For True Peace, All Issues Must Be Resolved

Talks Can Only Succeed If Stakes Are High Enough

Going For It: Secretary of State John Kerry seems to understand that incremental is not the way to go.
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Going For It: Secretary of State John Kerry seems to understand that incremental is not the way to go.

By Leonard Fein

Published August 03, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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The brambled path that winds through all the efforts to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is littered with failure. Here, some prisoners released; there, some interventions by Israel’s High Court of Justice to limit Israel’s encroachment on Palestinian lands. Here, a pledge to avoid incitement; there, cooperation on security issues. Add all the leaky fire hoses together and the sum is next to nothing. The conflict endures, rudely punctuated now and again by violent outbursts.

One reason: The efforts have been piecemeal. Their authors have sought “confidence-building” measures, incremental advances, and the increments are no match for the cold hand of rejectionism. Israelis and Palestinians alike are, to understate substantially, skeptical of the prospect of resolving the conflict. But for anything less than a comprehensive resolution, why support what then prime minister Ariel Sharon endorsed in 2005, “painful compromises for peace”? Compromises may, indeed, be warranted, even essential — but only if the reward for compromise is substantial. It follows that the greater the ground given (read “ground given” both rhetorically and literally) in the compromise, the greater the reward must be.

These days, there is growing interest in — and pressure, as well — for a comprehensive agreement, one that deals not only with “little issues — e.g., checkpoints, the path of the separation barrier — but that takes on the core issues, such as borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in the West Bank, security arrangements and the most complex of all, the creation of a Palestinian state that is truly viable. Such a state, it is widely believed, is the necessary condition for an end to the chronic conflict.

Call that the “all or nothing” strategy. It tantalizes not only because it is comprehensive but because it is doubtful that anything short of that will induce the assent of the Israeli public.

Comes the veteran analyst, Yossi Alpher, and writes in these pages that any effort to go all the way, to resolve not only the post-1967 issues but also the 1948 issues, is doomed. In his words, “‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ means that an agreed border, security arrangements and a Palestinian capital — all ‘doable’ agenda items — will be held hostage to an unattainable set of demands. That means another crashing failure of negotiations. The only conceivable way to avoid it is if the parties agree in advance that settling post-1967 issues will enable a two-state solution to emerge. That will generate a high degree of stability in relations between two peoples who must find a way to live alongside one another, even if the narrative issues remain unresolved and an “end of claims” agreement stays out of reach.

Alpher may be right. The problem, however, as he acknowledges, is that failure to deal with the 1948 problems — borders as well as refugees and the right of return — means that the conflict is not over, the claims and counter-claims drag on. More than that: The notion that a two-state solution will “emerge” and generate “a high degree of stability” is…well, a notion. And again and again, the disposition of the Israeli public, its readiness for “painful compromises,” depends exactly on an end to conflict, an end to claims and counter-claims. Are we to imagine, short of that, an Israeli readiness to close down settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank? Such imaginings are closer to fantasy than to a plausible map. It is time (and then some) to sue for genuine peace. Those in Israel who find the status quo acceptable to say nothing of those who oppose any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank are marching to the bleak beat of a funeral drum. “Two states dead,” it percusses.

All that is why the current effort by Secretary Kerry — a nine month schedule, and explicit commitment to a comprehensive resolution of the conflict, is so appealing. And Kerry is brutally clear: Failure is not an option.

That hardly means that success is guaranteed. But close listeners have recently detected a change in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s thinking. He seems, at long last, on the way to reckoning with reality. Were he beloved, as he assuredly is not, he might pull others in Likud along. As it is, however, the institutions of Likud have been taken over by the far right of the party, by people closer in outlook to Naftali Bennett, a committed rejectionist, than to Netanyahu.

A new governing alignment, Labor in, Bennett (and perhaps also Lapid, for other reasons) out? Possible, though not likely. New elections? Still less likely, nor is there any new candidate for leadership who might galvanize the public, still smarting for its misplaced enthusiasm for Lapid.

Then what?

“May you live in interesting times” is thought to be a Chinese curse. Whatever its actual provenance, its status as a curse rather than a blessing is well-established.

Contact Leonard Fein at

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