Borderline Views: Nothing new on the peace front

For over 20 years now, the same topics – borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, water – have been debated ad nauseam. The problem is not the issues, it’s the willingness, or lack thereof, to solve them.

I had the privilege this past weekend of speaking at the annual convention of the Hitachdut Olei Britania (HOB), the organization which brings together olim from Britain. Prior to my lecture, I took a moment to read the convention program and annual report. I was greatly amused to note the following report of events carried out by the Jerusalem branch during the past year: “At the 2010 AGM, our guest lecturer spoke on the topic of settlements, borders and the peace process. Alas, no progress can be reported on that subject.”
This could not have been a more apposite comment, given the recent speeches by US President Barack Obama and the initial negative responses by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Obama’s latest proposal to implement the two-state solution within recognized and secure borders is no different to what any American president or European leader has been telling us for almost 20 years while, unfortunately, Netanyahu’s rejection is pretty much the position of most Israeli governments when put on the spot and asked to implement something rather than just utter platitudes.
Netanyahu’s refusal to even discuss the 1967 boundaries is a clear indication that the present government has absolutely no interest in advancing toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It is not as though Obama had said anything new or original, ensuring Palestinian independence on the one hand or Israel’s security on the other. Putting all the other complex issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees and settlements, aside for a moment, these are the two key parameters which have to be agreed on before any form of conflict resolution can begin. These are the two key issues for each side – total security for Israel, total independence for the Palestinians.
THE FUNCTION and role of borders have changed since 1967, yet Netanyahu glibly rolls out the connection between borders and Israel’s security, as though the situation is the same as it was prior to the Six Day War. But it isn’t. It has changed in a number of ways, some of which move the security threat further away (longrange ballistic missiles), others bringing it closer (suicide bombers and localized terrorism), while others continue to make the location of the borders insignificant (short-range missiles from Gaza and South Lebanon).
The idea of territorial exchange is also not new. It was first proposed at one of the Track II meetings back in 1990, jointly arranged by the Truman Institute at Hebrew University and the Arab Studies Association in Italy in the days before it was common for Israelis and Palestinians to meet almost daily to discuss political issues. This was pre-Madrid – a time when it was still forbidden, by law, to meet with members of the PLO.
If, one day, the ultimate encyclopedia of the Israel-Palestine conflict was ever to be compiled, it would include numerous chapters on the countless peace proposals and initiatives, ranging from Oslo to Geneva, from Wye to the Quartet, and from the latest Israeli Initiative to the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative. But the reader would soon get bored reading the same basic principles time and time again. With hindsight, the reader would note that 85-90 percent of each initiative was almost identical, while the remaining 10-15% focussed more on alternative ways of reaching the end situation due to the changing political conditions, rather than the issues themselves.
If there has been one significant change in the topics discussed during this period, it is the inclusion of the wider regional dimension. For some, the regional dimension is essential if there is to be a lasting peace. For others (such as the present government), the regional context is an excuse to reject serious peace talks, not least because of ongoing changes which are likely to bring about an even greater animosity toward Israel – the ironic outcome of the democratic process. We all love democracy – until it gives rise to neighboring regimes that are even more hostile than military dictatorships.
Since that early meeting in Italy over 20 years ago, the same topics – borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, water – have been debated ad nauseam, but with few new ideas being proposed. Governments have changed, new personalities have become involved, but the basic parameters and trade offs remain the same.
The problem today is not so much in the details as it is in the basic unwillingness of leaders to stop talking about concessions and “painful compromises,” and to actually makethem. And it is always the stronger side – in this case Israel that should be taking the lead in this respect.
For opposition leaders to declare a preparedness to make concessions is no big deal. But for prime ministers to move ahead, rather than simply reject every proposal that comes their way as Netanyahu did this past week, is much more significant.
There have been two moments when Israeli leaders seemed prepared to, even partially, implement some of these ideas. Unfortunately, one of these leaders was assassinated, while the other had a stroke which effectively put any further disengagements on hold.
It does not make for optimistic reading. Windows of so-called opportunity are continually opened and shut, as often by Israel as by the Palestinians. It is no wonder that the world is fed up and about to recognize, almost unanimously (with a single US rejection and perhaps a few European abstentions) the establishment of a Palestinian state – something Israel should have done a long time ago. As it is, Israel will find itself in an even weaker diplomatic position than it is today.
And at next year’s HOB convention, the annual report will be able simply to repeat the fact that, yet again, there is “no progress to report.”
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.