Negotiating the inevitable with the irreversible

We need something new and fresh, a means to negotiate between the seeming incompatibility of the Palestinian inevitability and the Israeli irreversibility.

Netanyahu's speaks about Palestinian UN bid 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Netanyahu's speaks about Palestinian UN bid 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Palestinian Authority would present its case before the United Nations and would, by large majority, be accepted as an observer state in the international organization.
In the past, Israel has pulled out all the diplomatic stops to prevent this from happening, but this time they didn’t make a big effort. It was clear from the outset that there would be a large majority and that even some of the important friendly European states would, for the first time, either vote in favor or abstain.
The failure, if that is what it is from an Israeli perspective, had little to do with diplomacy and everything to do with politics. Israel’s policies in the past four years have shown no progression toward peace, have strengthened the settlement network and infrastructure, and there was absolutely no reason for the international community to listen to, or believe, the Israeli diplomats who argued that if the vote on Palestine’s observer status was withdrawn, they would immediately get back to the negotiation table. They have heard it all before. It has never materialized in the past, even with more moderate governments in Israel. So why should it materialize now? And if we needed any further proof, the childish decision to immediately announce the authorization of new settlement construction, in a “tit for tat” reaction, only served to harm Israel’s standing even more, even among those who abstained (the UK) or voted against the Palestinian resolution (the US).
The symbolism of the vote taking place on November 29, the same day Israel commemorated 65 years since the passing of the UN partition resolution which effectively legitimized the establishment of a Jewish state, was not lost on any of the participants. Not simply the date, but the fact that in terms of contemporary international law, Israel’s sovereignty as an independent state within the international system of states is based on the United Nations vote of 1947, no more or no less than the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state will be.
If we, Israel, justify our sovereignty on the 1947 resolution, we cannot deny the sovereignty aspirations of the “other” which were ratified by the same forum, even if, as we argue, the context (post World War II) and the nature of the organization have radically changed during the past 60 years.
But 65 long years of conflict have passed since then, and last week’s resolution was necessary if only to restate the UN position on the principle which has become known during the past two decades as “two states for two peoples.”
It would appear that this, too, is inevitable. If conflict resolution is ever to be achieved in this part of the world, it will be around some form of “two state” formula, in which each exercises sovereignty within its own clearly defined territory, with demarcated borders separating the two, and neither constituting a threat or infringement on the exclusive control of the other. Even in this post-modern world of globalization and movement beyond boundaries, this remains the essential principle underlying sovereignty within the international system.
But as much as the passing of last week’s vote was inevitable, the conditions on the ground point to a situation which is irreversible. Just 24 hours prior to the UN vote, a seminar organized by the Haim Herzog Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University hosted Dr. Meron Benvenisti for a seminar and discussion about his latest book, The Dream of the White Tzabar. It was Benvenisti who, as a left-wing commentator and analyst of the situation in the West Bank, initially aroused the wrath of his colleagues on the Left when, as far back as the 1990s, he argued that the situation on the ground in the West Bank, especially the unrelenting growth of the settlement network and infrastructure, had reached the point of no return.
He spoke with knowledge. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Benvenisti had established the West Bank Data Project, the first independent research institute analyzing the changes taking place in the West Bank. Along with professor Edy Kaufman at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University, who created the first forum for Israeli-Palestinian academic dialogue, Benvenisti was a pioneer of the type of research analysis and collaboration which, following the Madrid and the Oslo meetings 10 years later, became part of the growing “peace industry,” whereby anybody who was anybody within the academic and the diplomatic communities became engaged with Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Track II meetings and the establishment of a host of think tanks and NGOs devoted to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
For a short period following the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the establishment of the Sharon government, it appeared as though Benvenisti’s irreversibility thesis would prove false. Sharon and Olmert won the elections around a manifesto which was intended to implement a two-state solution, necessitating further Israeli territorial withdrawals and settlement evacuations. But this never materialized – on both sides new obstacles were placed in the way – the growth of Hamas power and the return to violence and terrorism on the one hand, the continued construction of new settlements which made the demarcation of borders even more difficult and irreversible than it already was on the other.
The existence of a network encompassing towns, villages, industrial zones, commercial complexes, schools, a university in the making, with well over 300,000 residents, some of them third-generation within the West Bank has, indeed, created a situation of irreversibility.
The impossibility of demarcating borders, even allowing for land swaps in exchange for the retention of the major settlement blocs, is also becoming an outdated idea, even before it has been properly tested on the ground and on the maps.
No Israeli government, even a left-of-center, propeace government – which is not about to materialize in the forthcoming elections – would be able or prepared to undertake the sort of territorial withdrawal and evacuation of settlements which would be necessary for the classic two-state solution to be implemented.
So while the vote in favor of the observer status for an independent Palestinian state was inevitable, the situation on the ground is irreversible. For those of us who remain convinced that we can only ever achieve some form of normality and regional stability through a Israeli-Palestinian agreement, this situation requires originality of thinking to a degree which has never previously been on the table.
We all, on the Left and Right, continue to think and negotiate within the constraints of a limited set of traditional solutions to the conflict, ideas which have not changed substantially ever since Benvenisti started working back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. What we need is something new and fresh, a means to negotiate between the seeming incompatibility of the Palestinian inevitability and the Israeli irreversibility.
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics at Ben Gurion University. Joel Peters is Professor of International relations at Virginia Tech University in Washington. The views expressed are their own. Their new book, The Routledge Handbook on the Israeli Palestinian Conflict was published on November 29th.