which far more accurately depict the reality of Israel’s actual bargaining window.
The one remaining final status issue is difficult, but can be resolved through direct negotiations and will likely reflect the demographics of 2017 and not of 1948.