When there is no peace

The catchphrase that “peace is the best security” doesn’t sound very convincing to most Israelis, looking around the tumultuous Middle East.

Obama, Abdullah sit together March 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Obama, Abdullah sit together March 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
US President Obama has come and gone. In many respects it was a good and important visit, the “reset” in the relationship for one, Turkey and perhaps Iran for another.
Obama also made two speeches about Palestinian-Israeli peace, one before a carefully selected audience of predominantly left-wing students in Jerusalem, the other to a Palestinian public in more restricted surroundings in Ramallah, making an impassioned call for an end to the “65-year old conflict” (actually it’s much longer than that). But while the political debate in Israel, and to a lesser extent abroad, usually focuses on whether Israel has a genuine peace partner, the perhaps much more fundamental reason for the lack of progress on the peace front is that, at least at present, there is no viable solution to the problem.
NOT THAT over the years there have been a lack of initiatives, formulas and plans, most of them a choice between the impossible and the undesirable, from the original UN Partition Plan to “two states for two peoples,” but also the “one state for both peoples” of the extreme :eft and “Greater Israel” of the ideological Right, either of which would severely, perhaps fatally, subvert the ideals of Zionism and democracy. Then there was Menachem Begin’s “autonomy for the inhabitants,” “Oslo,” Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement,” etc.
Conventional wisdom in most of the international community regards the “return” of Israel to the pre-1967 armistice lines, a.k.a. the Green Line, with or without minor rectifications, as the key to a solution to the problem, disregarding, among other things, such “small” matters as the Jewish people’s historical, moral and legal rights in the areas which Israel is asked to relinquish, but perhaps more to the point in view of Middle Eastern realities, ignoring Israel’s dangerous security situation. The latter reality was expressly recognized by UN Security Council Resolution 242 in its reference to secure borders, as well as by a majority of American presidents since 1967; Ronald Reagan stated that “Israel should never be asked to return to where it was 8 miles wide,” Jimmy Carter accepted in the 1978 Camp David agreements and Israel’s continued presence in “specified security locations” in the future Palestinian autonomy, and George W.
Bush agreed with Ariel Sharon on the security-based “settlement blocs,” not forgetting that it was only because of Arab miscalculations that in 1967 Israel’s narrow waist wasn’t cut in two and that the links between its capital Jerusalem and the rest of the country weren’t severed.
Though, as is often claimed, all the problems pertaining to the “two-state solution” were already addressed in the so-called Clinton Parameters of 2000 (which Yasser Arafat anyway made sure to kill off from the beginning by unleashing the second intifada), the two sides have not come to an agreement on any of them. There is no acceptable formula on refugees, there is nothing resembling a common denominator on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount; the concept of taking the Green Line as the basis for the future border, predicated on land swaps, doesn’t specify which land and where, and if there supposedly is a consensus on the settlement blocs, why do the Palestinians, the US and the Europeans object every time Jews build another house within their perimeters? FURTHERMORE, IT is an illusion to assume that any Israeli government, Right, Left or Center, could persuade or force the 100,000 or so Israelis who live in the West Bank outside the settlement blocs to evacuate their homes (even evacuating just 8,500 settlers from Gaza has left an open wound).
Nor indeed has the “partnership” problem been resolved. Mr. Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) may be more moderate than his terrorist predecessor Arafat (no big deal), but just as the former, he has adopted a strategy of avoiding at all costs meaningful talks with Israel, in which, as he realizes, both sides would have to make painful compromises, an eventuality the Palestinian leadership has shirked by all means, and intends to continue to avoid in the future.
In the past they accomplished this by violence and terror, in the present it is by setting preconditions to getting back to the negotiating table (President Obama referred to this in his Ramallah speech), or by going to the UN and other international bodies to obtain international recognition without negotiations. When more or less well-intentioned observers ask why not put Abbas to a test (by temporarily freezing settlement activity, for instance) they forget that he has already flunked this test, more than once, when he refused to renew negotiations in spite of Binyamin Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze, and when he failed to respond to Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza or to Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech underwriting the two-state formula. Abbas even left the ultra-generous proposals by Ehud Olmert dangling in mid-air. In statements since then, Abu Mazen made it clear that he also opposed a formal “end of conflict” declaration and that under no circumstances would he agree to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Most Palestinians, indeed most Arabs, are still loath ideologically and, often also intellectually, to accept Israel’s existence, hoping that one day it might disappear from the face of the earth, as other “conquerors” did. As a recent public opinion poll conducted by Mina Tzemach shows, a majority of Israelis do not believe that the Palestinians are interested in real peace, even if Israel were to give up its claims on Jerusalem and borders.
Moshe Dayan, who opposed both Palestinian statehood and Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria, but had extensive contacts with Palestinian leaders and opinion-makers, reached the conclusion that there was no way that Israelis and Palestinians could reach a final, formal peace agreement which would be supported by a majority of people on both sides; what Israelis could live with would be anathema to most Palestinians, and vice versa. He, therefore, believed that the best, perhaps the only, way to make progress would be by means of steps, including unilateral ones and practical on the ground arrangements, with the aim of handing the Palestinians almost unlimited authority for running their own lives, but keeping security matters in the hands of Israel, and leaving the question of sovereignty in abeyance. Much of what Dayan thought 35 years ago still holds true today. Such proposals or similar ones presently making the rounds in think tanks and political quarters may not actually “solve” the Palestinian-Israeli problem, but could at least reduce some of its dimensions and allay its potentially dangerous fallout. There may be other ways as well, perhaps with greater cognizance of developments since the 1978 Camp David Conference.
These could include partial or interim agreements or even unilateral steps. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has stated more than once that he doesn’t want to rule over another people, adding, however, that any arrangement would have to take into consideration Israel’s security concerns.
The catchphrase that “peace is the best security” doesn’t sound very convincing to most Israelis, looking around the tumultuous Middle East.
The author is a former ambassador to the United States.