Please, no more peace plans

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The Israeli leadership wants to hold on to the status-quo, the Palestinian leadership is split, and the US discovers the limits of its power. Under these circumstances, the problem is not the lack of solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the absence of political forces that could implement them. A response to Bernard Avishai

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Olmert, Abbas and Bush at the opening of the Annapolis talks (U.S. Navy photo by Gin Kai)

Some 20 years ago, just before I started my mandatory service in the IDF, I remember reading “No Trumpets, No Drums” by Sari Nusseibeh & Mark Heller. The Israeli and Palestinian authors of the book conducted negotiations for several months, leading to the outline of the two-state solution described in the book. At the time, the idea of a Palestinian state was still a taboo for most of the Israeli public, even in the Left, and I still remember going through the book and realizing that there might, after all, be a solution to what used to be called “the Palestinian problem.”

Reading Bernard Avishai’s excellent piece on the negotiations between Olmert and Abbas in this week’s edition of the New York Times Magazine, I couldn’t help remembering “No Trumpets, No Drums.” The similarities between the agreement Nusseibeh and Heller reached and the ideas discussed by the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian president were striking, only this time they didn’t bring any sense of hope with them.

Another memory: Recently, I attended a public peace conference hosted by an Israeli-Palestinian NGO. Between the formal debates, I had a few conversations with representatives of different peace groups. Over dinner, one of them told me of a peace plan he came up with. “It’s not that different from the Geneva Initiative,” he admitted, “only with a few modifications.” A businessman I met was working on establishing an Israeli-Palestinian civilian think tank. His goal: To come up with a plan for a two-state solution…

In recent years, I have also met plenty out-of-the-box thinkers: People proposing a formula for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation; those who dream of abolishing national borders in the Middle East; and even a guy who claims that the Palestinians are the lost Jewish tribes, and therefore, see no reason for the conflict. All we need, he told me, is to explain this to people.

In short, there is no shortage of solutions (and it’s not surprising the serious ones look quite similar). The more the situation on the ground deteriorates, the more plans people come up with. I guess it’s only natural, and I don’t want to dismiss this tendency altogether. Ideas are important. They show people that the current trends can change, and they can lead to political action. The problem, I think, is that in recent years, all these plans and ideas replaced politics, and therefore, became counter-productive.

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Many people looked at the failed Annapolis process as a missed opportunity, a version of the “generous offer” narrative used to describe the Camp David summit in 2000. Look how close the two sides are, these people say. If only the administration was more engaged we could have had an agreement. If only the war in Gaza didn’t break out. If only Ehud Olmert stayed in power.

But wasn’t the war evidence to the fact that it’s impossible to sign an agreement with only half the Palestinian Authority, and leave Gaza out of the process? And didn’t the result of the Israeli elections prove that the public prefers Netanyahu’s rejectionism to Kadima’s two-state platform? Couldn’t the failure to reach an agreement serve as proof that at least one of the parties – if not both – find the negotiation’s outcome impossible to live with, or simply impractical?

I believe that the problem is not the absence of a plan, but that of a leadership which is able to carry it out. Olmert went further than any Israeli leader, but he still didn’t come close to the minimum the Palestinians could have lived with (the reaction to the Palestine Papers reveals how far behind from its leadership was the Palestinian public). And while the Israeli PM was negotiating, Netanyahu and Lieberman warned of these “dangerous concessions” and made it clear that the next Israeli government would not see itself committed to the understandings between the lame-duck Prime Minister and the Palestinian President (when the crucial meetings between the two leaders took place, Olmert has already announced he would retire form his post due to corruption allegations, and that he wouldn’t run for re-election). It seems that the talks between Olmert and Abbas were closer in spirit to the Nusseibeh-Heller negotiations or to the talks that led to the Geneva Accord than to the Oslo process: full of good-will, but short on political authority that could back it up.

