Perhaps the most bracing part of Ian Lustick’s funeral for the two-state solution in the New York Times a week ago was the realist scholar’s blunt statement that conflict in Israel and Palestine is unpreventable. Though there will be less potential for “catastrophic” violence, he counseled, if leaders abandoned their belief in the two-state paradigm and sought to imagine more realistic ways forward.
The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine. It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot. But avoiding truly catastrophic change means ending the stifling reign of an outdated idea and allowing both sides to see and then adapt to the world as it is.
This statement is especially meaningful to me because every time I visit the conflict, I see the inevitability of violence. The oppression is so staggering and long-lived, and the Israeli attachment to the status quo is so blind and complacent — they call it conflict management — that it seems that the only way there will be change is through violence.
A similar theme was struck by Nathan Thrall in his piece that anticipated Lustick last month: “What Future for Israel?” in the New York Review of Books. Thrall wrote that violence had erased Israeli complacency on an earlier occasion, the Second Intifada.
The Palestinian uprising in 2000 had many positive consequences: It led to the first statement by an American president calling for a Palestinian state and a similar pledge by Israeli PM Ariel Sharon– a dramatic change from Oslo’s declaration of “some form of limited autonomy.” It led to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and, more importantly, to the Arab Peace Initiative.
An inescapable and likely unintended conclusion one draws from [Elliott] Abrams’s behind-the-scenes account of policymaking during the second intifada between 2000 and 2005 [in Abrams's book, Tested by Zion] is how effective violence was in eliminating Israeli complacency and advancing Palestinian goals. Less than a year into the uprising, pressures from Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah—in the form of tearful pleas for America to restrain Israel and a secret letter that, Abrams writes, “put US-Saudi relations in the balance”—led the US to endorse Palestinian statehood. Ariel Sharon soon followed with his own statement of support for a Palestinian state, becoming Israel’s first prime minister to do so.
As the Palestinian ambushes, sniper fire, and suicide bombings continued, Sharon abandoned his decades-long dream of retaining Gaza and all of the West Bank. “The bloodshed was so great,” Abrams writes, “that Sharon lifted his year-old” policy of demanding seven days of quiet before he would negotiate a cease-fire with the Palestinians. Later he used the word “occupation” before a Likud Knesset faction meeting, saying it “cannot go on forever.” As pressure mounted to end the violence, Sharon announced that Israel would withdraw from Gaza
So the violence had the effect of completely reversing Israeli policy:
Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote in his memoir, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford University Press, 2007), “As a matter of fact, neither Rabin nor, especially, Peres wanted [Palestinian limited] autonomy to usher in a Palestinian state. As late as 1997—that is, four years into the Oslo process when, as the chairman of the Labour Party’s Foreign Affairs Committee I proposed for the first time that the party endorse the idea of a Palestinian state—it was Shimon Peres who most vehemently opposed the idea.”
And in another footnote Thrall pointed out that the Arab Peace Initiative also arose from the horrifying violence of the Second Intifada. The images of destruction caused many parties to rethink their approaches:
Calls for an end of conflict proliferated in the period surrounding Sharon’s December 2003 announcement. They included Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah’s peace plan, which would form the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative; the People’s Choice Initiative by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh; the US-created Roadmap for Middle East Peace, which demanded that Israel withdraw from all settlements built since Sharon took office in March 2001; an open letter from Israeli pilots protesting civilian casualties in Gaza; another open letter, from members of the elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, vowing to “no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians…[and] no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise”; and the Geneva Initiative, which was drafted by former Palestinian and Israeli negotiators and was met, to Sharon’s dismay, with official responses from Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Abrams recalls Sharon’s reply when Bush asked why he had decided to withdraw from Gaza: “I didn’t want other people, even you with all the problems you have, to press me. It was better to take steps ourselves.”
I asked Thrall about this analysis, and he pointed me to an earlier argument he made, in the New York Times in June 2012, a piece tilted, “The Third Intifada Is Inevitable.”
THEY believe that rocks, Molotov cocktails and mass protests pushed Israel to sign the Oslo Accords in 1993; that deadly strikes against Israeli troops in Lebanon led Israel to withdraw in 2000; that the bloodshed of the second intifada pressured George W. Bush to declare his support for Palestinian statehood and prodded the international community to produce the Arab Peace Initiative, the Geneva Initiative, and the Road Map for Middle East Peace. They are also convinced that arms pressured Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, to evacuate settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005. …
For more militant Palestinian leaders, who never believed in the peace process, the lesson was clear: “Not an inch of Palestinian land will be liberated,” Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, told me, “while Israelis feel that controlling it exacts few costs.” Matti Steinberg, a former senior adviser to Israeli security chiefs, described Mr. Abbas as the most obliging, nonviolent Palestinian leader Israel has encountered and warned of taking him for granted. “The Israeli center is caught in a vicious cycle,” he said. “It argues that it cannot make peace while there is violence, and when there is no violence it sees little reason to make peace.”
History may credit Mr. Abbas with reigning over the more virtuous phase of this cycle, but he has likely laid the groundwork for the uglier one. Hamas, meanwhile, has already moved on. “Israelis had a golden opportunity to sign an agreement with Abbas,” Hamas’s health minister, Basem Naim, told me in Gaza last November. “But the chance has already passed. They will not get it again.”
Thrall also explained that the Arab Peace Initiative was a direct outgrowth of Arab and Saudi frustration with the high Palestinian death toll of the second intifada (and in particular with what they perceived to be US inaction in bringing it to a close). He said this is a theme of the memoir of former Jordanian FM Marwan Muasher, who was the main shepherd of the API.
As I often say, this is why I am for BDS. It represents nonviolent pressure to force Israel to change its thinking and its path. I am always reminded of John Brown, the American crusader against slavery, who said that slavery could only be eliminated from the U.S. by “verry much blood.” At a time when others were urging endless compromises with slavery, Brown turned out to be prophetic. Retweets of John Brown don’t mean that I’m endorsing him.