The United States' double role in Israel-Palestinian negotiations.
Image from Flickr via dharmasphere
By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk
A week ago Israel suspended participation in the peace talks in response to news that the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah had for a third time concluded a unity agreement with the Hamas leadership of Gaza. Such a move toward intra-Palestinian reconciliation should have been welcomed by Israel as a tentative step in the right direction. Instead it was immediately denounced by Netanyahu as the end of the diplomatic road, contending that Israel will never be part of any political process that includes a terrorist organization pledged to its destruction. Without Hamas’ participation any diplomatic results of negotiations would likely have been of questionable value, and besides, Hamas deserves inclusion. It has behaved as a political actor since it took part in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, and has repeatedly indicated its willingness to reach a long-term normalizing agreement with Israel if and when Israel is ready to withdraw fully to the 1967 borders and respect Palestinian sovereign rights. The contention that Hamas is pledged to Israel’s destruction is pure hasbara, a cynical means to manipulate the fear factor in Israeli domestic politics, as well as ensuring the persistence of the conflict. This approach has become Israel’s way of choosing expansion over peace, and seemingly ignoring its own citizens’ mandate to secure a stable peace agreement.
Israel had days earlier complained about an initiative taken by the PA to become a party to 15 international treaties. Again, a step that would be viewed as constructive if seeking an end to the conflict was anywhere to be found in Israel’s playbook. Such an initiative should have been interpreted in a positive direction as indicating the Palestinian intention to be a responsible member of the international community. Israel’s contrary lame allegation that by acting independently the PA departed from the agreed roadmap of negotiations prematurely assuming the prerogatives of a state rather than waiting Godot-like for such a status to be granted via the bilateral diplomatic route.
To remove any doubt about the priorities of the Netanyahu-led government, Israel during the nine months set aside for reaching an agreement, authorized no less than 13,851 new housing units in the settlements, added significant amounts of available land for further settlement expansion, and demolished 312 Palestinian homes. These acts were not only unlawful, but actually accelerated earlier settlement trends, and were obviously provocative from a Palestinian perspective. As Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, observed in a TV interview, if Israeli authorizes even one additional housing unit during negotiations it is sending a clear signal to the Palestinian people and their leaders that it has no interest in reaching a sustainable peace agreement.
It is probably beside the point that no one at the State Department informed Kerry before he started to walk this tightrope that the two-state goal that he so unconditionally endorsed was already dead and buried as a realistic option.
The revival of direct negotiations last August between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority was mainly a strong arm initiative of the U.S. Government, energized by John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, who has put relentless pressure on both sides to start talking despite the manifest futility of such a process from its outset. Such resolve raises the still unanswered question, ‘why?’ Kerry melodramatically proclaimed that these negotiations were the last chance to save the two-state solution as the means to end the conflict, in effect, declaring this new round of U.S. sponsored negotiations to be an all or nothing moment of decision for the Palestinian Authority and Israel. Kerry has reinforced this appeal by warning that Israel risks isolation and boycott if no agreement is reached, and in the last several days, declared behind closed doors that Israel was taking a path that could lead Israel to becoming an apartheid state by this apparent refusal to seek a diplomatic solution.
It is probably beside the point that no one at the State Department informed Kerry before he started to walk this tightrope that the two-state goal that he so unconditionally endorsed was already dead and buried as a realistic option. Further, that Israel had established an apartheid regime on the West Bank decades ago, making his supposedly controversial statement better understood to be ‘old news.’ In other words, Kerry showed himself awkwardly out of touch by issuing future warnings about matters that were already in a past tense. With respect to apartheid he discredited himself further by apologizing for using the a-word in response to objections by Israeli supporters in the United States, however descriptive ‘apartheid’ has become of the discriminatory nature of the occupation. American leaders present themselves as craven in relation to Israeli sensibilities when they retreat in this manner from reality without showing the slightest sign of embarrassment.
