Why the U.S. should step away from Israel-Palestine negotiations — for good
The Israel-Palestine movie has been stuck on a loop for a long time. It's time now to admit we've seen enough — and exit the theater.
Nearly 24 years ago, then- Secretary of State James Baker sat before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rattled off the White House phone number and told the Israeli government, via his interlocutors, "When you're serious about peace, call us." Baker delivered his blunt ultimatum in response to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's ostensible disregard for a U.S. diplomatic initiative aimed at bringing a negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The Israelis introduced one obstacle after another to thwart American efforts, all the while insisting they were committed to the negotiations — as long as yet another condition was met. This was three years before the signing of the Oslo Accords, but the issues have remained remarkably unchanged: Jerusalem (to divide or not to divide) and the settlements. Israeli negotiators insisted then, as they do now, that settlements are not an obstacle to peace.
By now, the end of this story is predictable — and accepting that could've saved Secretary of State John Kerry time, energy, and pride. Last week, Kerry concluded in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the talks he had midwifed for nearly nine months, with countless trips to the region and long conversations with both Netanyahu and Abbas, had broken down. Baker tried tough love while Kerry tried reason and persuasion. Both men failed because they won't accept a fundamental truism: It is not in the interests of either the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership to mess with the status quo. Therefore, they are not amenable to persuasion that stops short of the stick variety. Carrots won't work.
The Israeli government is once again protesting that it is dismayed at being held responsible for the breakdown in negotiations. Kerry is the first U.S. diplomat to assign responsibility to Israel since Baker, although he expressed himself rather more gently. We can't strip the Palestinians of agency, but we should acknowledge the power imbalance between one state that is militarily strong with global trade relations and heavyweight diplomatic friends, versus the territory currently referred to as Palestine that is under occupation, with no army or even defined borders, let alone control over those borders, or autonomy in decisions over zoning, immigration, infrastructure, or criminal justice. While one can accuse the Palestinian Authority of venality, corruption, or poor decision-making (all of which the Israelis are also guilty), claiming they have anything resembling an equal footing in negotiations is patently absurd. American diplomats should stop pretending otherwise.
Then and now, the Israeli government issued new and untenable demands just at the point where the Americans believed (or hoped) that progress might be made. This time, Benjamin Netanyahu's government reneged on its commitment to release a fourth round of Palestinian political prisoners last weekend, while simultaneously issuing a new demand: that the Palestinians commit to continuing the negotiations. The Israelis followed this up with the announcement of a tender for 700 new housing units in the settlement of Gilo, which is just south of Jerusalem. And "poof," as Kerry said on Tuesday, the talks broke down. Veteran movie-watchers were cynically unsurprised.
Netanyahu has and will continue to resist compromise partly because he subscribes to his father's fiercely held Revisionist Zionist ideology, according to which the contemporary state of the Jews should be established on the biblical lands on both sides of the Jordan River. More prosaically, but probably just as importantly, the prime minister's governing coalition would fall apart if he signed an agreement to trade the West Bank or divide East Jerusalem for peace. And Abbas, whose credibility is already weak, could never persuade the Palestinian people to accept an agreement that did not include East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, as well as a commitment from Israel to evacuate its settlements and withdraw its army to the pre-1967 boundaries.
Kerry claims he is not giving up, and perhaps he really means it. But really, he should stop now — before he gets completely stuck. The United States cannot broker an agreement between an occupied entity and its occupiers while pretending that there is any parity in power. It exacerbates its credibility problems by issuing nothing more than weak protests (at best) when Israel, which receives more military aid from the U.S. than any other country, carries out one unilateral move after another. If the Americans cannot or will not use their considerable diplomatic and financial force to bring about a two-state solution based upon parameters that were agreed upon long ago, then it should step back before it further compromises its already shaky credibility in the region.
When Kerry announced his peace initiative last year, he warned that the window on a two-state solution was rapidly closing. For anyone who has traveled as an ordinary civilian around the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is pretty obvious that that window closed a long time ago. The problem is that a one-state scenario is practically unworkable, not to mention totally unacceptable to all but a fringe minority of Israelis on the far right and left. And so we are left grappling for a new vocabulary and a new vision to deal with the fact that 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under military occupation while another 1.5 million live in Gaza under a military closure that is nearly one decade old. This is an unsustainable and cruel situation for the Palestinians, but it causes little pain to Israel, which is largely shielded by America's military aid and diplomatic protection. Perhaps if these were withdrawn, Israel would feel some urgency to change its policies.
Meanwhile, local people — Jews and Palestinians — have undertaken ongoing grassroots civil society and economic initiatives aimed at improving life on the ground and preparing for the future. There are resources that must be shared equitably, so that Jews and Palestinians who live on the same land are allotted the same amount of water and the same amount of electricity. These are the kinds of initiatives that the Americans can support indirectly, while allowing Palestinians and Israelis to lay the groundwork for the known unknown — that both peoples will continue to live on the same land, in a political entity that has yet to be defined.
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