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How do we get out of this dead-end? Avishai thinks that the US should present its own peace plan, based on the points of agreement between Olmert and Abbas. He writes on his TPM blog:

The point is, an Obama plan should be presented first to (and coordinated in advance with) the EU, the Quartet, the leaders of the OECD, and congressional leaders for that matter. It should be declared consistent with Olmert’s offer and designed (as Olmert’s offer was) to be “in the spirit” of the Arab League Initiative of 2002. Its great victory would not be in (immediately) getting Israelis and Palestinians to yes, but in creating an international consensus which all sides, especially Netanyahu and Israeli leaders and journalists more generally, would have to contend with for the foreseeable future. Obama could make the plan concrete by, for example, offering to provide funding for the RAND Corporation’s ARC project, tying a Palestinian state together with a transportation corridor, and offering Israeli infrastructure companies the chance to participate.

In the NYT piece, Avishai explains:

It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Is it so hard to imagine? Some described the moratorium deal offered by the Administration last autumn as the best ever for Israel, and yet, Netanyahu rejected it. And it wasn’t even about a full peace treaty, just 90 days of settlement freeze, a good-will move that would enable negotiations to move forward.

Right now, there is no political force in Israel which is able to carry out the evacuation of settlements necessary for a peace deal, or to sell the Jewish public the return of dozens to hundred of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Without those, there would be no peace. There could be some intermediate treaty or a unilateral withdrawal, but it won’t bring peace.

The current Israeli leadership can’t even agree on a peace plan that would hand the Palestinians 60 percent of the West Bank, as some ministers proposed. The Knesset has a block of 60-65 members that would never agree to the concessions offered by Ehud Barak in Camp David, let alone those negotiated by Olmert. That’s the reason for the absence of peace talks – there is nothing to discuss.

If we had learned something during President Obama’s first couple of years, it’s his administration’s limits in applying effective pressure on a determined rightwing Israeli government. The administration tried to play it tough, but Netanyahu called their bluff – and won. Many people in Israel and Palestine, including myself, were hoping for a better outcome, but I don’t think the administration is to blame, in spite of mistakes it made. The political circumstances are such that applying pressure on Jerusalem is simply too expensive, in terms of political currency. A president might lose a lot by confronting an Israeli PM, and gain very little. Perhaps that’s the reason that the last two presidents pushed their peace plan just as they were getting ready to leave the White House.

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So, what should the US do? In my opinion, the answer is not much, at least for the time being. As recent events taught us, there are limits to the ability to shape the Middle East’s politics from the Oval Office. The US should take a step back, and most importantly, let Jerusalem face the consequences of the occupation by gradually lifting the diplomatic shield it provides Israel with. It should be done in a smart enough way not to hurt the administration politically, but the message needs to be clear: If Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank, it will become more and more isolated. With time, this message would resonate with policy makers and with the Jewish public.

We could also hope that the Palestinians will be able to unite their government, so that when the opportunity presents itself, the leadership that negotiates the end of the occupation would enjoy a greater legitimacy than Abbas and Saeb Erekat did in 2008. Hamas has a veto power over agreements, just as the Israeli Right has. If these forces are not engaged with, there isn’t a plan in the world that would bring peace.


11 Comments on “Please, no more peace plans”

  1. 1 maayan said at 12:23 pm on February 14th, 2011:

    You need some new friends, Noam. You read Avishai’s report and you are ready to give up. What did he write that was unknown to you before? The Palestinian position hasn’t changed since 2001 except that they’re willing to discuss an international Holy Basin if you define it the way they want. The Israeli position has changed to include an international Holy Basin. That’s it essentially. So why are you so despondent and tired of peace plans now? Join the rest of us who became tired and cynical in 2001.

    It doesn’t matter that you force Netanyahu to do something or not, your problem isn’t Netanyahu. If Olmert couldn’t swing it with what he offered, then what’s going to swing it? Was Abbas being serious about a referendum? He is going to have a referendum after running TV programs extolling the virtues of child martyrs? Is it conceivable, do you think that instead of pressuring Israel, it’s the PA you need to pressure?

