Wieseltier Is Right About The Lost Cause That Is The Peace Process

December 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

Leon Wieseltier has penned a eulogy for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his lifetime, and while this is not going to surprise anyone save the most Pollyannaish dead-enders, it is difficult to conclude that he is wrong. I’ll take it even further and say that absent armed U.S. intervention with the purpose of imposing a solution on the two parties, or concurrent Israeli and Palestinian civil wars, it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime either (and Wieseltier has almost three decades on me). Wieseltier describes peace between Israelis and Palestinians as a lost cause, and he refers to a number of recent events that bolster his case – Hamas rockets, Mahmoud Abbas’s overheated rhetoric at the UN, the E1 settlement announcement, and the alliance between Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, among others. There is no doubt that the particulars of the last few years, or even the last few months, provide little reason for optimism, and Wieseltier recounts, “People assure me that all this can change if there is the political will to change it; but I do not detect the political will.” This is actually where I disagree with Wieseltier, because he frames the issue as a lack of will or courage, but I think it runs much deeper. We are rapidly getting to the point, if we have not passed it already, where structural conditions make a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians impossible without an outside shock to the system, irrespective of who each side’s leaders are and whether they have the will of Rabin, Ghandi, and the Dalai Lama rolled into one.

Not only is the peace process stagnant, the situation is actually getting worse by the day rather than just cruising in a holding pattern. The reason for this is that each side’s position is hardening, but in different ways. On the Israeli side, the problem is literally a structural one, in that Israel is too intertwined in the West Bank to be able to exit it in any comprehensive manner. Let’s say the Israeli government struck a deal tomorrow and agreed to keep a few of the largest settlement blocs in return for proportional land swaps within Israel, and all that needed to be done was to evacuate the rest of the settlements (and to figure out the precise parameters of such a deal, check out this amazing new tool from the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and the Atlantic that lets you draw borders and see the precise implications in terms of population and percentage of the West Bank). There is just no way that the government could ever carry this out anymore. Gaza was a cakewalk compared to what will be when Israel orders settlers to pick up their stakes and move, and partially this is because the promises that Israel made to Gaza’s settlers on compensation and resettlement have gone unfulfilled. Just look at what happened with Migron, which is a tiny outpost, or the gnashing of teeth over settlers having to evacuate the neighborhood of Ulpana and literally move just down the street. The idea that Israel will be able to just pick up and leave when it finds a suitable negotiating partner on the other side would be a joke if people didn’t actually think it was true. Furthermore, the argument that Israel was able to pull out of Gaza or Yamit and so it will be able to pull out of the West Bank when push comes to shove is at this point hopelessly naive, as if those instances have any real bearing on the situation in the West Bank, or as if Israeli politics and public opinion can just be overcome with a government order to evacuate. This is not a question of political will in the near horizon, but one of whether a certain action can ever be accomplished under any circumstances. I hate to say that I don’t think it can, and trying to do so would ignite a full blown civil war in Israel, with settlers fighting the IDF tooth and nail and a significant portion of Israelis sympathizing with the settlers who were urged and incentivized by their government for decades to go put down roots in the West Bank.

On the Palestinian side, what is being hardened is not necessarily the physical situation on the ground but the ideological situation. For every poll showing a majority of Palestinians supporting peace negotiations there is a poll showing a majority rejecting a two state solution. More worrying than any specific poll is that Hamas now controls Gaza, is making inroads in the West Bank, and smart money is that ten years from now Hamas will be the face of the Palestinians rather than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (unless Hamas comes to control the PA). Lest you think that Hamas’s views toward Israel and accepting Israel inside the 1967 borders are moderating, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal wants to make sure that you are aware that Hamas is as radical as ever, as he reiterated to hundreds of thousands of cheering Gazans over the weekend that Hamas will literally fight to the death until Israel is gone. In addition, the apparent decision on the part of Sunni states such as Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey to prop up Hamas and the trend of emerging Islamist governments in the region means that Hamas is only going to grow stronger and be seen as more legitimate, and it follows that the same will happen to its views on negotiating a real two-state solution. Make no mistake, this is even more of a problem – and one that is just as intractable – as the problem I highlighted on the Israeli side, and once again making the problem disappear probably requires a Palestinian civil war, in which a Palestinian Authority led by a committed two-stater like Salam Fayyad defeats Hamas in open warfare.

