Peace, a dirty word (or: where Obama got it wrong, and what’s the better way to go)

Posted: October 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The common belief, often quoted by well-wishing visitors to Israel and the Palestinian territories, is that “both people, Israelis and Palestinians, want peace. It’s the politicians who bring war.” The reality is almost the opposite: even when leaders consider some sort of agreement, the public makes it clear that such move won’t be in their best interest. Consequently, the naive belief that “basically, everyone wants peace” is a source of endless political mistakes, the latest of them done by the new American administration. I would like to explain here why, and to suggest a different way to conceptualize the political and diplomatic situation.

There are consistent polls showing a certain majority in both societies for the two-states solution, but this is all on a very abstract level. When you break it down to questions about the price each side would pay for this peace, the numbers drop, sometimes rapidly. Yes, most Israelis say they will agree to a Palestinian state, but without sharing Jerusalem, or evacuating the big settlement blocks; and yes, Palestinians will support an agreement, but without giving up the right of return to all original villages and towns within the Green Line. Obviously, this won’t work.

Furthermore, it seems that the whole concept of “peace” is somewhat losing its appeal, at least in Israel. Just this Friday, Parliament Chairman Rubi Rivlin warned from a renewed effort by the international community to “drag us into the peace process”, while the Foreign Office under Liberman is declaring that there is no hope of an agreement in the next decade or so, so why bother trying? At the same time, PM Netanyahu threatened to halt the peace process if the Goldstone report is brought before the UN Security Council. But wasn’t the peace process supposed to be an Israeli interest as well, as he himself declared in his Bar-Ilan speech, just a few months ago?

People could say that this is another example of politicians who let down the people, but I actually think that Rivlin, Liberman and Netanyhu represent very well the current atmosphere in the Israeli public, and it’s no wonder that the government enjoys relatively high approval ratings. Peace – the world itself – carries almost a negative political meaning nowadays. This is one of the unfortunate results of the failure of the Oslo process, Just as “human rights” became a dirty word here. If you read the comments on the internet sites, listen to people talking, read a few blogs (not the few lefties), you will understand the total lack of interest in peace here. Israelis want security, quiet, high quality of life. Ask any political consultant, and he will tell you that peace itself is a non-starter.

I don’t know as much about the Palestinian society, but I get the impression that they had their share of disappointment, and I don’t feel urgency on their side to negotiate as well.

That was part of Obama’s mistake: unlike George W Bush he understood well that a settlement in the Middle East is in America’s immediate interest, but the assumption that once presented with an opportunity, the parties would go along (or at least public opinion on both sides would turn), shows a total misunderstanding of the situation. Even if the leaders are somewhat persuaded to go along, they have to face enormous internal pressure – from the powerful and highly mobilized right wing in Israel, to the Hamas on the Palestinians side. The crisis Abu-Mazen is facing right now because of the Goldstone report is enough to show that he has no wiggle room at all. On the Israeli side, it’s a simple fact: there wasn’t a leader who survived a peace process. They were all brought down, one way or another. When an Israeli or a Palestinian leader rationally consider what’s on the table, his conclusion is that going along with the administration’s initiative presents immediate dangers to himself, and only vague and uncertain opportunities.


By saying that nobody really wants peace, I am not trying to lament or to condemn anyone. I’m just describing things the way I see them. I think there is a great misconception around the world on this matter, and that we should face it if we want to prevent more diplomatic failures.

I’m a great believer in relating to problems in terms of political interests and goals. And unlike in the 90′s, beside president Obama, I don’t see a major political actor who believes that peace is in their best interest, at least not to the extent they will be willing to pay in hard currency and confront their skeptical constituency.

If I would have to define the situation in terms of interests, I would say this: the Israelis, both the leaders and the public, prefer things to stay the way they are. The Palestinians desire a change – though not at all costs. This is a none-symmetric situation, and as long as it stays this way, the instability will go on, and there will be no meaningful negotiations.


And now we get to the third part in the equation – the international community and most notably, the US administration. They can apply pressure or hand carrots to both sides in order to change the balance of interests, so that negotiations, or peace, will seem like the desirable option by the public and its leaders – even when they know it might cost them dearly.

