So finally the week of decision has arrived, and the Palestinian issue will be taken up at the United Nations. Claiming that the Palestinian appeal to the UN is bad for the peace process or is the death of Oslo rings hollow to me. There is no peace process right now if what one means by peace process is high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at resolving the conflict. Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, we have only witnessed a few weeks of such talks. So it is bad for something that does not exist?
Moreover, criticizing President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA for turning to the UN because it is a unilateral move also seems odd because a) the UN is the world’s central multilateral institution and b) the UN stamp of approval in 1947 was and is a key building block for Israel’s statehood. In a related sense, if one wants the Palestinians to reject violence, shouldn’t they be permitted diplomatic, political, and legal moves? A Fatah leader quoted in the excellent Crisis Group report: “The world is telling us that we should be doing only peaceful resistance, but what we are doing at the UN is not even resistance, it’s just a legal move, and we are being told that even that is illegitimate. Is there anything that would be considered legitimate?”
The reason we don’t have a peace process is interrelated Israeli and Palestinian opposition. Think of it like a Mobius strip. The Netanyahu government, and the majority of Israelis who support that government, don’t believe in a genuine two-state solution, as I explained here. They oppose a negotiated, genuine two-state solution a) because it runs counter to the Greater Israel project in the West Bank including East Jerusalem – so ideological opposition – and b) because of Hamas. Israelis don’t think the PA can deliver a peaceful state of affairs given Hamas and the Hamas position suggests Palestinians are not ready for peace. The problems associated with the Oslo process (1993-2001) and Gaza Disengagement (2005) fuel and reinforce such sentiments. Of course, Hamas holds some political power in part because Israel has been unwilling to stop settlements and expansion and, with its current government, is disinterested in a two-state solution. Round and round we go.
I have a hard time seeing that this Palestinian move at the UN leads anywhere productive except in one unlikely scenario: If enough Israelis turn on their government because of Israel’s intense political isolation around the world and strained relations with the Obama administration. (Tom Friedman goes house on the Israeli government.) Plausible but unlikely because more political isolation reinforces an Israeli perspective that sees the world as aligned against Israel regardless of Israeli policy.
What will Abbas do after the UN meetings? Abbas: “The Palestinian people and their leadership will pass through very difficult times after” the UN move. Okay, what does that mean? The Palestinians could lose a lot financially if Israel cuts off the return of Palestinian tax revenue that Israel collects and the U.S. Congress blocks aid to the PA. However, Israel might not want to cut off funds if that jeopardized Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation; there is no simple all-good or all-bad option here regardless of one’s interests and viewpoint. The Israeli government fears, and has planned for, mass Palestinian demonstrations and possible violence.
Is it too late to avert a showdown at the UN? Probably, but maybe someone will pull a rabbit out of a hat: a softer UN resolution, a Quartet statement in lieu of a UN debate, a renewal of bilateral talks. Still, it does not seem likely.
Just to make sure things look and feel bleak, let me close with this excerpt from the Crisis Group report (pages 37-38). It explains the PA’s situation even before any UN action:
This comes atop other worrying signals concerning the PA. Since Prime Minister Fayyad announced a cabinet reshuffle the day after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, he has been unable to form a new government. The West Bank economy, economists say, has been softening; corruption investigations against two ministers are ongoing; and Fayyad has been demoralised by the way he was treated in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation process. The PA’s financial crisis – acute even without a cut-off of U.S. aid or halt in Israel tax transfers – is causing distress among its employees, especially given that financial obligations are heightened during the summer. In addition delayed salary payments are becoming harder to bear, since many PA employees have taken out substantial loans.
At the same time, security coordination with Israel reportedly has decreased somewhat. The next in a sequence of National Security Forces battalions to be trained in Jordan under U.S. supervision has been delayed; granting of permission for Palestinian security forces to move between various areas in the West Bank has been slowed; and decisions that were taken by Israeli field commanders have been kicked up the chain. The PA seems as intent as ever on combating crime and Hamas, but forward movement on security reforms has ceased. All of this has further shaken popular confidence in their leader’s ability to deliver and in ministers’ faith in their ability to govern. The most difficult consequences may be yet to come: “Our budget situation is absolutely debilitating. We are now working on a very serious austerity budget that could fairly be described as draconian”, a senior PA official said.