The agreement of Israel and the PA to sit together and negotiate formally expired on April 29th, yet the indefatigable Kerry rather remarkably pushed the parties to agree on an extension by a flurry of meetings in recent weeks disclosing a mood hovering uneasily between exasperation and desperation. Even if the talks were to resume, as still might happen, it should not be interpreted as a hopeful development. There is utterly no reason to think that a diplomatic process in the current political climate is capable of producing a just and sustainable peace. To think differently embraces an illusion, and more meaningfully, gives Israel additional time to consolidate its expansionist plans to a point that makes it absurd to imagine the creation of a truly viable and independent sovereign parallel Palestinian state. So long as the political preconditions for fruitful inter-governmental diplomacy do not exist, calls for direct negotiations should be abandoned. Both sides must approach negotiations with a genuine incentive to strike a deal that is fair to the other side, which implies a willingness to respect Palestinian rights under international law. For reasons suggested, those preconditions do not exist on the Israeli side. This makes it deeply misleading to put the blame for the breakdown of the talks on both sides, or sometimes even to point the finger at the Palestinians, as has been the practice in the mainstream Western media whenever negotiations hit a stone wall.
What is gained by Israel and the United States is some hope that while negotiations proceed the conflict will not escalate by taking an unwelcome turn toward a Third Intifada.
It has been painfully obvious ever since Oslo (1993), that there is something fundamentally deficient about the double role played by the United States Government in relation to such negotiations. How can it be trusted when American officials declare over and over again that the country will forever remain the unconditional ally of Israel, and yet at the same time give even minimal confidence to the Palestinians that it a neutral third party seeking to promote a just peace? The short answer is that ‘it can’t’ and ‘will not.’ From the very outset of the recent diplomatic initiative this contradiction in roles was resolved in Israel’s favor by the Obama appointment of Martin Indyk as Special Envoy entrusted with the delicate symbolic role of overseeing the negotiations. Indyk has a long public career of involvements supportive of Israel, including past employment with the notorious AIPAC lobby that exerts its disproportionate pro-Israeli influence over the entire American political scene. Only the weakness of the Palestinian Authority can explain a willingness to entrust its diplomatic fate to such a framework already strongly tilted in favor of Israel due to Israel’s skills and strengths as an experienced political actor on the global stage.
Against this background we have to ask what is gained and lost by such fruitless negotiations. What is gained by Israel and the United States is some hope that while negotiations proceed the conflict will not escalate by taking an unwelcome turn toward a Third Intifada that forcibly challenges Israel’s occupation policies associated with the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. There is also the sense that so long as the U.S. Government is seen as backing a two-state solution it satisfies regional expectations, and provide a rationale for supporting even a futile diplomatic effort because it is the only game in town, and it seems perverse to challenge its utility without presenting an alternative. The Arab world itself endorsed and recently reaffirmed its 2002 regional peace initiative calling for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Palestine and formal acceptance of Palestinian state within 1967 green line borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a vision of peace derives from unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that was premised on Israel’s withdrawal from territories occupied in the course of the 1967 War, but additionally on a just solution of the refugee problem. And there is near universal appreciation expressed for Kerry’s dedication to resolving the conflict, and so it is a kind of public relations success story despite the serious drawbacks mentioned.
