Saturday, April 19, 2014

Where do we go from here?

John Kerry does not come over any more, but he still sends his personal representative Martin Indyk. Once again a meeting was convened between the representatives of the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, again an effort to achieve at least an extension of the negotiations, and again it failed, and again an American announcement  that efforts will continue. It was not easy to locate this information - the editors in much of the electronic and printed media did not really consider it a newsworthy item, and they can hardly be blamed.

In the weekend edition of Yediot Ahronot, Nahum Barnea published his wry analysis: "Everybody is sick and tired of the talks. Correction: nearly everybody. Kerry maintains them like a gambler in a casino who insists on placing his money on the roulette wheel, in the hope that for once the ball will land on his number. When he took up the assignment he believed that he would reach a Peace Agreement. Then he reduced his aim to a Framework Agreement, after which he further reduced it to 'an American proposal for a framework', and then further to just 'ideas'. In the end, the whole of America's prestige is invested in a marginal, dubious deal [to prolong negotiations for a few more months], which would only prolong the mutual torture. From a means of achieving an agreement, the negotiations have become an aim in themselves."

Prime Minister Netanyahu has no problem with negotiations as an aim in themselves, talks which will go on and on and on lead nowhere. This is precisely what he wanted in the first place and still wants today – to be able to push off all demands and criticisms and international pressures and whisper "Shhhh, keep quiet, we are talking, we are in negotiations with the Palestinians, there is a Peace Process going on, please  do not disturb."

And not only Netanyahu. Also Minister Uri Elitzur, of the Jewish Home Party which constitutes the extreme right wing of the Netanyahu Cabinet, has just declared that he and his party have no problem with extending the negotiations "for another year." And why should they see any problem with it? On the occasion of Passover, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennet sent greetings to party members proudly boasting that in the past year – a year of which eight months had been devoted to negotiations with the Palestinians – “Settlement construction in Judea and Samaria had increased by 123 %”. And Housing Minister Uri Ariel, another of the same party’s senior ministers, will spend the Passover holiday as the guest of honor in a mass event designed to reestablish the settlement Chomesh in the Northern West Bank, which Ariel Sharon evacuated as part of the 2005 "Disengagement". Why, then, not continue the negotiations for another year, or for that matter for ten or twenty  years?

From the very launch of negotiations under Kerry’s auspices, most Israelis - and most Palestinians – did not entertain a real hope for actual results. The unknown  Palestinian who this week took up a gun and wore gray clothing and set up an ambush at the settler road near the village of Idna, was most likely among those who never regarded  negotiations as the means of liberating their people from Israeli occupation. It was Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrahi , who had gone over from a decades-long service as an IDF career officer to an  equally successful career in the Israel Police Intelligence Wing, who passed there in his car and was shot and killed in the ambush , becoming the latest  victim of the ongoing conflict which had already claimed very many lives ever since the days of Ottoman rule in this country.

Mizrahi had not been on military or police duty. He was going in his private car,  with his wife and five children , on the way to Passover Seder with his in-laws. Like many Israelis for whom the Passover Seder is one of the major family events of the year. "A terrorist attack on the way to the Seder" cried out the banner headlines. The Seder to which Mizrahi and his family were heading when the fatal shots were fired was to be held by his wife's parents, living in  Kiryat Arba.

Kiryat Arba is not just one more a community. It is not even one more Israeli settlement on the West Bank. Kiryat Arba is a symbol - the place where the entire settlement project began. Kiryat Arba is the place where , in the first year of occupation, the then Labor Party Cabinet caved in to Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his fellows, expropriated for their sake extensive Palestinian lands near Hebron and established there the first big settlement on the West Bank. There flourished the radical Religious-Nationalist ideology. From there it expanded into Gush Emunim, the “Block of the Faithful” which developed into the “Judea and Samaria Council" embracing dozens and then hundreds of settlements. And in Kiryat Arba itself the settlers live up to the present, including the parents of Baruch Mizrahi’s wife, and celebrate every year the Passover and read deep into the night the story of the ancient Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt and delivery from slavery. They do not draw from it any conclusion about their own present situation and their own sojourn in an armed enclave closely guarded by soldiers at the heart of an Occupied Territory .

The Israeli press did not pay much attention to the history and political role of Kiryat Arba in its extensive coverage of the attack in which Baruch Mizrahi was killed. Instead, the papers focused on the human aspects, the three year old boy who asked "Is Dad in Heaven now?" and the widow who wondered  "Who'll now make the kids laugh?" . What eye could stay dry when reading these painful human experiences, taking up whole pages in the mass circulation newspapers? None of sixty Palestinians killed by IDF gunfire during the past year, the year of the negotiations, had gotten the Israeli media to interview their widows and orphaned children . The maximum which they could expect was for the Israeli papers to correctly spell their names.

In the meeting which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held this week with Knesset Members from the Labor and Meretz parties, he said that the Palestinian Authority was ready to extend talks with Israel - but on the condition that it would not be negotiations for the sake of negotiations, but a real grappling with the concrete issues. In particular, the negotiations should  focus on the future borders between the existing State of Israel and the to-be-created State of Palestine, and of Prime Minister Netanyahu finally deigning to start drawing boundaries on the map. This would be a quite logical idea - assuming that Netanyahu was serious in what he said in the famous Bar-Ilan Speech and on several more occasions. One who agrees to the establishment of a Palestinian state could logically be expected to indicate exactly where that  state is to be established, is it not so? Apparently, not .

