Ariel Sharon still sleeps peacefully on life-support three years after suffering a massive stroke, but you could be forgiven for thinking he was still at the helm in Israel — because today, the Israeli government appears to have only tactics to fight the next battle, but no strategy beyond an improvisational combination of expanding the occupation of the West Bank, cynically chanting the benedictions of a two-state divorce that will come, one day (like the moshiach) while getting on with the “iron wall” business of creating expansive “facts on the ground” and trying to crush Palestinian resistance. There’s no “peace process” at work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor as there been for the past eight years.
Perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in next weekend’s Israeli election will provide what George W. Bush liked to call a “moment of clarity”, by making it unmistakably clear that Israel’s leaders are not, in any meaningful sense, a “partner” for a credible two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Then again, you’re more likely to hear more wishful spin about how Bibi, precisely because he’s so hawkish, is a better bet for making peace — which sort of dodges the inconvenient truth that Bibi has no intention of doing so.)
As I wrote in the National this week,
What do we call leaders who reject a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose manifestos deny their adversary the right to sovereign statehood, and who oppose a final agreement, instead offering only long-term truces? Rejectionists… if they’re Palestinian… If they’re Israeli, they’re more likely to be called “Mr Prime Minister”.
Consider Benjamin Netanyahu, who looks likely to head the next Israeli government after the elections on February 10. “Bibi” has made clear that he won’t be bound by any undertakings given by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The basis of his government, Bibi says, will be no sharing of Jerusalem, and no return to the 1967 borders: ie, a rejection of the Arab Peace Plan praised last week by President Barack Obama, and of the generally accepted terms of a two-state solution.
“The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river,” says the Likud election literature party platform. “The Palestinians can run their lives freely in the framework of self-rule, but not as an independent and sovereign state. Thus, for example, in matters of foreign affairs, security, immigration and ecology, their activity shall be limited in accordance with imperatives of Israel’s existence, security and national needs.”
Having been told for years that Israel “has no partner” for a two-state peace, President Obama may soon discover that Israel is no partner either.
Netanyahu makes no bones about his rejection of even the charade of “talks-about-final status talks” that Bush insisted Olmert undertake with Mahmoud Abbas. For the Likud leader, there’s no possibility of a final status agreement; instead, he offers to cooperate with Abbas to help him build up the Palestinian economy in the fenced-in enclaves to which Israel’s settlements and their vastly expansive security infrastructure have confined the Palestinians. “Economic peace,” it’s called — forget about your rights to your land, just get on with turning your little Bantustan into a Semitic Singapore…
Whereas Ariel Sharon saw the need to humor the Americans by indulging the rituals of Bush’s two-state vision, Netanyahu never bothered. In fact, it was Netanyahu’s rejection of Sharon’s tactical move to evacuate Gaza in order to tighten Israel’s grip on the West Bank that led to the Likud split that created the Kadima Party. Netanyahu isn’t stupid — even though right now there’s a good chance that he’d be able to build a ruling coalition only with blatantly rejectionist parties, he’ll make space for Kadima and Labor, hoping that he can stir the Pollyannaish hopes in Washington that their presence signals a “willingness” to make a peace agreement. Not that Netanyahu has any intention of doing so. Nor did Olmert, or Sharon.
Ariel Sharon campaigned furiously against Oslo, urging the settlers to “grab more hills” and making clear his own intention to stop the process. Sharon’s problem with Camp David was not that Arafat rejected what Barak’s “generous offer” (which even Barak’s chief negotiator, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later said he, too, would have rejected if he’d been Palestinian); it was that the offer had been made at all. That was why Sharon marched up the Temple Mount and onto the sanctuary around the Al-Aqsa mosque with a security detail of some 200 men, in the event that triggered the protests that mushroomed into the Second Intifada. And as soon as the fires were raging, Sharon triumphantly declared, “The Oslo Agreement is finished. It is null and void.”
Sharon’s view, explicitly set out in his interview with Ari Shavit in mid-2001, was that the 1948 war had never ended, and that Israel was still fighting to establish its borders by creating facts on the ground. Time was on Israel’s side, Sharon said, because the Arab world was in decline, and the war of attrition would ultimately force the Palestinians to accept Israel’s terms. There was no prospect for a peace agreement in this generation, he insisted; Israel should think only in terms of long-term cease-fires. (Remarkably similar perspective to that of Hamas, actually.)
Again from my National piece:
Still, President Bush proclaimed Mr Sharon “a man of peace”, and the Israeli leader obliged by negotiating – but not with the Palestinians. Instead, whether it was about the route of his West Bank “wall” or his unilateral pullout from Gaza, he negotiated only with the Bush administration.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founding father of the Revisionist wing of the Zionist movement, from which Likud emerged, argued that the state of Israel could be created and maintained only by a military defeat of the Palestinian Arabs, and protected by an “iron wall of Jewish bayonets”. When the Palestinians had lost all hope of reversing their dispossession, they would eventually accept Israel’s terms for peace. The inheritors of Mr Jabotinsky’s legacy are Mr Netanyahu and Mr Sharon, each of whom, as prime minister, kept his portrait on the wall of their office.
