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Israeli-Palestinian Blame Game Obscures Crux of the Conflict

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More than 46 years after Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the West Bank following the Six-Day War, and after more than six decades of on-and-off negotiations, there is still no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s occupation is the longest-running military occupation in modern history, and a succession of Israeli and Palestinian negotiators over the years, not to mention a string of U.S. presidents, have failed to clinch a peace deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry launched a new round of negotiations last July, the announcement was greeted with skepticism but also hope that perhaps Kerry, who seemed personally vested in the legacy-making issue, and Obama, who will never face re-election and could theoretically push Israel without fear of electoral consequences, could prod the two sides toward a final-status agreement. That ambitious goal was later downgraded to a “framework of principles,” but regardless, the talks broke down in April just before their nine-month deadline amid tit-for-tat recriminations.

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Photo: U.S. State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are all smiles during a December 2013 meeting in Jerusalem. Five months later, however, U.S.-mediated talks between the Israelis and Palestinians broke down amid mutual recriminations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a pledge to release the last tranche of 104 long-held Palestinian political prisoners and his government approved plans for 700 new housing units in East Jerusalem, prompting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to submit applications to join 15 United Nations agencies.

Desperate to salvage the talks, at one point the United States even flirted with the idea of releasing Jonathan Pollard, a former Naval intelligence analyst who was given a life sentence after he was caught passing the equivalent of a room full of classified documents to Israel.

The controversial proposal fizzed out and shortly afterward, Abbas announced that his West Bank-based Fatah party struck a reconciliation accord with its rival Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, in a bid to end seven years of division. Similar deals have foundered before, but Netanyahu seized on the declaration to suspend further negotiations, saying he could not work with a militant faction that had sworn itself to Israel’s destruction. Likewise, the United States, which views Hamas as a terrorist organization, denounced the move and suggested it might threaten the $500 million in annual aid that it gives to the Palestinians.

Core of the Conflict

Yet all of these contentious issues — Pollard, Palestinian unity, prisoner releases — are in a sense window dressing to the real deal. The “core” of the conflict has always boiled down to borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem (and to an extent the more recent demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state).

The Palestinians want a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along the June 6, 1967, lines prior to the Six-Day War, with Jerusalem as their capital. Israel considers Jerusalem “indivisible” and won’t revert to the pre-1967 borders but is prepared to swap land, pulling out of some settlement blocs in the West Bank while annexing the larger ones. Israel also insists on a demilitarized Palestinian state with control over its airspace and borders. Other thorny areas include the status of millions of Palestinian refugees, water rights and freedom of movement.

It’s not known if Kerry’s diplomatic gambit made any headway on these touchstone issues. Some say the negotiations got bogged down by peripheral details, including talks to establish the preconditions for talking. And according to a New York Times autopsy of the breakdown, “both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators failed to budge from their opening, maximalist positions” during the first 20 bilateral meetings.

Clearly, though, there were hopeful signs that kept U.S. negotiators pushing so hard to keep the marathon talks alive. 

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Photo: U.S. State Department
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, talks with the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, after meetings in Paris last year.

Martin Indyk, America’s special envoy for the negotiations, told a recent conference that he still believes a breakthrough is possible. “Because over the last nine months, behind the closed doors of the negotiating rooms, I’ve witnessed Israelis and Palestinians engaging in serious and intensive negotiations,” he said. “In 20 rounds over the first six months, we managed to define clearly the gaps that separate the parties on all the core issues. And since then we have conducted intensive negotiations with the leaders and their teams to try to bridge those gaps.”

The negotiations were shrouded in secrecy, so we don’t know how accurate Indyk’s assessment is. In the end, though, no amount of cajoling from Kerry could gloss over these serious gaps on the core issues. Even Kerry seemed worn down by his herculean effort. In early April, he warned that, “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward.”