So, is Wieseltier’s recent essay a depressing one? It is, and not just because one man has decided that the peace process is an irrevocably lost cause. It is depressing because it might be even more of a lost cause than Wieseltier acknowledges, and from where I’m sitting, I don’t see a good way out of the morass absent some terrible infighting and bloodshed on both sides. Ehud Olmert might have convinced some people that all he needed was a few more months and everything would have been solved, but a more realistic assessment suggests otherwise. That doesn’t mean that anyone should stop trying to work toward a two-state solution but it is as much of an uphill battle as exists anywhere.

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Why Palestinian Reconciliation Would Be Bad

November 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

At some point Israel and Hamas are going to negotiate a ceasefire, and the question then becomes how to ensure that it holds and, more importantly, that Israel and Hamas move away from fighting a war every few years and toward a viable long term political solution. One of the sacred cows of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that in order for there to be a lasting peace there needs to be Palestinian unity so that Palestinians can speak with one voice. Israel has used the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as an excuse in the past not to negotiate because it viewed negotiations under those circumstances as a pointless exercise, and certainly having Hamas and the PA as separate and adversarial entities has complicated matters. Writing in the New Republic, Nathan Brown examines the ways in which Hamas might eventually moderate and lands on the issue of reconciliation as paramount:

The most promising way to force Hamas to become more moderate is to force it to be more responsive to its own public. (As a leading Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian in neighboring Egypt told me when I asked him whether Hamas would ever accept a two-state solution: “They will have to. Their people will make them.”) And the most promising way to ensure such responsiveness is to speed up the reconciliation between the governments in the West Bank and Gaza, so that those governments can agree to hold elections rather than jealously hold on to their own fiefdoms in a fit of paranoia. But that, in turn, will require that Israel and the international community show a greater willingness to countenance Palestinian reconciliation.

The thing is, it seems increasingly clear to me that Hamas moderation belongs in the same category as the yeti and the Loch Ness monster; its existence has long been rumored and many have claimed to have spotted it but no proof of it actually exists. Brown himself grants that the reconciliation gambit is a long shot but that it is the only option left as all the others have been exhausted, as he catalogs how the lack of Palestinian elections, the Hamas-Fatah civil war in 2007, and Hamas’s desire to keep an iron grip on Gaza have combined to destroy any hopes for Hamas moderation. If the fact that Hamas for much of this year was not itself shooting rockets at Israel but was allowing other more extreme groups to do so is touted as a sign of moderate pragmatism, then the term has lost all semblance of real meaning. The challenges from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and smaller Salafi groups in Gaza mean that Hamas must remain an intransigent foe of Israel in order not to lose credibility, as has happened to the PA in the West Bank, and outside of Hamas mounting a large scale military campaign to destroy these groups and risking a civil war in Gaza, this domestic political environment is not going to be altered. Everyone can hope that having to govern Gaza is eventually going to turn Hamas into a more moderate group, but it seems to be foolish to have any remaining reasonable expectation that this will occur.

So this being the case, what happens if Hamas and the PA reconcile? Rather than Hamas moderating, the likely scenario is that it transforms the PA rather than the PA transforms it. The PA’s credibility is gone, it is viewed as inept and incompetent, and as violent protests break out across the West Bank despite Mahmoud Abbas calling for peaceful demonstrations, it is difficult to conclude anything other than that the PA is out of touch and on the brink of collapse. While Hamas shoots rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and generally terrorizes southern Israel, Abbas spends his time trying to eliminate domestic opponents, feuds with his own prime minister Salam Fayyad, and mounts ineffective and symbolic Palestinian statehood bids at the United Nations. While the PA has basically delivered nothing but deferred promises, Hamas is seen as the hero of the Palestinian resistance standing up to Israel, and its popularity in the West Bank is naturally growing as a result.  This is, of course, partially Israel’s doing as it has done little to prop up Abbas and has not made much of an effort to give West Bank Palestinians hope that the peace process is still alive. If these two groups reconcile, is there really much doubt which one is going to have the upper hand and swallow the other? I think that this is a recipe for a stronger non-pragmatic Hamas rather than a more pragmatic and conciliatory Hamas. This is compounded by the support Hamas receives from Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt, who have yet to demonstrate that they have actual sway over the group, or that even if they do that they want it to moderate its stance toward Israel.