In effect, there has existed a global consensus since 1967 on establishing peace between Israel and Palestine, reinforced by the apparent absence of alternatives, that is, the only possibilities are widely believed to be either two-states or the persistence of the conflict. It should be appreciated that way back in 1988 the Palestinian Liberation Organization, then speaking for all Palestinians under the leadership of Yasir Arafat, gave up its maximalist goals, and formally indicated its willingness to make peace with Israel based on these 1967 borders, with an implied readiness to compromise on the refugee issue. Such an approach allowed Israel to possess secure borders based on 78% of historic Palestine, and limited the Palestinian state to the other 22%, which is less than half of what the UN had offered the Palestinians its partition proposal of 1947, which at the time seemed unreasonable from a Palestinian perspective. In appraisals of the conflict this historic Palestinian concession, perhaps imprudently made by the PLO, has never been acknowledged, much less reciprocated, by either Israel or the United States. In my view, this absence of response exhibited all along a fundamental lack of political will on the Israeli side to reach a solution through inter-governmental negotiations, although some would interpret the Camp David initiative in 2000 as the last time that Israeli leadership seemed somewhat inclined to resolve the conflict diplomatically. The Palestinian Authority depends on Israel to transfer tax revenues upon which its governing capacity rests, and it can usually be brought into line if it acts in defiance of Tel Aviv and Washington. Also, collaboration on security arrangements with Israel creates both co-dependency and give a measure of stability to the otherwise frozen situation. Occasionally, seemingly with quixotic intent, the PA and Abbas challenge this image by suggesting their option to quit the political stage and return the responsibilities of administering the West Bank to Israel.
In some respects, the essence of the Palestinian predicament is to acknowledge that it is too late for the two-state solution and seemingly too early for a one-state solution.
The two-state consensus has been increasingly challenged over the years by influential Palestinians, including Edward Said, who toward the end of his life argued that in view of intervening developments subsequent to 1988, only a one-state solution could reconcile the two peoples in an acceptable manner based on mutual respect for rights, democracy, and equality. The advocacy of a single secular democratic state draws on two sets of arguments—a pragmatic contention that the settlement process and the changed demographic of East Jerusalem are essentially irreversible, and thus there is no feasible means at this time to create a viable Palestinian state, and this becomes more apparent with each passing day; and a principled contention that it makes no political or ethical sense in the twenty-first century to encourage the formation of ethnic states, especially as in this case, 20% of the Israeli population is Palestinian, and subject to an array of discriminatory legislative measures. In some respects, the essence of the Palestinian predicament is to acknowledge that it is too late for the two-state solution and seemingly too early for a one-state solution.
Assuming that the diplomatic route is blocked, is the situation hopeless for the Palestinians? I believe that Palestinian hopes for a just peace should never have rested on the outcome of formal diplomacy for the reasons given above. Put succinctly, given the Israel failure to heed the call for withdrawal in SC Res. 242, its non-response to the 1988 PLO acceptance of Israel within the 1967 borders, and its consistent commitment to settlement expansion, no sane person should have put much faith in an Israeli readiness to make a peace respectful of Palestinian rights under international law. Currently, the best prospect for realizing Palestinian self-determination is by way of pressures exerted through the mobilization of a movement from below, combining popular resistance with global solidarity. Such a process, what I have called ‘legitimacy war,’ exemplified by Gandhi’s nonviolent victory over the British Empire and more recently by the success of the global anti-apartheid movement against racist South Africa, represents the latest strategic turn in the Palestinian national movement, and seems even compatible with the recent outlook of Hamas as expressed by its leaders and confirmed by its behavior.
If the political climate changes in response to legitimacy war pressures, governments could have a crucial future role to play, taking advantage of a new balance of forces that could enable diplomacy
It is time to appreciate that the current approach of the Palestinian national movement rests on two broad undertakings: the adoption of nonviolent resistance tactics and an increasingly strengthened global solidarity movement, centered on the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) initiative, which is gaining momentum throughout the world, especially in Europe. These developments are reinforced by UN calls to Member States to remind corporate and financial actors under their national control that it is problematic under international law to continue engaging in business dealings with Israeli settlements. In effect, there are horizons of hope for Palestinians with respect to seeking a just and sustainable peace between these two ethnic communities that is gaining most of its impact and influence from the actions of people rather than the maneuvers of governments. Of course, if the political climate changes in response to legitimacy war pressures, governments could have a crucial future role to play, taking advantage of a new balance of forces that could enable diplomacy to move towards solutions. Constructive diplomacy would contrast with what has recently transpired, which seemed to combine deflection from Israeli expansionism followed by participation in a childish blame game. It is important that world public opinion reject as meaningless the diplomatic charade of peace talks while the fate of a people continues to be daily sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics.
Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.