At a subsequent closed-door meeting, a recording of which was leaked by the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin, Kerry said that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state if it didn’t adopt a two-state solution, provoking a diplomatic furor and even calls for his resignation. While Kerry quickly issued a release outlining his unwavering commitment to Israel, the damage was done. The loaded “A-bomb” term touches a nerve in part because of fears that the demise of a two-state solution will indeed leave Israel with two stark choices: absorb 4 million Palestinians and give them full rights, preserving Israel’s democracy but diluting its Jewish character, or force them to live as second-class citizens.

Analysts, and even President Obama, also believe that Mahmoud Abbas, now 79, is the most moderate Palestinian leader that Israel and Washington could hope for.

“Abbas has been a real partner for peace,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a retired diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. “It’s never a last chance but it would seem to be in everyone’s interests to do this while you still have a Palestinian leader who has that credibility as one of the last founding members of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].”

However, Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative think tank in Washington, says Abbas doesn’t have the credibility or the mandate to make peace.

“Compared to [Yasser] Arafat, who indirectly acknowledged that Israel was a Jewish state, something that Abbas refuses to do, Abbas is less charismatic, equally corrupt, less personable and someone who presides over a divided Palestinian Authority in which Hamas controls a third of the land mass,” Berman said. “The Israelis are trying to get Washington to understand that they don’t have a partner for peace on the other side of the table.”

Devil in the Details

Both sides would have to make politically painful compromises to resolve the four central issues on the table: settlements/borders, the legal status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees/right of return, and ensuring Israel’s security, along with the question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Many analysts agree that a final-status agreement is likely to look similar to the so-called “Clinton parameters” proposed during the Camp David talks in 2000. But the devil is in the details and some believe that the Palestinians are being offered less now than what was on the table more than a decade ago.

Clayton Swisher is the manager of investigative journalism at Al Jazeera and the author of “The Truth about Camp David,” which challenges the notion that the Palestinians rejected a “generous” offer there. Speaking personally, not on behalf of his network, Swisher argues that the Israelis have steadily moved the goalposts so that the Palestinians are haggling over an increasingly smaller piece of the pie.

“Al Jazeera’s 2011 release of ‘The Palestine Papers’ — over 1,600 files detailing a decade of diplomatic records from 2001 to 2010 — is clear evidence not only of Israel’s hardening of its bargaining position but also the steady erosion of Palestinian bargaining positions on all core issues,” he said in an e-mail.

“There is less land available for a Palestinian state owing to Israel’s incredible rate of illegal settlement building since Camp David 2000, so a return to the 1967 lines is even more difficult to imagine,” he added.

In fact, some say the settlements, built on shrinking patches of land that Palestinians hope to make their own, are the primary obstacle to peace.

According to an analysis of Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics performed by the Israeli nonprofit Peace Now, there was a 123 percent surge in West Bank settlement construction in 2013 compared to 2012; nearly 14,000 new units alone were approved during the nine-month negotiations.

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Photo: OCHA
This December 2013 map by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) shows settlement activity and access restrictions in the West Bank.

While settlement buildings actually take up less than 2 percent of the West Bank, some 40 percent of the West Bank is under the administrative control of settlers. In adding more and more “facts on the ground,” which includes not only buildings but roads and checkpoints, it becomes harder to cobble together a contiguous Palestinian state that is anything more than a series of disconnected Bantustans.

The Palestinians formally ceded claims to present-day Israel, which represents 78 percent of historic Palestine, in the Oslo process, so even if Israel evacuated all of its settlements (the United Nations estimated the settler population at 520,000 in 2011), a highly unlikely prospect, that would leave the Palestinians with 22 percent of the land.

