The Obama administration’s resolute focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has generated a wave of predictions of an imminent end to the conflict. President Obama himself foresees a solution by the end of his first term and talks of setting a deadline. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad says the job can be done in two years, while Quartet representative Tony Blair says one year. European Union foreign and security affairs coordinator Javier Solana wants the United Nations to set the deadline.
As a veteran campaigner for a two-state solution, I would like to be so optimistic. But I’m not. Ratcheting up expectations with no basis in on-the-ground realities could quickly generate not hope but anger, frustration and violence.
Here are five reasons why a more cautious approach is advisable:
First, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is apparently unable to bite the bullet and accept a reasonable agreement. His blatant rejection of former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s best offer nearly a year ago is shocking and discouraging.
According to Abbas himself, Olmert offered him territory equal to 100% of the West Bank with land swaps and a vital Gaza-West Bank land passage, Israeli recognition of the Palestinian “right of return” in principle and the actual repatriation of a small number of 1948 refugees, and an international consortium with an Arab majority to manage the Jerusalem Holy Basin (the Old City, City of David and Mount of Olives). Yet Abbas declared: “The gaps were too big.” But that was as generous an offer as any he’ll get. (Olmert, incidentally, denies he recognized the right of return but otherwise confirms Abbas’s description.)
Second, Israel’s electoral and coalition system would not enable any prime minister to deliver political approval for the kind of deal Olmert offered Abbas. Because of the settlers and their supporters, the Palestinian issue has brought down nearly every Israeli ruling coalition for the past 20 years. Its interaction with Israeli politics is poisonous.
Third, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to demonstrate that he means it when he talks about a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s demand that an agreement include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state may be an understandable reaction to the delegitimization of Israel implied by Palestinian insistence on the right of return and exclusive ownership of the Temple Mount. But it’s also as much of a deal-breaker as the Palestinians’ right of return demand. And an Israeli leader who simultaneously demands recognition of a Jewish state yet insists on building settlements that undermine the country’s Jewish nature is not a candidate for a peace process.
Fourth, the reality is that we are dealing with not two but three states or potential states — Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The Fatah-Hamas gap damns the peace process any way you look at it. If current attempts, backed by Washington and Cairo, to reunite the West Bank and Gaza succeed, they would be liable to yield a more extreme Palestinian negotiating line or even an elected Hamas leadership in the West Bank as well as Gaza. More likely, the deep chasm separating Islamists and nationalists will continue to paralyze Palestinian politics for the foreseeable future.
Finally, the Arab states that Obama seeks to integrate into American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are weak and in disarray. The Arab state system is not functioning well: Fully six out of 22 members of the Arab League are hopelessly conflicted internally (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen), while the traditional leaders of the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are not pulling their weight. One very key Arab state, Syria, is an ally of Iran, the enemy of most of the rest of the Arab states. To expect the Arab League to somehow bolster and moderate the Palestinians in a peace deal — and with Netanyahu! — is like casting your bread upon the receding waters of the Sea of Galilee.
This is not an attempt to discourage Obama from pushing — or even bullying — both sides. But he should be realistic. The most we can hope for in the near term between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is an agreed delineation of their border as part of some sort of renewed armistice line, along with the beginning of a gradual Israeli pullout from additional parts of the West Bank, based on Palestinian security and governance-building accomplishments. That would at least stop settlement spread and give Palestinians hope. Resolving the 1948 refugee issue and the status of Jerusalem’s Holy Basin — in other words, reconciling the two peoples’ totally contradictory national narratives — may have to be left for future generations. An end-of-conflict, end-of-claims agreement is not within reach.
Meanwhile, an Israel-Syria deal beckons. It is also difficult and uncertain, but nevertheless far more achievable. Netanyahu’s posturing here is not as hard-line as on the Palestinian issue. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to understand what is being asked of him: not only peace with Israel, however cold, but distancing Syria from Iran, sealing its border with Iraq and cutting off Hezbollah and Hamas, thereby strengthening Abbas and the P.A. The payoff for Israel and America of a successful Syria-Israel process is thus of regional strategic proportions. It’s worth an all-out effort.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.