Asked in 2001 if he could offer Israelis any hope of living in peace, Mr Sharon answered: “In another 10 or 15 years the Arab world will have less ability to strike at Israel than it has today. That is because Israel will be a country with a flourishing economy, whereas the Arab world may be on the decline… time is not working against us and therefore it is important to achieve solutions that will take place across a lengthy period.” Deferring, delaying, playing for time was all part of the game, because time, Mr Sharon believed, was on Israel’s side. Likud rejectionism is, in fact, the mirror image of that political current within Hamas that believes military attrition will ultimately break the adversary’s will.
The election of a rejectionist government in Israel will place a question mark over President Obama’s efforts to restart the peace process. Until now, US policy has been designed for a dead man – Yitzhak Rabin, the murdered Israeli leader who signed the Oslo Accords. It was during Mr Rabin’s time that the Clinton administration adopted the approach of allowing the Israeli government to determine the direction, content and timing of the peace process. But for most of the past decade, the party of Mr Rabin has been an ineffective loyal opposition, and it may be marginalised even further on February 10. Israel, quite simply, is not going to choose voluntarily to implement a viable two-state solution.
The basic premise of the Jabotinsky-Sharon-Olmert-Netanyahu approach to achieving peace with the Palestinians is that, as Jabotinsky himself wrote, Israel can’t hope to achieve a satisfactory agreement with a Palestinian people that remained strong and united; the Palestinians would only accept Israel’s terms when they had lost all hope and had accepted their utter defeat. When Sharon or Netanyahu search for a Palestinian “partner”, what they mean is a weak and feeble leader with whom they can converse while getting on with the business of destroying the Palestinian national movement. That’s the thinking that explains the bizarre twists in relation to Hamas, Arafat, Abu Mazen and Hamas again in Israeli thinking, or even the concept of “economic peace” – raise the economic rewards for quiescence even as you mount a counterinsurgency war against the Palestinian national movement.
Sharon perfected an important latterday addition to the “iron wall”, which took account of new strategic realities — the need to humor the Americans. Give them something to work with; chant the mantras of two-state-ism; let them believe that by supporting your counterinsurgency efforts they are, in fact, advancing some kind of peace agenda, no matter how plainly absurd that connection may be. The most palpable example of this Israeli deceit and American self-deceit is the settlements, Exhibit A of Israel’s bad faith throughout the negotiation process: Throughout the Oslo years, Israel steadily expanded its occupation of the West Bank. Its leaders routinely mouthed promises to Washington about freezing settlement activity and so on, but the reality is, as Haaretz revealed last week, not only a massive expansion of these colonies, but also a blatant misrepresentation of the fact that much of that expansion is occurring on privately owned Palestinian land, which is being stolen with a nod and a wink from the Israeli government (whose own database proves it) even as it insists publicly that no private Palestinian land is settled by Israelis.
Understanding the priority of destroying the Palestinian national movement makes sense of the zig-zagging of Israeli policies over the past three decades, and the dance through which the Israelis led the Bush Administration.
Hamas, as is well known in Israel, was consciously and actively cultivated by the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1980s, in the belief that the Islamists would undermine the power of Fatah and the PLO. Rabin, of course, did not subscribe to the “iron wall” mindset, and was negotiating with the PLO, and urging it to crack down on Hamas, which was now launching terror attacks to oppose the peace process. But Sharon, when he came to power, still identified Fatah and the PLO, and the personality cult leadership of Yasser Arafat, as the primary threat
Sharon’s priority, then, was to convince the Americans to break with Arafat, even though Colin Powell could see that he was the only hope for reviving the process started at Oslo — but that, of course, was never Sharon’s intention, as he made abundantly clear. Powell was sidelined, and Washington drank the Kool Aid on the idea that the main obstacle to peace was Arafat’s “incorrigible rejectionism”. So, the U.S. translated this into a push to democratize the Palestinian Authority. Arafat’s personality-cult authoritarianism was unacceptable; the PA had to be governed by democracy, laws and transparency. Control over funds, and over security forces, had to be moved from Arafat’s own hands into a democratically accountable government, headed by a prime minister chosen by a democratically elected legislature. Power had to be wrested from President Arafat and transferred to the newly appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.
Then, Arafat died, and Abbas became the president. Now, Israel’s argument changed. Where Arafat had been too strong, the problem with Abbas was that he was too weak, and therefore unable to serve as Israel’s partner (for a dance that it had no intention of doing…). Sharon was happy to indulge President Bush by appearing in photographs with Abbas, but he wasn’t prepared to engage in any peace process with the new Palestinian president. Instead, Sharon simply kept on negotiating with Washington. Whether it was on the question of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza or the route of Israel’s West Bank wall, Sharon saw no purpose in talking to Abbas; he spoke only to Washington. After all, he wasn’t moving out of Gaza to advance any peace process; on the contrary, as his chief political aide Dov Weissglass put it, “the disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will be no political process with the Palestinians.” And so why bother to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas? So what if Hamas would eventually claim credit for liberating Gaza? That would simply reinforce the case against a peace process.
