Haaretz reports that John Kerry and the Obama administration are livid over Mahmoud Abbas’s move to reconcile with Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to walk away from negotiations for the time being. While it’s not yet clear the talks will permanently break down, the trend is in that direction. Rather than view these events as a setback for a peaceful resolution in Israel/Palestine, there are several reasons why this turn of events should be understood as a positive step forward.
1. Palestinian unity is necessary for a peace agreement
This round of negotiations was doomed by continuing Israeli settlement expansion, indicating its lack of commitment to the process, and Israel’s refusal to abide by its agreement to release a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners. Still, the last nail in the coffin was the Palestinian reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas which led Israel to walk away from the talks completely even though the agreement only calls to begin discussions on forming a unity Palestinian government. There is still a long way go before Palestinian reconciliation is said to be complete, and although there are obvious reasons to be cynical about the deal the fact remains that without a unified Palestinian voice in negotiations there is no conceivable way they can be successful.
Whereas the PLO long stood as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” today it is an ineffectual body having ceded much of its prominent position to the Palestinian Authority, a corrupt quasi-government that represents very few of the Palestinian collective. Although this reconciliation deal is still far from the all encompassing voice the PLO represented it could be a start in the right direction. For starters, it has the potential of bringing Gaza into the process. Hamas, and by extension the status of the Gaza Strip, has been excluded from the political peace-making process for the past seven years. An E.U. spokesperson said the reconciliation deal is “an important element for the unity of a future Palestinian state and for reaching a two-state solution.” While a solution still seems a way off, Palestinian unity is definitely a prerequisite for any lasting negotiations with Israel.
2. No deal is better than a bad deal
For months John Kerry had touted he was on the verge of brokering a framework agreement that would signal movement in the talks. So far, that framework has not been released. Details that have leaked look like this according to Thomas Friedman:
The “Kerry Plan,” likely to be unveiled soon, is expected to call for an end to the conflict and all claims, following a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (based on the 1967 lines), with unprecedented security arrangements in the strategic Jordan Valley. The Israeli withdrawal will not include certain settlement blocs, but Israel will compensate the Palestinians for them with Israeli territory. It will call for the Palestinians to have a capital in Arab East Jerusalem and for Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It will not include any right of return for Palestinian refugees into Israel proper.
and this according to U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk:
Among the elements under consideration, a participant in the call said, is a plan to compensate descendants of Jews who were forced to flee Arab countries after the State of Israel was created in 1948. That could give Israelis more of a motive to support a new Palestinian state.
The official, Martin S. Indyk, the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, told the Jewish leaders that if the framework were to be accepted by both sides, the peace talks could be extended beyond the nine-month time frame set last summer by Secretary of State John Kerry. The new goal, he said, would be to sign a treaty by the end of 2014.
The framework, Mr. Indyk said, will not deal specifically with the political status of Jerusalem, which is claimed as a capital by both Israelis and Palestinians.
…the framework foresees the creation of a security zone along the Jordan River that would be fortified with high-tech fences, electronic sensors and unmanned drones, to protect Israel from attacks.
Even with the slight differences between these accounts it’s clear that this framework is far from offering a workable resolution to the conflict, and if anything calls for the near complete capitulation of Palestinian aspirations. This was noted by a wide range of commentators, including several liberal Zionists. If the goal of peace negotiations is to resolve the conflict, and not just strong arm a parade of interim agreements, then this effort must be scrapped and refocused on the root causes and major issues of the conflict.
3. As the two-state solution fails again there is an opening for alternatives
For years we have heard that “everyone knows the solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and yet we are no closer to the two-state solution today then we were 20 years ago when the Oslo Accords were signed. In fact, we are much further away. With each mounting failure, more cracks appear in the edifice of the peace process consensus and now is no different. More and more discussion is beginning to move beyond the accepted wisdom of the solution “everyone knows” and search for alternatives that truly meet the requirements of a just and lasting resolution to the conflict.
The main beneficiary of this moment will of course be the call for a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine. Although it remains a nascent idea with little political support at this time, recent polls show it may find a very receptive audience in the U.S. if and when the two-state paradigm finally collapses. Even inside the Washington beltway the consensus is loosening up, and others are floating new proposals for what happens after John Kerry fails. Regardless of what a final resolution looks like on the ground, the BDS movement, which offers the closest thing to a political consensus among Palestinians right now, has offered the criteria any just resolution will have to meet. This criteria should be a starting point to charting the way forward.
4. Another U.S.-led failure is an opportunity to internationalize the effort
The United States has taken the sole lead on the peace process since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 and its failure is in part due to this. It is widely acknowledged at this point that the United States is far from “an honest broker” and even a U.S. negotiator, Aaron David Miller, famously said the U.S. acted as “Israel’s lawyer” during the Oslo negotiations. As Rashid Khalidi writes in his book Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East:
Again and again, the three patterns previously identified prevailed: there was no real pressure on the United States from the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, far from it; there was an exaggerated attention to domestically driven political concerns as these were ably articulated by the Israel lobby; and in spite of occasional sympathetic noises from policymakers, at the end of the day there was little or no concern for the rights of the Palestinians. This meant that while Israel usually got what it wanted, a peaceful and just resolution of the conflict between the two peoples was certainly not the result.
There are alternatives. The Quartet (including United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) was one idea to expand the effort to facilitate a solution, but it simply became a vehicle for Tony Blair’s crony capitalism. The repeated and ongoing failure by these actors should lead to a search for new auspices to convene this process. Perhaps the Quartet can be reformed to offer real leadership or maybe the U.N. can just take over the process. The Palestinians have discussed taking the issue to new international fora they now have access to following the U.N. statehood vote last year. Or maybe just if the US was removed from the mix there would be enough air in the room to move forward. The collapse of talks should be yet another indication to the international community that a new model is needed.
5. Time to even the playing field
There are certain facets of the Israel-Palestinian conflict the are immovable. For example, the military balance of forces will always reside heavily in Israel’s favor, and most likely Israel will retain the military and diplomatic support of the United States until the very end. Still, there are other arenas in which Palestinians enjoy a strong advantage, and increasingly so.
Public opinion, both internationally and in the United States, has been surprisingly malleable in recent years when it comes to Israel/Palestine, and it’s clear that Israel’s defenders are increasingly on the defensive. Of course the BDS movement continues to grow and has received attention at the highest reaches of the Israeli government. With the breakdown of talks international pressure will continue to build on Israel. If fact, referring to the possibility of an E.U boycott of Israeli goods, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has openly stated that it is essential to continue the pretense of negotiations to deflect this growing pressure. Even in the United States pro-Israel organizations are devoting millions of dollars to fight the grassroots BDS movement in an effort to quash any notion of accountably for Israeli intransigence and expansionism. And yet the equation remains simple: the more Israel refuses to end the conflict, the larger the BDS movement will grow. The more Israel deepens the occupation, the louder the calls for accountability will be.
This grassroots effort is slow going and, similar to social movements before, it will take years to build the political power to impact the halls of government. Still, the longer Israel avoids a resolution to the conflict, the more time that is given to this process and more time there is for people to understand the root causes of this conflict and understand the just solution.
(Thanks to Allison Deger and Alex Kane for useful feedback)