29 April: that was the date, according to John Kerry’s initial timetable, by which an agreement to end the Israel-Palestine conflict would be signed. But it now risks going down in history for another reason: as the day the modern “peace process” died. The secretary of state is engaged in a race against time to persuade the sides to keep negotiating beyond the end of the month. A unity agreement between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, signed this week, may have complicated his task. Nevertheless all those who, like me, believe a two-state agreement is the only way of ending Israelis’ and Palestinians’ century-long dispute will be hoping against hope that he succeeds – right?
Wrong. It’s time to face facts: a quarter century of on-off peace talks has left the Palestinians empty-handed, and there’s no reason to believe the result will be any different this time. Consider the evidence rather than the soundbites, and it’s clear Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no intention of offering the Palestinians a deal that would give them a viable state.
For a peace agreement to work, it must satisfy two fundamental conditions. First, both Israelis and Palestinians must approve it in separate referendums. If either people feels the deal is unfair, or sacrifices too many of their fundamental rights, it’s a non-starter. The second condition is that a peace agreement must actually bring peace. For several years after a deal is signed there will be those on both sides agitating for renewed conflict, and unless Israelis feel more secure and Palestinians more prosperous and free, new cycles of violence are bound to break out.
And here’s the problem: Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to sign a one-sided deal that, even if it meets the first condition, will certainly fail the second. After spending his whole political career, including an earlier spell as prime minister, doing everything he could to oppose the two-state solution, he abruptly changed his position under severe US pressure in 2009, and since then has been saying that a negotiated deal is essential to Israel’s future. But even though he now talks about peace and Palestinian statehood, his understanding of those words is a long way from their usual meaning. As a result, any deal that arises from these talks will not only fail to bring justice to the Palestinians – it will fail to bring lasting peace.
How do I know this? Because Netanyahu has said so again and again, to anyone who will listen. It’s universally recognised – by the international community, independent experts, previous Israeli leaders, and civil society groups in the US, Israel and Palestine – that two essential conditions for Palestinian statehood are a capital in East Jerusalem and a border based on the 1967 line (with minor, agreed modifications). But Netanyahu’s “Palestinian state” involves neither. He said so in September 2009, in the very speech in which he reversed his long opposition to the two-state solution. He said so in May 2011, when President Obama last tried to kickstart talks between the two sides. He was still saying so in January 2013 while campaigning in the runup to the last Israeli election. And he has continued saying so while the talks sponsored by Kerry have been taking place. It’s not surprising that Netanyahu’s father and political mentor Benzion Netanyahu said of his son’s “embrace” of Palestinian statehood: “He doesn’t support it. He supports the sorts of conditions that they” – the Palestinians, that is – “would never accept.”
But Netanyahu is a politician, and an arch-pragmatist at that. Isn’t it possible that, behind the closed doors of the negotiating rooms, he’ll abandon his convictions in order to secure a deal? But all the forces acting on Netanyahu – his Likud party, his coalition government and the settler lobby (Israel’s most powerful political force) – are screaming at him to back away from compromise. And leaks from the current negotiations provide evidence he’s doing exactly that, offering Palestinians a border along the “separation barrier” and a capital in a small neighbourhood miles from the centre of Jerusalem.
What, exactly, would be so bad about that? Sure, it would seem harsh on the Palestinians, who were offered a significantly better deal by Ehud Olmert in 2008. But Netanyahu’s apparent proposal would still leave them around 90 per cent of the West Bank. Is it really worth continuing the conflict over the remaining 10 per cent (some 500km²)? But this figure is misleading. If the new Palestinian state’s border follows the route of the separation barrier, it will face three devastating consequences. First, it will lose key water resources and much of the West Bank’s best agricultural land. Second, its major population centres will be divided from each other. Third, and most importantly, Jerusalem – the hub of Palestinian economic and social life – will be amputated. Even if Israel somehow finds a way of strong-arming the Palestinians into accepting this arrangement, the resulting state will be territorially deformed and economically stillborn. Whoever is unlucky enough to become its leader will immediately have to contend with violent revanchists seeking to whip up cross-border tensions or ride a wave of popular resentment to power.
But what about the third party to the talks: the United States? Couldn’t John Kerry use his government’s superpower influence to tilt the balance towards an equitable deal, pressuring Israel to offer the Palestinians a deal they could accept? At the New Yorker Bernard Avishai calls for him to do just that, by outlining his own peace plan (along the lines of the Clinton Parameters) and challenging the two sides to accept it. Doing so would incur significant political costs for the Obama administration, but if it was prepared to withstand the inevitable outrage from Israel’s powerful supporters in Washington it might just be able to force Netanyahu’s hand. This is all very well in theory, but leaks from the talks suggest that, instead of pushing back against Israel’s uncompromising position, Kerry is supporting it. Again, this is just what you would expect from a hard-headed analysis of the forces acting on Obama. The Democratic Party, Congress, the Washington foreign policy establishment and much of the US media are all, to a greater or lesser degree, cheerleaders for the Jewish state – and then there’s the small matter of AIPAC and the rest of the domestic Israel lobby. In contrast, voices supporting the Palestinians can barely be heard in the Oval Office.
All these facts help illustrate a fundamental flaw in the peace process. The Israel-Palestine conflict isn’t just some misunderstanding that can be resolved merely be encouraging the two sides to sit down and talk like adults. Nor is it a meeting of equals who are both willing to trade concessions until a compromise is reached. Instead, think of it as a bitter divorce in which a couple must negotiate a division of their assets – except the husband has everything in his possession: the life savings, the house, the car and the kids. And here’s the thing: if the talks break down, there’s nothing to stop him walking away with everything until the next set of discussions. In such circumstances what possible motive does he have to negotiate fairly – or to seek a deal at all?
If the peace process were merely a waste of time, of course, there’d be no harm in letting them drag on ineffectually till Judgement Day. But they are far from harmless; in fact, every day they go on, an independent Palestinian state becomes less likely. For one thing, by focusing exclusively on futile negotiations Palestinian leaders have neglected and even suppressed other forms of resistance – including mass nonviolent resistance, which may offer the best chance of ending the occupation. What’s more, by entering into peace talks the Palestinians enable Israel to mute international criticism, because it can claim it is attempting to find a solution to the conflict. Finally, by agreeing to postpone attempts to bring Israel to justice through UN agencies while talks are ongoing, the Palestinians have abandoned their most effective way of pushing back against the gradual takeover of the West Bank.
The peace process leaves the Palestinians with a choice: endless talks that lead nowhere or surrender in the form of a non-viable pseudo-state. Mahmoud Abbas and his team must walk away from this charade and seek new ways of reinvigorating the national movement. (Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is a step in the right direction, and in my next article I will discuss Palestinians’ other options and why, in my view, there are reasons for hope.) The way forward is tripwired with risk – Israel is unlikely to respond with equanimity to a more assertive Palestinian strategy – but the greater risk lies in continuing down the current path, swapping maps and memos as, outside, hopes of Palestinian statehood are buried under a tonne of settlement tarmac.
Matt Rowland Hill is a London-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the New Statesman. You can follow him on Twitter @mattrowlandhill and email him at email@example.com.