Given all of the above, I think rather than encourage a rapprochement and then hope to deal with a newly pragmatic Hamas, Israel’s best bet is to actually discourage reconciliation at all and officially recognize the reality on the ground, which is that we are dealing with two separate and independent Palestinian entities, each with their own territory and set of political institutions. Up until now, Israel has essentially taken the position that Hamas is an illegitimate entity and that it hopes the PA eventually returns to power in Gaza, but it’s time to drop this fantasy. Hamas is here to stay, and acknowledging that and then coming up with long term strategies to deal with the West Bank and Gaza separately is the next step. This then leads to a two-fold strategy that only works if both parts are carried out. First, rather than threaten to collapse the PA if it goes to the UN again and treat Abbas and Fayyad as if they are mere inconveniences to be ignored, actually work to establish a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority so that the PA can claim to have accomplished something by working with Israel. Second, treat Gaza as a completely separate entity and have the U.S. lean on Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar – all of whom are ostensibly U.S. allies in the region – to keep Hamas in line, but this time with the added force of arguing that Israel actually is willing to truly work with a peaceful Palestinian partner. This second part only works if the first part is there too, since otherwise the argument to keep Hamas isolated falls apart. If the Turks and the Egyptians can actually work to change Hamas’s behavior, great. If not, hopefully an actual Palestinian state in the West Bank will lead Palestinians in Gaza to reject the Hamas approach on their own once they see that there is a genuine alternative.

Is this actually viable? I honestly don’t know. It requires Abbas to come to the negotiating table without a list of preconditions and demands, requires Israel to actually do something about the settlements in the West Bank, and requires Hamas’s Sunni patrons to exert what sway they have and actually be more convincing and forceful than the prospect of amassing more Iranian Fajr-5 missiles. That’s a lot of big ifs, but if the Palestinians living in Gaza can actually see that there are tangible benefits to the more pragmatic PA approach, then maybe Hamas actually will be forced to be more responsive to its own public and Israel can finally stop pretending that there is a permanent military solution to dealing with Hamas.

You Mean Abbas Is Not A Committed Liberal?

April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

George Hale reports in Ma’an that the Palestinian Authority has been forcing Internet service providers to block websites critical of Mahmoud Abbas on the orders of the attorney general, who is getting his marching orders either from PA intelligence or from Abbas’s office directly. This is sadly not at all surprising coming on the heels of arrests of journalists for criticizing Abbas on Facebook, and is the latest reminder that while the PA may look benign compared to its more radical cousin in Gaza, it is not and never has been a democratic organization, nor is it a paragon of liberal values.

The question is why is this taking place now, and as with so much of this type of behavior, the answer is internal Palestinian politics. Hale notes that the sites being shut down are perceived to be in Muhammad Dahlan’s camp, and since Dahlan is Abbas’s fiercest and oldest rival, Abbas has missed few opportunities to harass him every chance he gets. Eliminating rivals has taken on greater urgency, however, as calls grow for the indefinitely postponed Palestinian elections to actually be held at some point soon. No date has been set, but events on the ground indicate that Abbas is preparing for an election that he anticipates will take place by the end of the year. The shutting down of sites loyal to Dahlan is part of the general crackdown on dissent and criticism of Abbas that is being carried out against journalists, bloggers, and private citizens. These measures have intensified and suggest that Abbas is more worried now about public opinion than he has been in the past.

Dahlan is also not the only potential rival being targeted. The recent contretemps between Abbas and Fayyad, initiated by Abbas trying to embarrass his prime minister by having him meet with Netanyahu on Palestinian Prisoners Day and now having degenerated to the point where Abbas refuses to be on speaking terms with Fayyad, is also borne out of internal Palestinian politics. There are rumblings that Fayyad might challenge Abbas and run for president, and even though Fayyad has no real base of support and would likely lose, his popularity with foreign governments and the international community still makes him a dangerous threat to Abbas. Unlike Dahlan, who is basically a gangster chieftain, Fayyad cannot be compromised or endlessly investigated, so Abbas’s options for discrediting him are limited to trying to make him look foolish and like an Israeli stooge, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try. And of course, Abbas is doing everything he can to root out support for Hamas in the West Bank, which presents the ultimate threat to his continued rule over the PA.

