It's Time To Stop 'Managing' the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Just End It

(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

A Palestinian protester holds stones during a protest against the expansion of the nearby Jewish settlement of Halamish, in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, Friday, November 9, 2012.

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.

 

Comments

I disagree. Neither Hamas nor the PLO have a unified structure. Each is divided into factions. Neither one is a credible counter-party to a negotiated solution since neither one can deliver on their promises. Basically, neither organization is able to control what happens within its jurisdiction because neither has a monopoly of power. Each acts with a pretense of authority which each lacks. Peace with Palestinians is the only credible end game. However wishing will not make it so. Until a Palestinian political structure can effectively exercise sovereignty, no negotiated settlement becomes credible.

I really don't think I've ever heard a real answer as to why the folk in not only Gaza, but the entire West Bank are so p*ssed off.
Like Dubya's answer to 9/11, it was all codswallop.
What we told ourselves & the world (who snickered) --> "They hates our freedom / way of life / religion / etc".
What the Israelis told themselves & the world (who are snickering) --> "They hates Jews / Israelis / Zionists / etc."
This is all so ugly & mixed up & just one big festering pile of oozing hatred, even for those of us who have no dog in the fight.
There are those amongst us who believe that the Hairy Thunderer told a bunch of wandering shepherds that they were special, and that they had carte blanche to do anything to do what-so-ever they wanted. They did, and they continue to do whatever they want. You got a mandate, you use it,
Then comes another wave, an anti-establishment revolution. Folks are pissed off at such an autocratic, authorian, unyielding, unbending, unfair system. They rebel. Their leader is betrayed, and mayrtyred. Hooray! We have Christianity, and we do our very best to make sure the scoundrels who did this are scattered to the four winds.
Then, by Gollom, comes another rebellion against the iniquities of the Western people and their power structure / means of oppression.
Islam arises, and fills in the vacuum of a bickering, poer hungry kings of Europe. But this new movement, too, falls into factions.
So what we have is a mess, divided amongst what should be allies. Religions supposedly based on faith, tolerance, wisdom. What we have is -- greed, folly, craziness. And it all boils down to, Follow the money.
Screw 'em all, I say. You want to believe in a Monotheism, a Hairy Thunderer, a Benevolent God -- go ahead. But the moment you bring this into the public arena, begone!!
Rant done, sir.

"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."

Abbas wants peace as long as millions of "refugees" can move to Israel. Such "peace", however, is just semantics for the destruction of Israel. It may be that he is personally willing to compromise on this issue, but like Arafat, he knows he will be killed if he does because of the radicalization of the entire Palestinian population who have been taught since birth that they can never ever give up the "right of return." Why do you think the Palestinians didn't agree to a state on 95% of the west bank all of gaza, half of Jerusalem and 30 billion dollars in compensation?

"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."

This is why the left has no constituency anymore in Israel. Gorenberg actually trusts Hamas more than Netanyahu.

" 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."

This is fantasy land territory. Do you really think Hamas is going to disarm for any reason without being forced to. Another reason the left has no constituency remaining in Israel. Gorenberg lives in a parallel dimension where Hamas can be bargained with.

"The only way to manage this conflict is to lay down a framework for a two-state resolution and push toward achieving it. "

Of course, Gorenberg actually thinks Hamas would every agree to such a thing. Maybe this article does not deserve my scorn, but my pity.

I would also add that Gorenberg's praise of the unity government is absurd considering we now know that Hamas was plotting to overthrow the PA the entire time.

It is difficult to say just how much I agree with this comment above so my response is not about the article but the unpleasant and obvious bias of the editors.
While the article says this:

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.

the sub-headline, which pulls clicks, implies that somewhere in this process Netanyahu did something wrong to derail the path to peace.
A subhead "Hamas is derailing any path to peace" would be much closer to the truth certainly from the author's viewpoint but not as politically correct for Prospect readers.
I don't mind articles or viewpoints that diverge from my own but this kind of overt intellectual dishonesty is really intolerable.

"The spark was provided by the kidnappers of three Israeli teens." That makes it sound like some random trouble-maker who took advantage of the combustible situation Gorenberg blames on Netanyahu. But we know now for a fact that the kidnapping was a Hamas operation. Hamas, which Gorenberg thinks can deliver a negotiated solution, and which Gorenberg thinks will disarm without being forced to do so, is the "pyromaniac."

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