At the (rejuvenated) New Republic, Ben Birnbaum has a comprehensive and comprehensively-depressing survey of the last-gasp prospects for a two-state solution to the Middle East ‘peace process’. If the two-state solution (TSS) is not yet on life-support it is hardly a picture of health. The prognosis is not good and time is running out.
According to Birnbaum, Mahmoud Abbas and Bibi Netanyahu are, in their different ways, the last remaining men who could make it work. Yet neither man, as he also demonstrates, has much room for manoeuver. The sketched outlines of a deal remain in place (a divided Jerusalem, land-swaps, a symbolic ‘right of return’ for a few thousand Palestinians etc etc) but neither side is in a position to make the leap of faith required to actually make that notional deal a reality. Moreover, the ‘facts on the ground’ increasingly make a grand bargain most improbable.
Israeli settlements in and around East Jerusalem are, effectively, making it harder and harder for East Jerusalem to function as any kind of viable Palestinian capital. For their part, the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah is penned-in by its fear of Hamas. And, as Birnbaum makes clear, even the so-called moderates within Hamas see little reason to make a deal. And, from their perspective, why should they? Time is their friend. It is Israel’s enemy. Fatah’s too, probably.
I have only been to Israel once (on a trip sponsored by BICOM) and that was a couple of years ago. I recall asking a senior Palestinian official if Fatah could make peace with Israel without first defeating or marginalising Hamas. The answer was negative. Nothing seems to have changed since. Abbas and his colleagues may be the best partners for peace Israel can realistically hope for, but they’re not strong enough to actually deliver an agreement.
In that respect, Netanyahu’s disinclination to trust any Palestinian leader becomes more understandable than is sometimes appreciated outside Israel. But the Settlements cannot help. They are building Israel into an impossible position of its own construction. As Birnbaum summarises the bleak future:
‘If the two-state solution dies, Israel will only be left with ugly options. It could ride out the status quo as the world continues to turn against it. It could unilaterally create a Palestinian state by withdrawing to the line of the barrier, incurring most of the costs of a two-state solution with few of the benefits. It could annex the West Bank and give all Palestinians citizenship, making Israel a binational state. Or it could annex the entire West Bank without giving Palestinians citizenship, embracing apartheid.’
The second and third options each destroy Israel or the idea of Israel. The first, plainly, is also unsatisfactory. And, politically, exceptionally difficult to actually implement. But it may be the best hope Israel has to remain a Jewish and democratic state. According to Birnbaum:
‘Netanyahu is putting the finishing touches on a wide governing coalition, likely to include Bennett on the right and Livni on the left, and what he will do remains a mystery. Based on his historical aversion to the peace process, many believe he’ll opt for the status quo. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, predicted that Netanyahu would embark on unilateral withdrawal before the end of his term. (“He’s not stupid,” Erekat said.) Others think he may do more. “I’m convinced that, if the circumstances are right, he will go much farther than people think,” Dennis Ross told me. “Abu Mazen told me he thought there was no way Bibi could do a deal. I said, ‘How do you know? You haven’t tested him.’”
Meanwhile, in Washington, there are few signs that Barack Obama’s administration is willing to expend much effort (or political capital) chasing peace-process-rainbows. Ross’s optimism, moreover, is itself heavily-qualified by his ‘if the circumstances are right’ condition. It seems hard to envisage how the circumstances can be right or how even Netanyahu can be strong enough to risk so much with so little guaranteed as a reward.
But if Bibi cannot do it, who can? And so the conflict remains frozen. Perhaps this is the best for which anyone can reasonably hope but, in the end, that merely means delaying the next crisis for as long as possible. The Palestinians can afford to play a longer-game than Israel not least since, paradoxically, the weaker or less viable a Palestinian state seems the stronger the Palestinian position becomes. Israel’s security and legitimacy (in the eyes of the outside world at least) is increasingly corroded and Netanyahu’s strength really masks a strategic weakness that, in the end, leads Israel to confront a range of options each of which is grimly unpalatable.
As Birnbaum wearily concludes, time is running out for the middle east peace process. So what comes next?Tags: Abbas, International politics, Israel, Middle East, Netanyahu, Palestine, peace process