I like to see how different writers depict what happened in and around 1948. Tony Karon had this one:
Recognizing that the Palestinian Arabs would not agree to more than half of British-ruled Palestine, in which they were the majority, being carved off for a separate Jewish state, the U.N. nonetheless voted to prescribe such a partition in 1947.
That didn’t settle matters, of course; the two sides fought a war first (involving troops from all of Israel’s Arab neighbors), which saw Israel grow its share of the partition from 55% to 78%, and which turned half the Palestinian population into refugees.
This is a clever shift of the argument (to be clear, clever is not always the same as accurate). So it is not that the Palestinians rejected the UN plan, as some of Israel’s defenders like to argue the point. Rather, it is that the United Nations and UNSCOP ignored the parameters the Palestinians had made clear to them as to what was unacceptable (not more than half).
I wonder if there is any documentary evidence to back up the claim that the Palestinians made that clear or that the UN officials even thought of an upper limit on the Jewish state’s land as a way to try to win Arab support.
The articles on Israel’s troubles are proliferating. “Is Israel Over?” asked Benny Morris, the Israeli historian. The Wall Street Journal, among others, assessed Israel’s problems with Egypt and Turkey. (subscription) (NYT article) And this mess is all before the Palestinian push at the UN.
One challenge is that Israel’s alliance and public relations troubles are taken as confirmation of two rival explanations:
1. Israeli policy, especially on the Palestine issue, caused Egypt and Turkey to turn against Israel.
2. The world, including many in Egypt and Turkey, hate Israel, no matter what Israel does. (Thus, tinkering with Israeli policy or pressing Israel to make concessions is useless).
When Egyptians storm the Israeli embassy, those who adhere to #1 say, see, we should have had real negotiations with the Palestinians to pre-empt or undermine such protests. Proponents of #2 look and see a country Israel supposedly has been at peace with attacking diplomatic personnel, a big no-no. The Arabs will never accept us, they think.
So policymakers and people who support #1 or #2 both walk away from recent events thinking their argument has been further confirmed. That is not a recipe for bold thinking to get out of the current morass.
Prof. Stephen Dyson will speak about how Bush, Blair, and Rumsfeld reacted on the day and what it meant for the next ten years of foreign policy.
Prof. Shareen Hertel will address the human rights origins and implications of 9/11.
I just came across this 2010 article by Rachel Shabi (Guardian) that provides excellent details on how Israel has subsidized the settlement of the West Bank. Housing prices are much lower and the Israeli government has used grants, better mortgages, tax advantages, and other incentives to entice people to live across the Green Line in the occupied territories. In the article, Danny Rubinstein puts it succinctly: “a bribe on a national scale.”
I regularly make this argument as well, that Israeli settlers are not all driven by nationalist, ideological, and religious motivations. Some move for economic and quality-of-life reasons. So I appreciate the reporting here.
That said, I think Rubinstein’s final point is one to think about:
The problem, as Rubinstein points out, is that what starts off as economics can eventually become ideological. “When you move [to the settlements],” he says, “you can’t say, ‘Well, I went there because I’m greedy.’ You change your political opinion.”
The article also provides food for thought about whether governments can set the parameters of public debate – and thus what is possible in terms of policy change – through how they frame an issue:
Israel has always played up the pain of dismantling the settlements. Yet as Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar writes in Lords Of The Land: The War For Israel’s Settlements In The Occupied Territories, the “elixir of life” for these settlements is their infrastructure: the electricity, water pipes and military forces that guard them. Remove these, “and this project collapses like a house of cards”. Today, Eldar describes Israel’s purported inability to do so as “a myth perpetrated by the government to make us believe that it is impossible”.
If the Israeli government says it cannot pull up stakes in the West Bank, does that make it so? Eldar thinks not, and I think he is correct to a point. The momentum would move in the other direction if Israel ended the incentives, the water, the protection etc. (or at least made the settlers bear the true cost of such items).
But would Israel really do that for the settlements where the bulk of the settlers live, that is 1) East Jerusalem and 2) other settlements close to the Green line? Moreover, probably some of the places where one can imagine a future Israeli government doing so are smaller, isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where ideology motivated the settlers and militancy would drive their response.
So I am sure Eldar is correct about a decent share of the settlements, but I doubt the *entire* project is a house of cards. Of course, as an opponent of the settlements, it is in Eldar’s interest to project an equal and opposite image to that created by the Netanyahu Government, Yesha Council (Hebrew), and others. Here to stay vs. house of cards.