Basically, there are two ways move: (a) make it in the Palestinian interest not to want a change (while “containing the conflict”, like the previous administration tried to do), or (b) making it in the Israelis interest to want one.

I think that option A is undesirable morally and almost impossible to achieve. Therefore, the remaining way to restart a meaningful diplomatic effort is by making the Israelis want change. As I’ve written before, the most effective way would be a clear demand by the international community- accompanied by diplomatic and even economic pressure – to give the Palestinians full civil rights and replace the military authority in the West Bank with a civilian one. This will make it clear to Israelis that we are already moving on a road that will lead to a bi-national state, in which they won’t have the current super-majority and will be forced to share power with the Arab population on a more equal basis.

When both the Israeli public and its politicians see the current situation as a threat to their most basic interests – which is to preserve the exclusively Jewish nature of the state – they will be forced to consider some sort of change, even in the price of concessions and the inevitable internal fight. This might open the way to some form of settlement. It will certainly bring more results than banking on the abstract desire of every man and woman to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors (which probably exists, but carries little political meaning).

4 Comments on “Peace, a dirty word (or: where Obama got it wrong, and what’s the better way to go)”

  1. 1 Aviv said at 1:39 am on October 11th, 2009:

    You seem to live in a fantasy-land where the Palestinian leadership doesn’t aspire to destroy the state of Israel as we know it.

    Most Israelis don’t.

    Hence no peace and no peace-processing.

  2. 2 noam said at 9:20 am on October 11th, 2009:

    Aviv – If the Palestinians’ goal was to destroy Israel, the rational thing for them to do was to accept whatever was offered to them in previous rounds of negotiations.

    But I’m ready to go along with you. Let’s say we can’t trust them – and even if we can trust them now, we have no guarantee that Hamas, or Al Qaeda, will take over there in the future – hence we can never trust them. So, logically speaking, we can never leave the WB, no? So why pretend we are willing to do so, if only our conditions will be met?

  3. 3 Branko said at 12:48 pm on October 11th, 2009:

    They aspire to destroy us as much as we aspire to destroy them. They wish we weren’t here as much as we wish they weren’t there. They dream of the return to all of Israel as much as we dream of everything belonging to us on this side of the Jordan river (and some that want the other side too). Our actions have as much to do with our statements as their actions have to do with theirs.

    Noam, this post completes the civil rights post very nicely.

  4. 4 Nizo said at 2:05 pm on October 11th, 2009:

    Hi Noam, I came across your post via Lisa Goldman’s link.

    As a second generation Palestinian refugee, I’ll add my two cents here.

    I don’t think there’s any lost love between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I honestly don’t think that one side is more open to peace than the other. We’re two sides of the same coin, our nationalisms still have mutually exclusive goals and the wounds of the Nakba and the Holocaust/Pogroms are too fresh and have yet to heal.

    Now if I can comment on Aviv’s words about the Palestinians wanting to destroy Israel. Of course we do!
    Why wouldn’t we?
    Your state was created for the Jews, not for us, and in our perception, we paid a hefty price for its birth. (That we made stupid historical blunders is another discussion of course).

    But we can’t destroy you. We’ve tried! On and off, for the last 60 years. Eventually, we’ll reach a state of metamorphosis where our yearnings for 1948 Palestine will be equivalent to Greek yearnings for Constantinople. But to get there, fully, we need a state where we could express our (still burgeoning) national identity.

    Let the state be dimilitarized, watch it from the sky and air to ensure no weapons come in. I have no issues with that. But don’t tell me that we can only have state when we start dancing the hora and singing Hatikva, because that will never happen.
    We will never “love you” or embrace you.. Not more than the Armenians or Greeks will love the Turks, or pick a balkan country of your choice whose historical borders didn’t bleed into another’s. This is the state of the world, nationalisms compete, borders shift, but at the end of the day, if we don’t have a space to express our nationalism, we shall still yearn for the Jaleel, and Yaffa, and Akka, and Haifa etc. And a generation will come that will be much less complacent, and they’ll revive the PLO of old and Black September etc.. You can’t hold a people in purgatory forever.