The Sole Mediator?

Since the mid 1970’s, the United States has assumed a monopoly on mediation between Israelis and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. We have gotten used to this as an essential fact of life – though, to look at it objectively, this is quite a strange phenomenon. In no commercial dispute would the business partner of one of the parties to the dispute gain the status of an impartial arbiter.

The United States had one advantage, and one only, over any other available broker: the US was considered the only actor on the international arena with the ability to enforce an arbitration award on the State of Israel, its close ally. In marked contrast to mediators from Scandinavia, or the UN , or the EU – who had the option of shuttling back and forth between the parties, talking to Israelis and to Arabs, and formulating a proposed solution which they regarded as reasonable and fair – which would eventually join in the archive the  yellowed texts of dozens of earlier proposals by dozens of previous mediators. The United States was considered as being in quite a different category. After all, the U.S. had a proven ability to get the State of Israel out of an occupied territory.

In 1957, President Eisenhower got the IDF withdrawn from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, with an openly displayed blatant pressure. That was prehistory, when Israel did not yet a have a firm political and military alliance with the U.S. and had not yet completed the construction of powerful levers within the American political system. Later on, the United States got Israel out of Sinai for the second time, in a more gradual and subtle process which began in 1974 by Henry Kissinger and ended in 1978 with Jimmy Carter. The price which Egypt paid in order to regain the Sinai was clearly evident: the biggest and most powerful country in the Arab World, which had been for decades a crucial ally of the Soviet Union, moved over to become as crucial an ally for the United States.

Syria was several times offered a similar deal, to regain the Israeli-occupied Golan in exchange for swearing fealty to Washington. Assad Senior and Assad Junior never rejected such approaches out of hand, but ultimately they never conclusively agreed to fundamentally change Syria’s international allegiance.  Thus, the Golan Heights remained in Israeli hands up to the present, except for the town of Quneitra which Kissinger passed to the Syrians as an appetizer in 1974. Nowadays, of course, no one can guess what kind of government would rule Syria in the future and what would be its international orientation.

With regard to the Palestinians, the experience of the past twenty years in general and of recent months in particular clearly indicates that the United States is either unwilling or unable to "deliver the goods" and facilitate the creation of an independent Palestinian state which would be a loyal Americans ally in the Middle East. It should be noted, of course, that in fact the Palestinians - at least, the leadership of the PLO and Fatah – have already in 1993 placed themselves deep into the United States’ pocket, in exchange for the minor gain of establishing a powerless Palestinian Authority in the shadow of continuing Israeli occupation .

Had the Americans been willing to offer Palestinians a full liberation from the yoke of occupation, they might have been able to penetrate deeper into the grassroots of Palestinian society, perhaps wean young Palestinians from the habit of regularly setting the Stars and Stripes flag on fire. But apparently, to generations of American policymakers this was not a consideration weighty enough to justify a confrontation with the government of Israel and its supporters on Capitol Hill...

Whatever the considerations and reasoning, the bottom line is quite clear. The U.S. government – whoever the President and Secretary of State might be – is clearly unable to offer the Palestinians what Kissinger and Carter provided to Egypt. And if so, then fallen and gone is its sole justification for being the sole mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. Another way will have to be found.

Some questions – and a few initial answers
- What are the chances that, after all,  John Kerry will succeed in patching up some deal which would allow the extension of the negotiations (or what passes under this name) until the end of the year? As the situation seems now, the chances are very low - but in our region everything is possible.

- And if after all negotiations are renewed, what are the chances that Kerry would also prove able to take advantage of the additional seven months in order to formulate a Framework Agreement, get the two parties to agree, transform it into a detailed Peace Agreement with a binding timetable for implementation and get it actually implemented on the ground? By all logical analysis, an even far smaller chance. It is much more likely that, even if negotiations do resume, they will continue sluggishly for a few useless months and finally collapse in the next crisis.

- What are the chances, should the efforts of John Kerry come to an  unequivocal and irreversible collapse, that the next US President will make a new try during his or her administration, which would include the symbolic date of fifty years of occupation in 2017? It is very difficult to know today who would win the Presidential elections in November 2016, of which party and under which program and policy. Logically, however, it can be assumed that whoever it would be would have no great enthusiasm about plunging again into this quagmire.

 - What are the chances that there would again be in Israel a peace-seeking government, which would make its own independent  peace initiative and make to the Palestinians an offer which the Palestinians could accept? As things look now, the chances are very low. The supporters of a daring peace initiative constitute a Left minority among the citizens of Israel. Most Israeli citizens are convinced that achieving peace is simply not possible. In the past, the citizens of Israel brought Yitzhak Rabin to power - and he was assassinated. They brought  Ehud Barak to power, who claimed to be the successor of Rabin - and proved unequivocally that he was not. And they put their trust in Ariel Sharon’s proposal to withdraw unilaterally - and the result was not especially successful. Another opportunity probably there would not be. Israeli citizens are unlikely to again bring to power a Prime Minister committed to making peace and/or giving up territory.