They may not even get that. “Areas the Palestinians entertained for swaps with Israel under the Olmert-Abbas-Bush years will almost certainly be pocketed by Israel, particularly in East Jerusalem,” Swisher said, referring to a 2008 proposal under former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

On the flashpoint issue of Jerusalem, Swisher said that while there’s been better cooperation on holy sites such as the Temple Mount, “it is still highfalutin to believe Israel will allow a capital in East Jerusalem as it continues to gobble up Arab neighborhoods with evictions, home demolitions and the construction of Jewish-only colonies,” he charged. “I do not believe the Netanyahu government intends to offer anything on these core issues that will come anywhere close to satisfying minimal Palestinian demands, much less international law and U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

The Israelis feel much the same way when it comes to Palestinian assurances on their security. They question what the peace dividend would be if they relinquished settlement blocs and buffer zones, pointing to sporadic rocket fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip despite the fact that Israel evacuated its Gaza settlements in 2005 (although Gazans remain under an Israeli blockade).

In his memoirs, Olmert, who’s since been convicted of taking bribes in a local development deal, said that Abbas had agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state. During the more recent talks, Abbas reportedly hinted that the Israeli military could remain in the West Bank for five years and then be replaced by either NATO or U.S. troops. Israel, though, is wary of relying on foreign forces to keep terrorists out.

In a Feb. 24 brief, Michael Eisenstadt and Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argue that U.N. patrols in Lebanon and the Golan Heights haven’t exactly inspired confidence among Israelis. “While Israel welcomes cooperative security arrangements with Jordan and the Palestinians in this effort, it looks around at the ineffectual third-party forces on its other borders … and rejects the idea that international forces, even from NATO, could replace its own troops,” the experts write, noting that the media often distorts the size of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley, where it has several hundred troops, not thousands. 

The refugee issue is also a dicey game of numbers. Swisher says “The Palestinian Papers” reveals that the highest number of Palestinian refugees Israel agreed to allow back into the country was just 5,000 from an estimated refugee population that exceeds 5 million. “It is hard to see Israel under Netanyahu reversing that downward trend of eradicating refugee rights,” he said.

However, the Palestinians have insisted on the “principle” of the right of return for these refugees, knowing full well they couldn’t all be allowed back into Israel. The bigger dilemma will be establishing a compensation fund for displaced Palestinians and settling claims for confiscated property.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Salonmor
The city of Ariel is among the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The United Nations estimated the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be 520,000 in 2011.

Berman concedes that what Israel is currently offering the Palestinians might be less than what was offered at Camp David, thanks to “realities on the ground,” but he thinks the real problem is that Abbas can’t make the concessions necessary to seal a deal.

“The talks are held in secret, so we don’t know what’s on the table, but there is a perception that it’s not going well in large part because of the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to accept Israel as a Jewish state,” he told The Diplomat shortly before the negotiations collapsed.

Competing Narratives

The insistence that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state emerged as a full-throated demand only after the Annapolis peace talks in 2007 (the Palestinians had already recognized Israel as an independent state years earlier).

Critics say it is merely a stalling tactic by Netanyahu to avoid core issues like borders and that defining Israel as a Jewish state would undermine the rights of the country’s sizeable Arab minority. They also say it would wipe out the Palestinian historical narrative of being expelled from their homes during Israel’s founding in 1948. Swisher called it “a euphemism not only to erase the bloody history of Israel’s expulsion of its native population but also a way to close the possibility of Palestinians returning there to live.”

These complexities may explain why an increasing number of Palestinians, particularly younger ones, including Abbas’s own son Tareq, support a one-state solution whereby both peoples live in one democratic state and enjoy equal rights. The appeal of this idea is that there would be no borders to redraw and no settlements to evacuate. Many of the proponents of the one-state solution argue that negotiations will always fail because of the uneven power dynamic and lopsided U.S. support for Israel. They also believe that Israelis don’t have a strong incentive to create a Palestinian state, because they’ve already got a thriving, prosperous nation of their own.

Israelis, of course, have a very different narrative, one that includes centuries of persecution and the determination to offer Jews a safe haven after the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that the Middle East has just one Jewish state but plenty of Arab states where Palestinian refugees are free to live. Israelis fear that an influx of Palestinian refugees, whose birth rates are far higher than theirs, would obliterate the Jewish nature of their state.

