Above the Fray: The end of land for peace

It seems the framework of peace with Egypt and Jordan no longer holds true. This represents fundamental change in Israel's peace posturing.

Netanyahu and George Mitchell 521 (photo credit: marc israel sellem)
Netanyahu and George Mitchell 521
(photo credit: marc israel sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has demonstrated through his actions – or more specifically his inactions – that he rejects the notion of land for peace. This has been clearly illustrated through his reluctant acceptance of a two-state solution, rife with caveats, and his refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.
Thus, it has become increasingly clear that the framework of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, based on “land for peace,” no longer holds true. This represents a fundamental change in Israel’s peace posturing in relation to the Syrians and especially the Palestinians. As such, today the prospects for bilateral negotiations are not only remote, but create an extremely dangerous situation.
In forming a government with Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has prioritized the security and demographic threat –not dissimilar to previous governments, but with the exception of one critical provision. Today, there are approximately 5.8 million Jews living in “historic Palestine,” the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are 5.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel proper. The birthrate of Israeli Jews is 1.7 children per family, while among the Palestinians in the West Bank it is 2.1, and in Gaza, 3.3. The Palestinian Authority Central Bureau of Statistics recently estimated that Palestinian Arabs will constitute a majority in historic Palestine by as early as 2014. A recent study by the Taub Center for Israeli Studies at New York University showed that nearly 50% of students in Israel’s schools are either Arab or haredi.
Faced with this demographic dilemma, Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, thereby shedding responsibility for the more than 1.5 million Palestinians living there while strengthening Israel’s Jewish majority (if only by extending it for a number of years). Netanyahu’s apparent plan – together with his partner, Lieberman – is also to unilaterally redraw the borders. However, the key difference is that whereas Sharon withdrew to the 1967 border with Gaza, Netanyahu will pay no heed to the 1967 Green Line.
His refusal to halt settlement construction beyond the three major settlement blocs widely considered to be included in Israel as part of any agreement, indicates that unlike his predecessors, who sought less than 10% of the West Bank as part of a land swap agreement, he has his eyes on much more. This conduct is consistent with Lieberman’s controversial proposal to “transfer” Israeli Arabs, such as those living in the Triangle, to PA control – against their wishes – in exchange for the areas of expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
THE NETANYAHU government’s strategy is therefore twofold: first, to enlarge the area under Israeli control in the West Bank while relinquishing Palestinian majority areas; and second, to demand recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for any agreement. The two tactics combined offer a distorted view of Netanyahu’s plan for “peace” in which he remains unconcerned about the fate of an independent Palestinian state, so long as Israel maintains its false sense of security and a solid Jewish majority. His refusal to stop settlement growth and Lieberman’s success in advancing the loyalty oath indicates that this strategy is already well in motion.
Confronted with this bleak prospect, the Palestinians feel compelled to turn to the international community. In doing so, they are seeking two critical points: First, a clear statement that continued settlement activity in the West Bank is a roadblock to a lasting peace agreement. Second, a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 is the only viable resolution to the conflict.
Both points enjoy global consensus. The two points will be framed in the exact language the US has used for many years, making it exceedingly difficult for the White House to oppose them. After all, how can it reject a boilerplate statement of support for a two-state solution? Or that further settlement construction is unproductive?
Support from the US would send a significant message, but even without it, the support of the vast majority of the UN General Assembly would give the Palestinians significant leverage. It is important to recall that Resolution 194, regularly cited as the international community’s perspective on the issue of Palestinian refugees, is non-binding, but its influence remains central in any future negotiations.
Even so, the PA’s campaign to win support will be undercut so long as groups like Hamas continue to oppose it. As long as rejectionist groups stand against the PA’s international effort, Israel will have justification to maintain that it has no true partner for peace. It will continue to use this excuse, waging a public campaign pointing blame at Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state – not Israeli intransigence – as the factor that keeps the peace process suspended.
THEREIN LIES the fundamental mistake that the Palestinians and Arab states continue to make: not accepting that Israel indeed faces legitimate security threats from extremist groups like Hamas and Hizbullah, which absolutely must be mitigated if it is to ever accept an end to the conflict. The 1967 borders are now a source of pride for Palestinians and the Arab world, made more so by the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the historic Arab Peace Initiative offering full normalization in exchange for the territories captured in 1967, including an agreement on a two-state solution based on these lines.
But without receiving an endorsement from Hamas and Hizbullah, and even though Israel did not embrace the API, its excuse that it remains threatened, that it has no partner, and that the offer is not comprehensive cannot be dismissed. An endorsement of the API by Hamas and Hizbullah would exponentially increase the impact of the PA’s efforts to pressure Israel to remove its excuses.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is making mistakes of his own. First, his continued insistence that he is willing to negotiate face-to-face with PA President Mahmoud Abbas until “white smoke” appears, as he recently told reporters, is simply not credible. With his continuing support of settlements and emphasis on new demands, no one believes he’s negotiating in good faith.
Words alone will not bring Israel out of isolation; only actions can accomplish this.
Second, Netanyahu must also understand that no current or future Palestinian leadership – or that of the Arab world – would ever accept anything less than a negotiated agreement based on the 1967 borders. This is why Israel has been misguided in its continued ambivalence to the API. With every passing day, it loses an opportunity to lock in the Arab world to a promise of recognition, normalization and, above all, guaranteeing its national security upon successful conclusion of peace talks.
A recent poll by the International Peace Institute shows that Israelis remain aloof to the API, with just 36% preferring it to the status quo. As long as Israel’s leadership promotes the fallacy that Israel can maintain its security and Jewish majority without an agreement based on the 1967 lines, it is effectively forfeiting the opportunity to make peace.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.