- On the other hand, what are the chances that, if under international pressure the Government of Israel is made to sign an agreement with the Palestinians, Israeli citizens would lend this fait accompli their support via a referendum or elections? For that, there is a reasonable chance, even a high one. All Israeli opinion polls indicate a majority willing to accept a peace agreement  involving the relinquishing of all or most of the territories occupied in 1967 - while at the same time expressing considerable skepticism about the feasibility of such an agreement  being achieved in reality. It is a very passive majority, a majority which would not lift a finger in order to promote peace, neither going out into the streets nor voting in elections for peace-seeking parties. But if an agreement was to be brought to Israel’s citizens as a fait accompli, there are good reasons to assume that only a Religious-Nationalist minority on the Right would seriously oppose it. To get there, of course, there has to be an external force able and willing to impose an agreement. And if not the Americans, who?

- The track on which the Palestinians embarked with President Mahmoud Abbas signing the documents for Palestinian accession to fifteen international conventions leads to a frontal collision with the government of Israel - but in a different way from what we have known before. The confrontation would take place primarily in the international arena, accompanied by Popular Resistance on the ground – i.e., demonstrations of Palestinians to tangle with the army and settlers, with the army opposing them with tear gas and sometimes with live ammunition, and the Palestinians responding with stones and sometimes Molotov cocktails. But would it be possible to prevent a repetition of what happened in 2000-2001, a fast escalation towards mass bloodshed on both sides?

- International diplomacy would be at the spearhead of Palestinian effort – an attempt to make the State of Palestine into a firm fact in International Law, in the hope that eventually it will become such on the ground as well. Clashes in the international diplomatic arena would likely culminate with an appeal to the International Criminal Court, filing lawsuits against Israeli officers for acts committed in the Palestinian territories, and against the leaders of the settlement project whose activities violate International Law. And the Palestinian doomsday weapon would be the threat – which might turn out to be  more than a threat – of disbanding the Palestinian Authority and "handing over the keys" to Israel, and thus imposing on the State of Israel the financial and administrative burden of daily running the residents' lives, removing the fig leaf of "Palestinian Self-Government" and facing Israel with the choice withdrawing from the territory or annexing it granting civil rights to its residents.

- Concurrently, there can be expected all kinds of informal initiatives and pressures worldwide. The BDS campaign would expand, its proponents calling  economic boycott and cultural boycott and academic boycott and any other boycott on Israel and on all things Israeli. At the same time there would be  more mainstream groups - possibly including respectable businesses and  firms in European and other countries – taking initiatives against the settlements and those linked with the settlement project . The European Union may finally take the long-contemplated step of systematically marking all settlement products coming into the European market, in order to alert and warn customers – possibly followed by more drastic EU measures . And of the Government of the United States, there might be expected at least what is known as "benign neglect" – i.e. watching from the sidelines all these moves and refraining from blocking them via the levers at its disposal on the international arena.

- Would all these cumulative pressures be sufficient to bring about, in the foreseeable future, an end to the occupation and an IDF withdrawal from the occupied territories and the signing of a Peace Agreement between the existing State of Israel and the to-be-created State of Palestine?

- Or are we are likely to mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Occupation in 2017,  and the Seventy-Fifth in 2042, and perhaps also its Centennial in 2067? Of course, it can be assumed that meanwhile it would no longer be called "occupation" and there will be no further pretence that it is “temporary”. Temporary occupation will have become permanent Apartheid, though presumably somebody will invent an original Hebrew word for “Apartheid”. If there is nobody to save Israel from itself, this situation would  persist as long as Israel has a military superiority in the Middle East and as long as the United States dominates the world and is able and willing to provide support for Israel and for Israel’s policies. History shows that no military hegemony, regional or global, lasts for ever.

- Should  the efforts of all of us be conditional upon the chances of success? Absolutely not. All of us - Palestinians under occupation, peace seekers and opponents of the occupation inside Israel, and people  who care anywhere in the world will do, must do all we can, no matter what. There is no other choice.

"What now?" - faced with the diplomatic failures, the Meretz Anti-Occupation Forum invites you to a panel discussion:

Talks with the Palestinians failed, as expected. Israel imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority. Are we on the brink of conflict ? Is there any chance of a  return to the negotiating table? Would that be worthwhile? How should the Israeli Peace Camp deal with the new situation? How do we face international pressures and calls for a boycott of Israel? Might this be the time to stop talking about  the struggle against the Occupation and begin talking about  a war on Apartheid?

Wednesday, April 23, at 19:00 ( Please be on time! ) at the EPGB Radio Pub,
7 Shadal Street, Tel Aviv.

Opening remarks:
Meretz Party Leader, MK Zahava Gal’on
Avi Issacharoff – Senior commentator, Walla & Times of Israel
Yossi Gurvitz - Journalist and blogger (+972 Magazine)
 Yifat Solel – Chair, Meretz Anti-Occupation Forum
Mossi Raz