In mid-June, a couple of aeons ago the way time is counted here in the Middle East, before rockets were falling in Tel Aviv, before the invasion of Gaza and the death count and the rubble, before "ceasefire" became a synonym for broken hope, when Israel was still an outpost of calm in the region, I took a day's reporting trip to West Bank settlements north of Jerusalem.
My guide was Dror Etkes, the veteran Israeli tracker of settlement building and land theft. At a settlement known as Kokhav Ya'akov, northeast of Jerusalem, we saw earth-moving equipment clearing ground for a new development. Kokhav Ya'akov, Etkes explained, is built on what Israel has determined to be state-owned land—except for some 200 houses and a few dozen mobile homes on real estate registered as the private property of Palestinians.
Further north, in the terraced hills around the settlement of Shilo and its satellite outposts, we took a dirt road through young vineyards planted by settlers who, Etkes explained, have taken over 1,000 acres of Palestinian farmland in the area. In the town of Ariel, "the least ideological settlement in the West Bank," Etkes said, construction was underway in three neighborhoods. The draw is cheap housing, not fervent belief. "Just 18 percent down and you've got a new apartment!" proclaimed a billboard at a building site.
Until mid-June, this was part of what was known, especially to journalists, policy experts and diplomats, as the status quo. A day's drive demonstrated what a misnomer the term was. For a Palestinian farmer near Shilo, or a resident of the Palestinian town of Salfit watching out her window as Ariel continually grew across the hills, there was nothing static about the situation. Inside Israel, the phrase "status quo" was less obviously false: For the average person in Tel Aviv, the West Bank was a distant country and the besieged Gaza Strip was even further off—as distant, say, as Ferguson, Missouri, was from a white American surburbanite until a couple of weeks ago.
Polls consistently showed that 65 to 70 percent of Israel's Jewish majority favored negotiations with the Palestinian Authority—and only 25 to 30 percent thought such talks could succeed. Part of the psychology behind that gap was that since the end of Second Intifada and its suicide bombings, the status quo seemed safe and stable compared to the external risks of a Palestinian state and the internal risks of evacuating settlers.
It was an attitude cultivated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Managing the conflict with the Palestinians, not solving it, was the essence of his policy. To be fair, I don't think he chose this strategy cynically. Netanyahu appears to truly not believe that a negotiated agreement can end a conflict with a dedicated opponent—even if his strategy for maintaining stasis depended on working with whoever was in charge in Egypt, a former dedicated opponent that made peace with Israel. This was just one of the internal contradictions. The strategy also included intensive intelligence efforts, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority security forces, to prevent terror attacks from the West Bank. Yet it has been an article of faith for Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, could not possibly really want peace.
Another element was a policy of "quiet in exchange for quiet" with the Hamas rulers of Gaza. The explicit basis for this was the document of understandings with Hamas, reached by indirect negotiations with the Islamic organization after Israel's 2012 air offensive against Hamas and other radical factions in Gaza. But the document says that ending restrictions on the transfer of goods and on residents' freedom of movement in and out of Gaza "shall be dealt with." In fact, the Israeli siege has continued, with movement of goods heavily circumscribed and movement of people in and out of the Strip even more limited. The real assumption, only a little less explicit, was that Israel had shown Hamas that the price of war was too high, but the siege was needed to slow its rearmament.
Netanyahu has also had to manage his own cabinet, which includes committed advocates and bitter opponents of a two-state outcome, and relations with the U.S. administration. Engaging in Secretary of State John Kerry's peace talks was a convenient way to do both—as long as the talks continued without going anywhere.
Netanyahu's conflict management style had a good run, at least for the domestic audience. It also had a spectacular flaw: While the status quo was tolerable for Israelis, it wasn't for Palestinians. In Gaza, the claustrophobia and poverty imposed by the siege worsened as the latest Egyptian regime clamped down on smuggling to and from the Sinai.
In the West Bank, the daily indignities of occupation were accompanied by perpetual growth of settlements. Even if most Palestinians avoided expecting too much of the Kerry talks, the negotiations created a hope and then removed it.
The formation of a Palestinian unity government at the beginning of June offered a different kind of hope—for ending the rift between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli leader awake to opportunities would have seen the unity government as an opening to an agreement with a demilitarized Palestinian state that included Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu treated the unity government as proof of Abbas's nefarious intentions.
By mid-June, the status quo was a rotted, rickety building waiting only for a spark to set it alight. There are always pyromaniacs waiting for such chances, people whose strategy is indiscriminate violence, and who have far less faith in a negotiated resolution than Netanyahu does. The spark was provided by the kidnappers of three Israeli teens.
Honestly, I can't bear even to summarize what has come since. For now, the new reality seems to be an intermittent war of attrition between Israel and Hamas-ruled Gaza. Israel's announced political goal, demilitarization of Gaza, is absolutely reasonable as part of a final-status agreement on two states. Without that, there's no chance of demilitarization. For that matter, without demilitarization there's little chance of Hamas achieving its announced political goal: a full end to the siege. The demands raised in the failed Cairo negotiations are exactly what Israel and the Palestinian unity government should have sat down to discuss in early June.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that changes in the Middle East created "a new diplomatic horizon," and that he hoped to resume talks with Abbas and "a Palestinian government which can abandon the path of terror." I'd truly like to believe him, but my ability to imagine such a diplomatic horizon has been wounded.
But if there is anyone—in Brussels, say, or at U.N. headquarters in New York, or even in Washington, little as I can imagine that—who is interested in facilitating such talks, I have this advice: Please ignore the experts who tell you to aim only for managing the conflict rather than resolving it. The only way to manage this conflict is to lay down a framework for a two-state resolution and push toward achieving it. Either you move forward toward peace or you allow the next war. Nothing is static. The myth of a status quo died two months ago, or two aeons ago.
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