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The Dangers of False Optimism in the Middle East

Nothing to be Done

by MOUIN RABBANI

The recent announcement that Barack Obama will deliver a major address to the Muslim world from Cairo in early June has further heightened expectations that the new American administration is determined to achieve a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Obama met with Benjamin Netanyahu this week, the emerging consensus among politicians and pundits alike was that the new president is prepared to invest the resources required to translate ambitious rhetoric into concrete reality.

There is indeed some logic to these hopes: Obama is clearly committed to repairing America’s international relations, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, and he appears to understand that doing so will require meaningful and irreversible movement towards Palestinian statehood. The rapid appointment of George Mitchell as an envoy to the region and Obama’s apparent desire to push for peace at the beginning rather than the end of his presidency have been taken by many observers as signs that the new administration is ready and willing to force the two sides to the negotiating table.

Even the election of Netanyahu, one of Israel’s most prominent rejectionists, and the continued atrophy of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas have failed to dim a growing tide of optimism. The international press has been rife with reports of an impending confrontation between Washington and Tel Aviv and speculation about an American challenge to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly. Once Obama unveils his strategy and its implementation proceeds, it is argued, Abbas will be able to make short shrift of his Islamist rivals by garnering the legitimacy and consolidating the authority required to participate in an agreement.

All this optimism rests on the unstated premise that Israeli- Palestinian peace is ultimately a function of American political will; once Washington decides to throw its weight behind an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, it doesn’t much matter what Israeli leaders think, because they will be left with no choice but to comply. By the same token, a reversal of American acquiescence in Israel’s occupation is expected to produce a Palestinian leadership capable of implementing – and prepared to pay the price of – a two-state settlement.

But whether or not Obama is willing to twist arms to impose a settlement, a broader question remains unanswered. The conditions for peace processing may be better than they have been in the preceding eight years, but the reality on the ground is now eight years worse.

Even in the event of a transformation of American policy, the prospect for a viable two-state settlement has almost certainly been overtaken by reality. By waiting until 2009 to reverse the occupation of 1967, in other words, the United States and its partners chose to miss the boat.

For all intents and purposes, every Israeli under the age of 50 has grown up with the doctrine that the Green Line does not exist, that the West Bank is in fact Judea and Samaria, and that the latter – liberated rather than occupied territories – are the historical heartland of the Jewish people. Not a foreign possession or outlying province, but rather as Israeli as Tel Aviv, if not more so. The last time these territories were under Arab rule, Netanyahu was a teenager and Avigdor Lieberman was completing elementary school in the Soviet Union. For more than a decade, Israel’s leaders have successfully persuaded their population that concessions to their adversaries produce not peace and compromise but rather more violence stemming from a fundamental Arab desire to eradicate Israel.

Currently, almost 10 per cent of Israel’s Jewish population lives in settlements beyond the green line. Conservatively estimating that an additional 20 per cent of Israeli citizens would vote against a full withdrawal to the 1967 boundary, and that a significant minority of this total would seek to obstruct and engage in active opposition, some of it violent, to a government decision to implement such a withdrawal, it is difficult to see how the Israeli government could successfully engineer an end to the occupation, even under severe international pressure. In the foreseeable future a French withdrawal from Alsace-Lorraine or an American repudiation of Hawaii seems more likely. Seen from this perspective, it appears out of the question that an Israeli government could be capable of taking the decision to vacate the West Bank, and even less likely that one prepared to do so will retain sufficient legitimacy to carry out such a policy.

These domestic political constraints do not in and of themselves rule out the possibility of a forceful American effort to compel an Israeli withdrawal. But given Washington’s own domestic calculations, and the centrality of Israeli interests to US regional strategy, it is all but impossible to envision circumstances under which Obama would compel Israel to accept the terms required for a viable two-state settlement: a comprehensive withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 boundaries (including East Jerusalem), the evacuation of all settlement blocs in the West Bank, meaningful Palestinian sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a recognition (if not a full implementation) of the Palestinian right of return.

Indeed, in his big day at the White House, Netanyahu could not even bring himself to utter the phrase "Palestinian state". (He limited himself to the observation that he would prefer that the Palestinians "govern themselves".) Back home Israel announced the establishment of a new West Bank settlement – whose construction had previously been delayed in deference to opposition from the Bush administration.

The continued acceleration of Israeli settlement activity and the concomitant fragmentation of the Palestinian national movement have led many analysts and commentators to declare the impending demise of the two-state solution. Judging the point at which two states can no longer be carved out of the present reality is not an exact science, but it seems inconceivable that a realistic prospect for partition still exists.

To be sure, initiatives for Palestinian statehood are certain to enjoy renewed momentum in the months and years ahead, but they have been hollowed of content to the point where even Netanyahu could soon come on board. The formulas currently being floated would create an Israeli protectorate fragmented by settlement blocs rather than a sovereign state. Palestinians would have no possession of East Jerusalem and, needless to say, there would be no recognition of the right of return. Such proposals make no commitments to meaningful sovereignty – without which there is no "state" – and represent the antithesis of self-determination. Like the Oslo process, they therefore amount to little more than a recipe for renewed conflict.

Supporters of a two-state solution have taken to arguing that it must be implemented quickly, before it is too late. It is therefore surprising that so little thought has been given to preparing for its passing: for now, at least, false optimism is preferred to reckoning with the consequences.

In this respect, it has become increasingly common to argue that a one-state solution (whether a binational entity or unitary democracy) is the logical alternative to the disappearing two-state paradigm. Yet this outcome – while admittedly the closest approximation of a just peace – is even less likely to materialise than a two-state settlement.

Unlike white South Africans, Jewish Israelis are not a small minority who can be expected to conclude that providing equal rights to the indigenous population within a democratic framework represents their only salvation. To the contrary, the one conviction uniting almost every Jewish Israeli is a shared commitment to the preservation of a Jewish state. In recent decades, furthermore, most Palestinians have also come to subscribe to the notion of an ethnic polity.

The status quo is also increasingly untenable, and the more likely scenario for the coming decade, if not longer, is that Israel’s determined efforts to perpetuate it will produce increasing – and increasingly existential, regionalised and bloody – conflict. With the train derailed, the light at the tunnel’s end is liable to remain very dim for the foreseeable future.

MOUIN RABBANI is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

This piece was originally published by The National.