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Strategic Thinking Needed to Juggle Israeli-Palestinian Equation

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On the very day that the New York Times reported that the Israeli military had demolished the homes of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley in order to clear the area to consolidate Israeli control, that very same military was being rebuffed in its efforts to remove an illegal Jewish settler outpost in that very same occupied West Bank. There were also reports of violent settlers running amok in the West Bank committing violence against Palestinians and Israeli military personnel, and other news accounts of thousands of extremist rabbis demonstrating outside of Israel's Supreme Court in opposition to government efforts to silence one of their leaders. He had been arrested for advocating violence against Palestinians (maintaining, for example, that it was acceptable to kill innocent Palestinian children before they grew to adulthood and became a real threat to Jews). These incidents combined, demonstrate, in a nutshell, why I have lost confidence in the so-called "peace process" and current U.S. peacemaking efforts.

While Israel continues to oppress and humiliate Palestinians, and while extremist Israeli settlers continue to run roughshod over both Palestinians and the Israeli military, it just seems downright short-sighted and silly for the U.S. to have nothing more interesting to offer than their lame mantra that "parties need to return to the negotiating table." And yet that is about all they have to offer at this point -- with results no more promising now than they have been for the past few decades.

As it currently stands, the Israeli-Palestinian problem is too big and too deep to be solved by pretending that simple negotiations can fix things. Neither side is in a position to negotiate, and the U.S. team doesn't appear to have a creative thought that can help change this situation.

Israeli politics have moved decidedly to the right. With a half million settlers in the West Bank (many of them armed to the teeth and ideologically committed to stay on "their land" no matter what deal their government might sign with the Palestinians) the Israeli government not only has no interest in finding a solution that would be fair to the Palestinians, I'm not convinced that they could or would muster up the resolve to convince their hard-line public to accept even an unfair settlement with the Palestinians.

The Israelis have become used to having their way with the Palestinians and know that no one, including their patron and protector, the U.S., will do anything to stop them. For their part, the Palestinians have no real leverage to stop Israeli behaviors and they are, therefore, in no position to negotiate with their dominant occupier and oppressor. The Palestinian leadership is fragmented, and their body politic is divided. Gaza is isolated and under a blockade, while the West Bank is also under complete Israeli control and has become dependent on the largess of international donors.

Just a few weeks ago we had a glimmer of hope that the Palestinians were ready to take steps to alter this stagnant situation. The major Palestinian factions were reconciling and their leadership was ready to directly challenge Israel and the United States by demanding that the UN vote on Palestinian Statehood. But with the U.S. and Israel opposed to Palestinian unity and a United Nations vote, pushing the Palestinians to stop both efforts, and the Palestinian factions unable to agree even on a temporary government, hopes have dimmed.

It is not that a UN vote, by itself, would create a state, or that Palestinian unity would, by itself, bring peace. Neither are silver bullets. Healing the fractured Palestinian polity is quite simply a necessity so that the Palestinian Authority can be seen to represent its entire constituency. The push for a UN vote, on the other hand, is an important effort by the Palestinians to buttress their position vis-a-vis the Israelis with leverage from the international community (much in the same way that the Israelis buttress theirs with votes from the U.S. Congress).

What made both of these two Palestinian initiatives more desirable than the lame U.S. efforts to restart talks is that the Palestinian steps were attempts at juggling the equation, while simply restarting talks does nothing but bring together the parties, as they are, to talk about a situation the Israelis don't really want to change and the Palestinians are powerless to change.

If there is to be Israeli-Palestinian peace, the current dynamics at work in Israeli and Palestinian societies and in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship must be changed. That will require strategic thinking and a willingness to shake thing up, especially in Israel. Both Israel's sense of entitlement and its ability to operate with impunity must be ended. And the Palestinians must feel supported, empowered and responsible for their own destiny.

Palestinian unity, the political boost that would come from a strong UN vote, and an expanded mass non-violent resistance effort in the occupied territories, just might help to do the trick. It would give the Palestinians a much needed shot in the arm and it would force the Israelis to debate and rethink their policies and the costs associated with their behaviors. On the other hand, listening to the U.S. and backing away from reconciliation, and dropping the UN vote (in much the same way the PA listened to the U.S. and initially dropped the UN human rights report on the Gaza War) would be devastating to the Palestinian leadership, would only serve to further embolden Israeli hardliners, and would, in the end, make peace even more remote than it is today.

Dr. James J. Zogby is the author of  Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us, and Why it Matters (Palgrave Macmillan, October 2010) and the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.

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