Despite the renaissance of a one-state solution in foreign policy circles, polls consistently show that a majority of both Palestinians and Israelis still favor a two-state solution (even if they doubt it can actually be achieved), and most mainstream groups in the United States support the goal of two states for two peoples.

“Both parties are going to want to avoid failure,” said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a nonprofit group. “We are committed to a two-state solution because we believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. We don’t think the one-state solution is a solution at all,” he said.

“This generational divide among Palestinians [who support the one-state solution] is concerning,” he added. “It should provide some urgency for leaders on both sides to move forward.”

‘Diplomatic Intifada’

Others are less sanguine about the prospect of moving forward. “I doubt very much if anything would come out of this,” said Ilan Pappé, an Israeli historian at the University of Exeter who is the author of several books on the conflict. “Somewhere along the road the ‘peace charade’ will stop being effective.”

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Photo: U.S. State Department
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before they celebrate Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, during a meeting in Jordan last year.

President Obama professes to still believe in a two-state solution, but even he sounded notes of caution in a recent interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. “There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama said. “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, was critical of Obama’s remarks and believes the administration was preparing to blame Israel for the talks’ eminent failure.

“It is clear that the Palestinians have a ready-made policy to pursue should the current talks break down,” he wrote in a piece that called Abbas’s move to join 15 U.N. agencies a “snub.” “Unlike in 2000, when the collapse in diplomacy prompted a violent intifada, this failure will yield a diplomatic intifada, whereby the Palestinians pressure Israel using their leverage with the international community. It’s nonviolent, but it’s war by other means. And it is equally clear that the administration will be a willing partner in assigning blame to Israel.”

As a non-member state at the United Nations since November 2012, Palestine is eligible to join 63 international agencies and accords, but they have only sought to join accords involving social and human rights. Their trump card would be joining the International Criminal Court, which would surely trigger U.S. and Israeli sanctions over fears that Palestinians might legally challenge Israel’s occupation.

Former U.S. Ambassador Kurtzer doesn’t like the term “diplomatic intifada,” but he agrees that Palestinians will attempt to achieve statehood by gaining access to various international institutions and bodies.

“Palestinians are exercising what they believe is a diplomatic option in the same unilateral way they accuse Israel of exercising an option on the ground in building settlements,” he said. “If the Palestinians join the International Criminal Court or International Court of Justice, it would be problematic because it would pit these two states in what some are calling ‘lawfare’ — they’ll be going at each other on legal grounds. That will get us even further away from reaching an agreement.”

Berman agrees that the Palestinians will seek diplomatic recognition, which he sees as a departure from the peace process started in Oslo more than two decades ago.

“The Palestinians will try to work around Oslo, where we initiated this idea that statehood is earned,” he lamented. “For the Israelis, that’s a huge red flag because the Palestinians agreed not to do this in the Oslo process.”

Of course, the Oslo accords also envisioned resolving the remaining issues of borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem within five years, but that never happened either.

The American Alternative

A common refrain of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Washington cannot impose a solution on two parties who are unwilling to make peace. But some experts say the United States should take the initiative and put out its own parameters for a deal. Kerry himself, in the leaked comments reported by the Daily Beast, said he might unveil his own peace plan as a last-ditch effort and tell both sides to “take it or leave it.”

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Godot 13
The Temple Mount is one of the most important religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem.

That gets into the perennial debate over whether the United States is an honest broker in the dispute. Alison Weir, the founder of If Americans Knew, a nonprofit that seeks to inform Americans on the costs of providing aid to Israel, points to the fact that Washington provides more than $8 million to Israel each day, more than any other country, despite the fact that it is a prosperous nation in its own right. And Weir cites the makeup of Kerry’s negotiating team, as well as previous teams, as examples that undermine the notion of the United States as an honest broker.