Taken together, I think this means that Abbas knows something we don’t, and that elections are more imminent than anyone thinks. The Arab Spring and elections in Tunisia and Egypt make it harder for the PA to keep on pushing them off, and Abbas’s actions look to me like classic campaigning in an electoral authoritarian state. Expect more reports of decidedly illiberal behavior on Abbas’s part for the rest of the year, or until elections are held (if ever). When Abbas took over the PA’s reins following Arafat’s death, there was a perception that he was quiet and mild mannered and had no real interest in staying in power for long. Turns out that being Palestinian president is a decent gig, and like authoritarians everywhere, Abbas is willing to fight dirty to hang on to his job.

Today’s Depressing News Roundup

April 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

There is so much to talk about on the Israeli and Palestinian fronts today that I don’t even know where to begin, so I thought I would just write about a bunch of stuff in one post.

First up, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are apparently now not even on speaking terms, with Abbas refusing to return Fayyad’s calls or schedule a meeting with his own prime minister. I wrote last week about the tension between the two men and what Fayyad might be thinking so no need to rehash it, but to state the glaringly obvious, this is a recipe for absolute disaster. Fayyad cannot continue in his post if Abbas literally refuses to interact with him, and Fayyad leaving will mean the collapse of any PA credibility, much of the PA’s international support will evaporate, conditions on the West Bank will deteriorate which may very well lead to an outbreak of mass violence, and Hamas will move in to fill the power vacuum. Despite everything else going on, this is the most important development of the weekend, and also the one with the potential to create the most long-lasting havoc.

Moving on, Egypt has unilaterally terminated its gas export deal with Israel (technically with East Mediterranean Gas Company, which is the entity that handles the exports), prompting a slew of responses ranging from Shaul Mofaz’s opinion that this is a possible breach of Camp David to Bibi Netanyahu’s Alfred E. Neuman what-me-worry impression since he says that Israel’s natural gas reserves will soon make it energy independent anyway. Netanyahu claims that this is nothing more than a business dispute that has nothing to do with politics, and Egypt says that the government was completely uninvolved in the decision, yet for some strange reason Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon met with the Egyptian ambassador today to get clarification on the reasons behind the gas cutoff. Methinks the the prime minister doth protest too much. This is just the latest headache for Israel on the Egyptian front, and while it is not going to put the peace treaty in jeopardy, Avigdor Lieberman’s contention that Egypt presents a bigger danger to Israel than does Iran is going to be a growing theme on Israel’s right. This is a perfect example of how the conflict with the Palestinians does Israel tangible harm and is not just a public relations problem, since canceling the gas deal is going to be immensely popular in Egypt – where public opinion suddenly matters a great deal – and until the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields are online, the loss of 40% of Israel’s current natural gas supply is going to be felt by Israelis in a big way with higher utility prices. The hollow insistence by both sides that this is purely about business and not about politics means that there is a face-saving way to rectify the problem (Israel renegotiates the deal and agrees to pay a higher price that corresponds to the market), but it is surely a harbinger of more bad things to come between Israel and Egypt.

Finally, there is the open fighting between Netanyahu and Barak over enforcement of the High Court’s evacuation order of Ulpana, with Netanyahu considering enlarging the scope of a military land acquisition order in order to bring the neighborhood under its aegis. Of course, he cannot do so with the defense minister’s acquiescence, and all signs point to Barak standing firm against it. In case you are wondering why Barak is all of a sudden standing up to Likud hardliners and taking on settlements, as he did earlier this month during the Beit Hamachpela mini-crisis in Hebron, it is because his new Atzmaut Party is going to need more votes to meet the Knesset threshold whenever the next elections are called, and Barak figures this is a good way to gain some support from leftwing voters who might not appreciate his recent hawkish stance on Iran. I am glad that Barak is using his muscle to prevent the government from ignoring High Court orders, but the reason this makes it into a blog post summarizing depressing news is that the clash between Barak and the rest of the governing coalition is accelerating, with Likud’s most influential hardline muckraker Danny Danon calling yet again yesterday for Barak to be thrown out of the cabinet. As I have discussed in depth before, Netanyahu cannot do this while confrontation with Iran looms, so what he is likely to do instead is retroactively authorize a number of illegal West Bank outposts in order to placate his base and quiet the potential revolt within Likud. This is not a good development, and just serves as the latest reminder that Israel’s domestic politics do not in any way, shape, or form encourage moderation or long term strategic thinking these days.

P.S. No, I did not forget about the news that Turkey has banned Israel from participating in a NATO summit, but it deserves its own blog post later today.

