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Martin Indyk on the peace process: hoping against hope

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A commenter on my blog asked me what I thought of Martin Indyk’s recent NY Times op-ed, in which he expresses a powerful optimism about the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Washington.

My answer? Indyk’s article represents a picture-perfect example of the inherent inequity of the peace process as it is currently defined.

In his op-ed, Indyk lists four factors that he believes distinguish this round of direct talk from previous attempts. Number one, he claims that "violence is down considerably in the region." Thanks to the PA’s security measures in the West Bank and Hamas’ in Gaza, Indyk explains, Palestinian violence against Israelis has decreased considerably.

His analysis, however, completely leaves out the other side of the equation: Israel’s violence against Palestinians, which remains as brutal and oppressive as ever. The examples are legion: Israel’s military assault in Gaza in 2008/09 that left 1,400 dead, the structural violence of its ongoing blockade of Gaza, which is having a devastating effect on Gaza’s economy, health care system, infrastructure and Gazans’ freedom of movement. In the West Bank, the IDF continues its armed crackdown on weekly non-violent protests and has increased its arrests and incarceration of non-violent Palestinian leaders. Home evictions and demolitions continue throughout the territories, East Jerusalem and even in Israel proper.

Indyk’s myopia on this front is fascinating. Indeed, it offers an important window into a fundamental injustice that currently pervades the peace process – a process where only Palestinian violence against Israelis is considered germane to negotiations. It might reasonably be asked: is this process about delineating the terms of a equitable peace treaty or dictating the terms of a Palestinian surrender?

Indyk’s second factor: Israel’s "settlement activity has slowed down considerably." To demonstrate his claim he quotes from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which reports that

(No) new housing starts in the West Bank were reported…in the first quarter of this year. What’s more, there have been hardly any new housing projects in East Jerusalem since the brouhaha in March, when Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Israel, condemned the announcement of 1,600 additional residential units. The demolition of Palestinian houses there is also down compared with recent years.

It is a clear sign of Indyk’s abiding prejudice that he turns to the Israeli government for an accurate report of facts on the ground. I’d suggest a more trustworthy source: namely, Peace Now, who has long been indefatigably tracking Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank.

According to its most recent report:

(On) the ground, there is almost no freeze or even a visible slowdown, despite the fact that legal construction starts have been frozen for 8 months (and) that the Government of Israel is not enforcing the moratorium.

The report’s main findings:

• At least 600 housing units have started to be built during the freeze, in over 60 different settlements.

• At least 492 of those housing units are in direct violation of the law of the freeze.

• During an average year (when there is no freeze) approximately 1,130 housing units start to be built in 8 months in the settlements. The new construction starts during the moratorium constitute approximately half of the normal construction pace in the settlements.

• Some 2,000 housing units are currently under construction in the settlements, most of them started before the freeze was announced in November 2009.

This means that on the ground, there is almost no freeze or even a visible slowdown, despite the fact that legal construction starts have been frozen for 8 months. It also means that the Government of Israel is not enforcing the moratorium.

In short? Indyk’s claim is misleading and spurious. Palestinians have been reasonably concerned about entering into direct talks while Israel’s settlement activity is ongoing. As things currently stand, the "freeze" is slated to be lifted next month – precisely the same time talks in Washington are scheduled to commence.

For factors three and four, Indyk points out that a majority of the public on both sides support a two-state solution – and that there really isn’t that much left to negotiate anyway. He blames Arafat exclusively for the breakdown of Camp David in 2000, a failure that left "Palestinians and Israelis mired in conflict." This is, of course, the conventional Israeli narrative regarding the failure of Camp David: the Israelis made a generous offer, the Palestinians spurned it, and the Second Intifada ensued.

This is a simplistic, one-sided narrative that has long been challenged by compelling accounts of the actual negotiations. Most famously, this narrative asserts that Israel was prepared to offer 96% of the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians. It has since been pointed out that this 96% number more accurately represented the percentage of the land over which Israel was prepared to negotiate. It did not include, among other things, East Jerusalem, the huge belt of Jewish settlements around the city or a ten mile wide military buffer zone around the Palestinian territories. In fact, after factoring in an obligation to lease back settlements to Israel for twenty five years, the total Palestinian land from which Israel was prepared to withdraw actually came to approximately 46%.

Regardless of which narrative we choose to believe, it is clear that ten years after Camp David many difficult complicated issues remain unaddressed. In the meantime, Israel has continued to expand its settlement regime across Palestinian territories, which likely means the amount of land from which it is prepared to withdraw has shrunk all the more. Under these circumstances, Indyk has little cause to treat the current round of negotiations as pro-forma.

Albert Einstein once famously remarked that "the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." For the past twenty years the peace process has been defined by the same basic – and one-sided – parameters. Each time the process has been rebooted, we’ve heard the same kinds of hopeful tropes that Indyk expresses here. Each time we’ve been told that we have an unprecedented opportunity for peace. Each time we’ve been told that those who criticize the process are the "enemies of hope." But each time, this flawed political process has brought us no further along toward a viable two-state solution.

Perhaps it is time to envision a different process. One that takes values of justice and equity as seriously as it does peace. One in which the United States acts as a truly honest broker, in which Israel is held to account for its violence against Palestinians, for its oppressive policies and its ongoing settlement of the occupied territories. Then, and only then, will there truly be, as Indyk puts it, "hope in the Middle East."

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Brant Rosen’s blog Shalom Rav.

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Rosen is the midwest regional director of the American Friends Services Committee

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