    By the way, did you read Nissan’s comment on this post: http://972mag.com/israeli-army-represses-palestinian-dissent-by-arresting-11-year-old-children-part/? You should. Basically, the post is propaganda in the guise of news.

  2. 2 noam said at 5:03 am on February 15th, 2011:

    Maayan: for me, the issue here is justice for the Palestinians and an end to the occupation. If the two-states path won’t work – we will need to consider other options. I don’t think you are going to like them. anyway, the problems won’t disappear.

  3. 3 maayan said at 5:14 am on February 15th, 2011:

    Why is ending the occupation of greater importance to you than the Palestinians who could have ended it already?

    Or, another question. If the occupation needs to end and Israel made a good faith effort to end it, how many of the other options which you’re considering involve applying pressure on the Palestinians? If none, then why none of the options since Israel made a concrete offer?

    You know what is fascinating about these weeks? Jordan is on the precipice of a possible revolt. If it happens and it’s successful, it might be one of the worst things to happen to the Palestinian leadership in decades.

  4. 4 noam said at 5:17 am on February 15th, 2011:

    we are not in a zero-sum game with the Palestinians, nor with their leaders. Even if the right’s dream comes true and Jordan becomes an effectively Palestinian state, the WB problem and the right of return will still be here.

  5. 5 Genie said at 5:37 pm on February 15th, 2011:

    comment was removed

  6. 6 maayan said at 12:36 am on February 16th, 2011:

    Noam, there is no right of return. It’s a fiction. There are 7 million Israelis and they’re all having babies. The country can only hold so many people. If you mean that it’s a political problem, then yes, we agree that it won’t go away if nobody tells the Palestinian people that it’s not going to happen. Somebody needs to tell them.

  7. 7 noam said at 12:54 am on February 16th, 2011:

    There are 7 million Israelis and they’re all having babies.

    so, what about the Law of Return?

  8. 8 maayan said at 4:38 am on February 16th, 2011:

    I don’t understand the question. Aliyah is a drop in the bucket, population-wise, ever since Russian aliyah slowed to a trickle. It’s not like North American Jewry is going to come to Israel en masse.

    Most growth inside Israel is happening with Israeli families (Arab and Haredi families taking the lead, of course).

  9. 9 noam said at 8:04 am on February 16th, 2011:

    The numbers which are discussed regarding a return are not that different.

  10. 10 maayan said at 12:23 pm on February 16th, 2011:

    According to Avishai’s article, the Palestinians haven’t conceded anything on this issue. I realize Olmert thinks he made headway, but it’s not clear the Palestinians have agreed at all. Furthermore, how is such a proposal going to be accepted in a Palestinian referendum? Do you think Lebanese Palestinians will accept?

    Personally, I think the Taba proposal regarding return of some original refugees in proportion to receipt of asylum by other Palestinian refugees in Western countries makes a lot of sense.

  11. 11 Tom Mitchell said at 8:09 am on February 18th, 2011:

    Noam,
    I’m glad to see that you finally recognize that the problem isn’t just on the Israeli side–something that I tried to explain to you before and you rejected. And I’m glad that you recognize that Obama has other problems. Israelis tend to be very narcissistic politically: those on the Right want the U.S. to just give aid and ignore what they do, in spite of the problems that it causes for the U.S. in the region; and those on the Left want Uncle Sam to drop everything else and simply impose a solution.

    I spent a decade studying other similar conflicts to understand what political obstacles are in the way in the Middle East. First, until Israel eliminates its current party system and reduces the number of parties represented in the Knesset to half the present number through electoral reform peace will be impossible. Second, there must be a Palestinian consensus around a solution that Israel could conceivably accept. Third, both sides need to realize that there is no military solution to the conflict. Fourth, Washington needs to bring in mediation partners such as the EU to offset its pro-Israel bias.