She said that a number of individuals on Kerry’s team of negotiators have close ties to influential pro-Israeli groups, including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, a well-known scholar who once worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), founded in part by Indyk and AIPAC.

“The elephant in the room for all of this is the Israel lobby,” Weir charged. “They are a very powerful special-interest group that essentially drives U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine issue.”

She added: “Israeli leaders aren’t motivated to compromise because they have the U.S. in their back pocket.”

Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council takes a very different view, asserting that the $3 billion in aid that the U.S. gives Israel each year gives it leverage to pressure Israel into making concessions.

“When you take in $3 billion in aid there is a level of responsibility that comes with that; you can’t just be unresponsive,” he said. “So there are more ways the U.S. can pressure Israel. The administration is leaning the shoulder in and pressuring them and it’s willing to do things like cross-link issues, like the Iran issue, to get the Israelis to move in the direction they want.”

But Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who was involved in previous peace negotiations and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues that this kind of pressure tends to backfire.

“First, Israelis and Palestinians can’t be scared into submission — certainly not by an American secretary of state’s warning of the future,” he wrote in an April 29 piece for Foreign Policy.

He points out that Kerry’s dire predictions that time is running out for a two-state solution have largely fallen on deaf ears. “In the past year or so, Kerry has prophesied about the dangers of violence, demography, and boycott. Nobody doubts the grim future awaiting the Middle East if no resolution is found, though precisely when and under which circumstances it may arrive is totally unclear and uncertain,” he wrote.

A2.israel.conflict.story.westernwall.storyPhoto: Wikimedia Commons / Golasso

Jews pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which is holy to all three Abrahamic faiths and is one of several intractable "core issues" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both sides claiming the city as their capital.

Indeed, the perpetuation of peace talks has become a cottage industry of sorts (churning out experts like Miller and countless others), so negotiations could very well ramp up again in the near future. Both the Israelis and Palestinians receive significant financial assistance from Washington and therefore have a vested interest in keeping the talks plodding along, at least for the sake of appearances.

Michael Singh of WINEP says too much is made of talking. Quiet, on-the-ground engagement should be the focus. “Realistically, emphasizing direct dialogue means lowering the talks’ profile and accepting that progress will initially come on less divisive issues like economics and security,” he wrote in an April 15 policy analysis. “It also means dispensing with overly ambitious deadlines, and accepting that merely handing off a healthy process to President Obama’s successor in 2017 would be a worthwhile accomplishment.”

Alon Ben-Meir of New York University said that’s exactly the kind of small-bore approach neither side can afford to take. Besides the demographic time bomb and international isolation Israel faces if talks go nowhere, Ben-Meir says there is a moral imperative to consider as well.

“Continued occupation of Palestinian land slowly consumes Israel’s moral standing and physical well-being, inching it ever closer to self-destruction. Though the Palestinians are not innocent bystanders, Israel and Israel alone must now bear the burden because it is the undisputed power that can change the course of events and prevent the looming disaster,” he wrote in the April 23 article “Forfeiting Israel’s Reason to Exist.”

“No one knows the history of the Jews better than the Jews themselves. Persecution, segregation, expulsion and death unmatched in human history were their lot nearly everywhere. But such unspeakable historic misfortune offers no license to inflict pain, suffering and indignity onto others.” 

Ambassador Kurtzer fears that extremists on both sides will benefit from the inevitable failure of talks — and both will suffer as a result.

“Only bad things happen,” he said. “[Palestinians] pursue their diplomacy in the United Nations, Israel continues to build more settlements on the ground, the bad guys do bad things, rockets get fired from Gaza, the hilltop youth destroy orchards on the West Bank. There will be a deterioration of events on the ground as the two societies head off in different directions. I don’t think there is a strong possibility of another intifada, but one can’t rule out the possibility that the cumulative effect of bad things will ultimately end up in serious violence.”


About the Author

Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel, managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, contributed to this report.

Last Edited on June 3, 2014