Peace Process Theater

April 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

Today’s developments in Israeli-Palestinian peace process negotiations demonstrate why the two sides, despite the joint statement that they issued reiterating that they are both committed to peace, are in reality farther apart then ever in coming to a lasting, binding agreement. Let’s begin with the turmoil on the Palestinian side of the ledger. The much-anticipated letter from Abbas to Netanyahu was delivered by Saeb Erekat and Majed Faraj, and while there had been speculation that it would contain a threat to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and return day to day control of the West Bank to Israel, the letter reportedly did not go that far, which should be cause for optimism. This means that a small sliver of agreement and coordination still theoretically exists on which to base negotiations.

The bad news is that Salam Fayyad, who was slated to deliver the letter to Netanyahu, was a no-show. There are a number of reasons why this might be, and none of them bode well for the future. Fayyad might have backed out because he does not think another expression of Palestinian discontent is going to jumpstart negotiations, which would signal a worrying degree of frustration on his part. Fayyad is the great moderate of Palestinian politics, and he has enormous credibility with the U.S. and other international actors. He has led the effort to build up Palestinian institutions and improve the West Bank’s economy and security, and he has been largely successful. He is also the rare – or maybe even more accurately, only – Palestinian politician who says the same things in Arabic to his domestic audience as he does in English to an international audience. He has never been accused of inciting or excusing violence, does not glorify terrorists who kill civilians, called for Hamas to recognize Israel years ago, does not have even a whiff of corruption about him, and by all accounts is honest and determined. If Fayyad believes that things have degenerated to the point that this letter will accomplish nothing, the risk exists that he is at the point of abandoning his project of state-building. Fayyad does not have a natural constituency among Palestinians as he is not a career politician or a high ranking PLO member, and if he resigns as prime minister, international aid to the PA will dry up overnight and the situation in the West Bank will quickly deteriorate.

Fayyad might also not have agreed to deliver the letter because Abbas was trying to discredit him by asking him to do it. Today is Palestinian Prisoners Day, in which Palestinians express their solidarity with those in Israeli jails, and the optic of meeting with Israeli officials today is not a popular one. Abbas and Fayyad do not have a good relationship, and it was not improved with the news that the unity deal that Abbas agreed to with Hamas stipulated sacking Fayyad. Abbas might have been trying to embarrass Fayyad even further by demanding that the letter be delivered today, and Fayyad understandably did not want to do it himself. The PA’s footing is tenuous enough already, and it certainly will not be improved by more fighting between its two top figures. If the PA implodes, the party that stands to benefit the most is Hamas, and that will certainly not do any wonders for Israeli security or the prospects of a deal.

Finally, it’s possible that Fayyad did not deliver the letter himself because he does not think that negotiations with Israel are still a viable path to a Palestinian state. Fayyad is on record as being against a unilateral declaration of statehood and did not agree with last fall’s strategy of pressing the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, and if he has one way or another become so disenchanted that he now believes in institution-building for its own sake without it leading to negotiations with Israel, then Israel will have lost in a big way. In many ways, Fayyad is the perfect Palestinian counterpart for Netanyahu, as they have both expressed the opinion that improving the West Bank’s economy and security is a vital precursor to successful political negotiations. If Fayyad does not want to be a part of the PA’s current negotiating process because he thinks it is a waste of time, it would signal the death knell of true moderate Palestinian partnership.

In the meantime, while Israel and the PA held a meeting and issued a joint statement that nobody expects to lead to any real progress, 1200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons began an indefinite hunger strike to protest the practice of administrative detentions and what they allege to be abusive and humiliating behavior on Israel’s part. This more than anything highlights the absurdity of today’s peace process theater. Of these two separate and distinct events, the one that is guaranteed to hold Palestinian attention and support is prisoners going on a hunger strike in opposition to Israel rather than Palestinian negotiators exchanging letters with the Israeli government. Even if Abbas were to drop his preconditions and come to the negotiating table, and the two sides were able to make some progress, is there really going to be much appetite for talks among Palestinians at this point? With hunger striker Khader Adnan being freed today, there is a stark example of what appears to be a successful strategy for countering Israel against the backdrop of endless negotiations that have not produced much in the way of tangible gains. This doesn’t mean that it will lead to Palestinian violence, but it also does not mean that negotiations are still viewed as the only alternative to armed resistance. Of all the days in which the peace process has seemed moribund, today might have reached a new low with its hollow message of two sides working together.

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