OCTOBER 1, 2008
Let’s be honest: When it comes to Middle East peace negotiations, Israel is from Mars and the Palestinians are from Venus. Will they ever get on the same planet?
Dear Friend of FLAME:
A few days ago I had the chance to hear former Secretary of State George Schultz speak on Israel’s relationship to the U.S. and the diplomatic principles of negotiating peace. While the 80s-something Schultz moves and speaks a bit slowly, his mind is still sharp and his insights profound. The room was dead silent as he spoke, and we hung on every word and anecdote from his rich diplomatic past.
Schultz observed that in order for any negotiations to be successful, both parties must be capable of backing up their commitments. Though this seems obvious in the extreme, one wonders why Condoleeza Rice continues to pressure for negotiations between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, since neither has a particularly firm grip on power and since Abbas has absolutely no influence on Hamas-ruled Gaza. Indeed, noted Schultz, it’s hard enough for two states to negotiate, let alone state and a group of people riven by bitter factional disputes. What good can come of negotiations in this context, except perhaps the face-saving PR value of being able to say to the international community that “we’re making best efforts"?
To make matters worse, Olmert has now resigned, and a new Israeli Prime Minister has yet to be chosen. Abbas’s term as President expires in January of next year, and the prospect of democratic elections among the Palestinians is inconceivable, which portends more strife between the factions no matter how things shake out politically in Gaza and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).
But this lack of political stability is actually the least of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians. As this week’s article by Haaretz diplomatic editor Aluf Benn notes, the two parties have completely different perspectives on how to negotiate for and achieve peace. They’re on different planets.
The Israelis, based on their experience of nationhood, believe that progress on the ground, inch by inch, settlement by settlement, is real progress. The Palestinians, using a post-Colonialist liberation model, want Israel to agree once and for all on a final status, including pre-1967 borders, their capital in East Jerusalem and the right of return of families of Palestinian refugees from Israel’s 1947 war of independence---all pretty much non-starters given today’s realities.
As politics both in Israel and the territories evolves---and as it evolves in the United States over the coming months---it’s important that Israel’s supporters understand what is possible and useful and what is not. Benn’s brief, but information-packed article below helps clarify this issue.
As George Schultz noted, it makes no sense to negotiate anything with people who can’t enforce what they negotiate. It doesn’t make much more sense to negotiate with people who demand things that are patently impossible.
Palestinians: Better occupation than a partial peace
"It is possible to reach understandings with the Palestinians by the end of the year," says Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and proposes that the deal be hurried up and closed.
"The proposals of my Israeli counterparts are a partial peace, and that is not the way to progress," replied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Which of the two is telling the truth, and who is lying? Is a historic agreement to establish a Palestinian state in reach, or is it still far away? And how can it be that both leaders describe such different realities after all their meetings?
The gap between Olmert's and Abbas' statements in recent days do not result from a lack of truthfulness, but rather a profound gap between two fundamental viewpoints. One is from Mars, the other from Venus. What one side presents as a concession, the other views as an insult or trick to avoid making a decision. That is how it has been since the very first days of the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli approach, rooted in the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Israel, espouses progress through creating facts on the ground. That is how the state was founded and built. To paraphrase A. D. Gordon, another dunam, another goat, another kibbutz and another settlement; another tank and another Phantom, and then all of the land is in our hands. That is what Israel is offering the Palestinians. When we offer you something, take it, and then we will see how we progress further. Start with a small state, demilitarized and surrounded by fences and Israeli soldiers, and then we can see what comes later.
The Palestinians have different ideas. They insist on the recognition of their "rights" as anchored in UN decisions, and then they will talk about details. First Israel should recognize the principles of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, without any security constraints and with East Jerusalem as its capital; Israel should also recognize the refugees' right of return and compensation payments for the occupation, and then we will see how to implement it.
Like Yasser Arafat eight years ago, Abbas rejects the Israeli proposal and insists that occupation is preferable to a partial peace. Either the Palestinians receive full sovereignty over their state, or they will continue to wait at the roadblocks. Israelis find it hard to understand this maximalist approach. After all, Abbas is complaining about the expansion of the settlements and the theft of Palestinian land: Why doesn't he settle for less than his full aspirations, and in the meantime force Israel to stop construction in the settlements and start the retreat from the West Bank?
The Palestinians reply that they have already given up 78 percent of their historic homeland, and are not willing to compromise on less than the remaining 22 percent in the West Bank and Gaza. They present their case using maps of the Land of Israel showing how Palestinian territory has gradually shrunk from the entire country during the British Mandate to today's enclaves, closed off by fences and roadblocks. They have forgotten that between the various maps, their leadership turned down offers of partition and decided to go to war - and lost. "The shelf agreement" Olmert is offering them is not as good as the "permanent agreement" prime minister Ehud Barak offered them in 2000, mostly because in the meantime the Palestinians lost the second intifada, and Fatah lost Gaza to Hamas. That is the price of failure.
The Palestinians are using as their model the end of British colonial rule in India, Asia and Africa: full independence and a complete withdrawal of the foreign presence. But that is not the only model for ending an occupation. In Ireland a religious and nationalistic dispute has been going on for hundreds of years. After the Irish revolt during World War I, the British offered to end their rule of the neighboring island. The agreement, reached finally in 1921, promised the Irish approximately what Olmert is offering Abbas today. The British kept their "settlement blocs" in Northern Ireland, and Irish sovereignty in the south remained under the auspices of the empire based in London. The British fleet continued to control Irish ports.
The compromise produced a civil war in which the Irish leader, Michael Collins, was murdered after he signed the agreement with Britain. His great rival, Eamon de Valera, the Irish Ben-Gurion, retreated from his maximalist position. After gaining power, de Valera gradually freed himself from the remaining signs of British control in the southern part of Ireland and brought it to complete independence. The north remained in British hands and the strife reawakened, until only a few years ago it ended in a tense peace. In the meantime, the Republic of Ireland has enjoyed its freedom and prosperity. If it had stuck to the approach of "everything or nothing" of Arafat and Abbas, it would have remained under British occupation until now.
Israel learned the lesson of "revealing Arafat's true face" at Camp David, and out of fear of destroying the negotiations, Israel is not portraying Abbas as a devious peace rejectionist - even though his positions are the same as those of his predecessor. This way it is possible to keep on talking, but that is not enough to reach an agreement. For a breakthrough, we have to understand the basic differences between the sides - and try to bridge the gap between Mars and Venus.
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