An Israeli-Palestinian rethink

With the Middle East in turmoil and cries for freedom and democracy criss-crossing the region, how long can Israel remain an occupier and how long can the US support it as such?

UN security Council 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
UN security Council 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
A UN SECURITY COUNCIL VOTE ON A PALESTINIAN Resolution condemning Israel’s West Bank settlement construction in mid-February highlighted Israel’s growing international isolation and called into question the Netanyahu government’s overall strategy on the Palestinian issue.
Fourteen of the 15 Security Council member states voted with the Palestinians, and although the US reluctantly vetoed the resolution, it made very clear its ongoing opposition to what it called “the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.”
The American veto was a signal to the Palestinians that, in the American view, there is a limit to what they can achieve through unilateral steps and that the US still believes Palestinian statehood will only come through negotiations between the parties.
The main stumbling block is that Israel has failed to give the Palestinians any incentive to negotiate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adamantly refused to put forward Israeli positions on the core issues or to outline the contours of a final settlement.
Alternatively, he could have agreed to pick up the negotiations from the point where his predecessor Ehud Olmert left off. But this too is an avenue he refuses to countenance. Indeed, the Israeli call on the Palestinians to negotiate “without preconditions” is really a call for talks without terms of reference, which the Palestinians see as a diplomatic trap. It would take the international pressure off Israel, because talks would ostensibly be going ahead, but it would be all process and no substance, going nowhere. Most of the international community sees this very much the Palestinian way, and the blame for the deadlock in the negotiations is increasingly being placed on Israel.
The question now is will the US administration come up with terms of reference of its own and force the parties to reengage on that basis? President Barack Obama was considering something like that last summer. That idea might be revived now to offset the loss of face the administration suffered in the Arab world over the veto.
Although assessments of how close Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas were to an agreement in late 2008 differ, the recent Al-Jazeera Arab TV network leaks of key negotiating sessions suggest that a very serious negotiation was underway. On the border issue, Israel was ready for land swaps of around 6.4 percent and the Palestinians 1.9 percent, a gap that seemed eminently bridgeable. On other core issues, like Jerusalem and refugees, there had also been enough progress to suggest that new US terms of reference, with a fairly big stick to back them up, need not be an exercise in futility.
Netanyahu’s failure to pick up on the negotiating process and Obama’s failure to draft new terms of reference have led to what is today the only game in town, the unilateralist Palestinian strategy: building the trappings of statehood, getting the world to back the Palestinian cause (for example, through moves like the UN settlement censure), and then going back to the UN Security Council to have it declare a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza within the 1967 borders.
The US veto was a signal that America sees this strategy as ultimately unproductive, because Israel would be unlikely to move out of the Palestinian areas even after a Security Council endorsement of Palestinian statehood. The declaration of statehood would remain a dead letter and a cause of escalating tensions with Israel. This is a scenario the US hopes to avoid through negotiations or, if necessary, by casting another Security Council veto.
But with the Middle East in turmoil, and cries for freedom and democracy criss-crossing the region, how long can Israel remain an occupier? And how long can the US support it as such?
 Now, more than ever, Israelis on the center-left are saying, Israel should come up with a bona fide package for negotiations that will bring the occupation to an end. And if it doesn’t work, Israel should consider unilaterally disengaging from most of the West Bank to regain the moral high-ground in a region making increasingly insistent moral demands. In other words, in a changing Middle East, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is becoming more untenable than ever.
The right-wing counterargument is that the upheavals clearly show that the Palestinian problem is not the chief cause of regional instability. Therefore, bending over backwards to find a solution is unnecessary. Moreover, leaving the West Bank unilaterally would very quickly lead to the establishment of a Hamas-run entity there, and serious security problems for Israel. Therefore, the prescription on the right – adopted by the Netanyahu government – is to contain the conflict by backing the bottom-up institution and economy-building process in the West Bank as an end in itself.
If the conflict cannot be solved, the right-wingers say, at least it should be managed as efficiently as possible.
But the regional winds of change could upset their narrow status quo calculations. And that is why the center-left is calling for a serious new negotiating process now.