Would Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu say the magic words “two states” after his meeting with President Obama? All Israel held its breath. (He didn’t). The gap between the two is wider than those words could ever have bridged, however. Obama, I believe, sincerely –” perhaps urgently –” seeks a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a pre-condition, he understands, to getting on with larger, more pressing Middle Eastern issues. Netanyahu, who rejects even the notion of a Palestinian mini-state as grudgingly accepted by Barak, Sharon and Olmert, is seeking a permanent state of “warehousing” in which the Palestinians live forever in a limbo of “autonomy” delineated by an Israel that otherwise encompasses them. The danger, to which we all should be attuned, is that the two sides might compromise on apartheid –” the establishment of a Palestinian Bantustan that has neither genuine sovereignty nor economic viability.
For his part, Obama seems to understand the strong linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the hostility towards the West so prevalent in the Muslim world. His administration has been quite candid about the need to move forward on Palestine in order to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue, and his ability to withdraw from Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan and deal with the challenge political Islam poses to the “moderate” Arab states also depend, to a meaningful degree, on forging a new relationship with the Muslim world , which requires an end to the Israeli Occupation.
Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have already presented the outlines of their new “reframing” of the conflict:
- The Iran threat is preeminent, uniting the US and Israel into a strategic alliance and completely overshadowing the Palestinian issue;
- Such “slogans” (as Lieberman characterized them) as occupation, settlements, settlers, land for peace and even the “simplistic” two-state solution must be abandoned in order to “go forward” according to a new slogan: “economy, security, stability” –” meaning improving the Palestinian economy while ensuring Israel’s security. The stability that results (Lieberman invokes the “stable” situation between the Greek and Turkish populations of Turkish-occupied Cyprus as his model) will then somehow facilitate some future and vague peace process;
- Israel will continue to expand its “facts on the ground.” Just the day before the Netanyahu/Obama meeting the building of a new settlement was announced –” Maskiot, in the Jordan Valley, the first settlement to be officially established in 26 years. Two days after returning from Washington, Netanyahu further declared: “United Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Jerusalem was always ours and will always be ours. It will never again be partitioned and divided.” It then announced that it will continue building within the “settlement blocs.” Just a month before, on the day Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell were to arrive in the country, the Israeli government announced that it would conduct massive demolitions of Palestinian homes in Jerusalem. This “in your face” approach signals the Administration that Israel is not about to accept dictates, as the Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon put it, testing just how assertive Obama will be.
- Both the US and Israel seek broader involvement in the peace process by the Arab states, but once again, Israel has its own particular spin on that. While the US is formulating a comprehensive approach to peace and stabilization in the entire Middle East region (which King Abdullah of Jordan calls a “57-state solution” whereby the entire Arab and Muslim worlds would recognize Israel in return for a genuine end to the Occupation), Israel’s formula of putting “economic peace” before any politically defined peace agreement tries to create a state of normalization between Israel and the Arab/Muslim world that would relegate the Palestinian issue indefinitely to the back-burner. Given the record of the so-called “moderate” Arab states, and given the opposition to a rising Iran they share with Israel, their involvement does not necessarily bode well for the Palestinians.
Then there all the mechanisms for delaying or undermining negotiations:
- Creating insurmountable political obstacles, such as the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” Netanyahu well knows that the Palestinians will not accede to that, the fact that such recognition would prejudice the equal status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, a full 20% of the Israeli population, being an important consideration. The fear of further ethnic cleansing (“transfer” in Israeli parlance) is a real one. When she was Foreign Minister, Tsipi Livni stated clearly that future of Israel’s Arab citizens is in a future Palestinian state, not in Israel itself. And remember, last year the Israeli Parliament passed a law requiring a majority of two-thirds to approve any change in the status of Jerusalem, an impossible threshold. Similar legislation, supported by the government, will be passed on other issues such as dismantling settlements and ratifying any peace agreement.
- Delayed implementation. OK, the Israeli government says, we’ll negotiate, but the implementation of any agreement will wait on the complete cessation of any resistance on the part of the Palestinians. “Security before peace” is the way the Israeli government frames it. Since, however, there has never been any indication that Israel would agree to a viable Palestinian state, and since Israel views any resistance, armed or non-violent, as a form of terrorism, “security before peace” actually means “stop all resistance and you may get a state.” The catch here is that if Palestinians do stop their resistance they are lost. Without Palestinian pressure, Israel and the international community would lack any motivation for making the concessions necessary for a genuine solution. And even if an agreement is reached, “security before peace” means that it will not be implemented until Israel unilaterally decides the conditions are ripe. This so-called “shelf agreement” erects yet another insurmountable obstacle before any peace process.
- Declaring a “transitional” Palestinian state. If all else fails –” actually negotiating with the Palestinians or relinquishing the Occupation not being an option –” the US, at Israel’s behest, can manage to skip Phase 1 of the Road Map and go directly to Phase 2, which calls for a “transitional” Palestinian state before, in Phase 3, its actual borders, territory and sovereignty are agreed upon. This is the Palestinians’ nightmare: being locked indefinitely in the limbo of a “transitional” state. For Israel, such a situation is ideal, since it offers the possibility of imposing borders and expanding into the Palestinian areas unilaterally while seeming to respect the Road Map process.
Needless to say, all of this is to avoid a real two-state solution, the very idea of which is anathema to the Likud-led government. More than a decade ago Netanyahu set out his vision of Palestinian self-determination: somewhere between “state-minus and autonomy-plus.” The best, if bleakest term for what Israel is intending for the Palestinians is warehousing, a permanent state of control and suppression in which the victims disappear from view and their situation, emptied of all political content, becomes a non-issue.
Although the Obama Administration may truly desire viable two-state solution and even understands all Israel’s tricks, it is also clear that without significant pressure it cannot be achieved. And here is where the real problem arises. Israel’s trump card has always been Congress, where it enjoys virtually unanimous bi-partisan support. And Obama’s own Democratic Party, which received almost 80% of the Jewish vote in 2008, has always been far more “pro-Israel” than the Republicans. It may well be that Obama and Mitchell will try to take American policy in a new and more assertive direction and the leaders of his own party will balk, fearful of not being re-elected.
In this case, the “compromise” between the desire to resolve the conflict and the inability to move Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories so that a viable Palestinian state may emerge may be nothing less than apartheid. The difference between a viable Palestinian state and a Bantustan is one of details. Already signs are that the Obama Administration will allow Israel to keep its major settlement blocs, including a “Greater” Jerusalem, and prevent the Palestinians from having sovereign borders with the neighboring Arab states. Since few appreciate the crucial meaning of such details, Israel believes that it can finesse an apartheid situation in the guise of a two-state solution. Over the past decades the job of civil society has been to force governments to fulfill their responsibilities and enter into a political process that will actually lead to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Now that that process is upon us, our task is now to keep it honest.