Having insisted on democracy in the Palestinian Authority (even if for cynical reasons, originally, i.e. to weaken Arafat) the Bush Administration then watched in horror as Hamas won the 2006 election by a landslide as Palestinian voters jumped at the chance to rid themselves of the corrupt Fatah overlords and rebuke their failed strategy of waiting for the U.S. to press Israel to end the occupation. And let’s be very, very clear about something that’s often forgotten these days: Hamas won not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, as well. Even today, it remains the elected ruling party of the Palestinian Authority’s government.
Predictably, perhaps, rather than recognize the opportunity and engage with the reality, the Bush Administration simply did a spectacular 180-degree turnabout on the question of Palestinian governance — having spent years trying to break down Arafat’s authoritarian regime, they now set about resurrecting it. Having demanded that Palestinian Authority finances be handled transparently through democratically accountable institutions, Washington now demanded that they be placed under Abbas’ personal control. Having demanded that Palestinian Authority security forces be accountable to the elected civilian government rather than under the personal control of Arafat and his favorite warlords, Washington now insisted that the security forces remain answerable only to Abbas, and even pushed him to appoint Bush’s own favorite warlord, Mohammed Dahlan, as his security chief. With Arafat dead, the Bush Administration was now trying desperately to reinvent him. And Washington and Israel also imposed sanctions to punish the Palestinian electorate for its choice.
When the Saudis, recognizing the dysfunctional state of affairs, brokered a unity government between Abbas and Hamas, the U.S. went in and tore it apart, metaphorically dragging Abbas out by the scruff of his neck and warning him to stay away from those his people had chosen to represent them. And then, when the sanctions had failed to dislodge Hamas, the U.S. backed a coup attempt by Dahlan — which resulted in the expulsion of his security forces from Gaza.
Israel still controlled the West Bank, and so systematically suppressed Hamas, arresting its legislators and cabinet members as Abbas cheered them on, and tightening the siege of Gaza. Even then, it offered the fiction of a “peace process” for Mahmoud Abbas, while waging war on Hamas. In reality, of course, the occupation is as entrenched as ever, and Abbas has consigned himself to political oblivion. Indeed, the savage folly of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead was the bloody denouement of the failed strategy for ousting Hamas, and it acheived the opposite effect. Having failed to militarily eliminate Hamas, Israel has now made it painfully obvious that no peace process is possible without the organization.
But, of course, with Netanyahu about to be elected, the question of a peace process may be moot.
Obama’s Administration could argue that the U.S. may have its preferences, but it can’t choose Israel’s leaders; it has to work with whomever Israel elects. Indeed. But the same is true for the Palestinians. And a major reason for the steady deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation over the past eight years has been Washington’s efforts to choose the Palestinians’ leaders for them, with increasingly disastrous effects.
The first premise of a credible peacemaking initiative by the U.S. must be the recognition that each side gets to choose its own leaders. And that means accepting the reality that even now, Hamas is, in fact, the dominant party in the Palestinian Authority by virtue of its control of the legislature. Mahmoud Abbas’ term as president expired on January 9, and Salaam Fayyad, competent administrator though he may be, was not appointed prime minister by any Palestinian legislative body; he was essentially installed by Condi Rice. Were free and fair presidential elections held in the West Bank and Gaza right now, Abbas would almost certainly be ousted. The Palestinian side at the negotiating table will necessarily have to carry a mandate and approval from Hamas.
But what peace process is possible between Hamas and Likud?
Well, that’s where the second key premise of credible Obama peacemaking comes in: The Israelis and Palestinians will have to be presented with an international consensus on where the borders between them are to be drawn and how issues ranging from Jerusalem to the fate of settlements and refugees is to be settled. If there is to be a viable two-state solution to the conflict in the foreseeable future (something that is hard to see, quite frankly), it will have to be imposed — not on the basis of what the Israel lobby in Washington can persuade the U.S. government to put forward, but on the basis of the existing international political and legal consensus based on U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the Arab peace plan, etc.
As much as Israel likes to present itself as just another Western democracy minding its own business and being targeted by deranged foreign terrorists. This is nonsense, of course. Israel couldn’t become a member of NATO, for example, even if a majority of members were politically inclined to include it — because NATO’s rules deny membership to states involved in border disputes, and Israel’s borders have never been finalized. Sharon is not wrong when he says Israel is still fighting the 1948 war, which, after all, was over just how a nascent Israel and the Palestinian Arabs will share the Holy Land. They couldn’t agree then, and they can’t agree now.
I share Sandy Tolan’s well-argued skepticism over whether a two-state solution remain plausible, but I’m absolutely certain that no such solution is possible if it’s simply left up to Israel’s elected government to conclude one with the elected leadership of the Palestinians. If Obama is to save the two-state solution — and save Israel from itself — he’s going to have to be willing to apply the tough love.