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Robert K. Lifton Headshot

Israel and the Palestinians -- What Now?

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Past - Failed Efforts
Despite the heroic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Special Envoy Martin Indyk to bring Israel and the Palestinians to agreement, the current peace process effort has failed. To understand what the future holds, it is worth looking at why the process failed and what courses of action are now available.

As a starting point, it is abundantly clear that although we are often told that the United States can't "want the peace more than the parties" that was indeed what happened. While we cannot fully know what went on in the secret negotiations between Israeli negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat, one issue that was negotiated in the public view tells the story. At one point of time in the negotiation process, Prime Minister Netanyahu presented a new pre-condition -- that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the "nation state of the Jewish people," which became phrased as recognition as "a Jewish state." While one could make the argument that such recognition would reflect the willingness of the Palestinians to put an end to the conflict and live with their neighbor, it was never before a stated pre-condition to negotiations and in light of the abundant and enormously sophisticated protections being negotiated for Israel's security, it is questionable to what extent Palestinian recognition was truly required in any event. By raising it as an essential pre-condition, Netanyahu showed that at best his desire for a deal was not compelling, and even, as the Palestinians argued, that he was actually looking for a reason not to have to move forward on a deal.

On the other side, was the refusal of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, to satisfy Netanyahu's condition. After all, even Yasser Arafat had openly stated that peace would bring a "Palestinian and a Jewish state" living side by side. Abbas' arguments against agreeing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state did not convince even those strongly supporting a two state solution. At the least, if Abbas truly wanted a deal, he could have said he was prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state when all the other issues were resolved satisfactorily or indicated he would trade it off in the negotiating process. Obviously, for whatever reason, he didn't want a deal enough to do that.

Other actions by each side further demonstrated that neither side was concerned with the negative reaction of the other. All during the negotiating period, Israel continued to expand settlements, reportedly finalizing 4868 home tenders and processing plans for another 8983 homes. And while a number of these were in areas that were expected to be part of Israel after the final borders were established, the sheer size of the expansion and the timing of announcing new building had to be a blow to Abbas' political standing and sent a message that the Palestinians read as showing that Israel was just using the negotiating period to expand settlements and had no real interest in a deal. Similarly, when Abbas signed a "Reconciliation Agreement" with Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel dedicated to its destruction, the arguments that the "technocrats" would run the joint government until elections and even that the final governing body would agree to the three principles of the Quartet (EU, UN, U.S., Russia,) including recognition of Israel and renouncing violence, not surprisingly fell on deaf Israeli ears.

Why were both parties so reluctant to make a deal? In both cases there were rejectionist forces acting against a deal and most importantly, both general publics -- Israeli and Palestinian -- were never engaged in supporting a deal. At best, they were apathetic.

In Israel, powerful forces were aligned against a deal. These are primarily religious nationalists who make up a significant part of Israel's governing coalition. They include members of Netanyahu's Likud party and of the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, led by Naftali Bennett, who aspire to expand Israeli control over the West Bank and in some instance to annex it as part of Greater Israel. It is not clear, but those forces may also include the Russian Jewish party (Yisrael Beitenu) led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In order for Netanyahu to enter into an agreement with Abbas, he would have to be willing to see his governing coalition collapse and to try to form a new coalition. While Isaac ("Bougie") Herzog, head of the Labor Party, held out the prospect of joining such a new coalition, that was a difficult political choice for Netanyahu. Moreover, a deal might require moving as many as 100,000 settlers from their homes at a great political and financial cost. In that context, while the polls show that most Israelis support a two state solution in theory, Israelis are mainly focused on domestic issues and there is no urgent desire to change the status quo. Under those circumstances, it is hardly surprising that despite all of Kerry's cajoling, Netanyahu, brought up in a revisionist Zionist home, only lately come to accept a two-state solution, was not going to risk his comfortable position as Israel's longest lasting Prime Minister to make a deal.

For his part, Abbas faced growing opposition to a deal from those Palestinians, especially younger people, who believe their best interests lie in a bi-national state with Israel. The Palestinian public, like the Israeli public, generally show support in polls for a two state solution. But here, too, there is no public pressure to press forward with a deal. Abbas, at age 79, seeing the Oslo Agreement that he was instrumental in creating result in 400,000 Israeli settlers and seeing a very difficult negotiation ahead with no assurance of success, understandably decided to leave the problem to his successor.

The Future
In the immediate aftermath of the failed effort, Secretary Kerry's message about future plans for the peace process contained two thoughts: "We believe the best thing to do right now is pause, take a hard look at these things, and find out what is possible and what is not possible." However, referring to what he called "significant progress in certain areas" Kerry stated: "What has not been laid out publicly and what I will do at some appropriate moment of time is make clear to everybody the progress that was made."

There are those on the left who believe that what the Obama administration should do now is present to the parties and the international community its view of what the final status agreement should look like, covering each of the areas -- Recognition of a Jewish State, borders, security, the status of Jerusalem and the claim of a right of return. And perhaps that is what Kerry is suggesting. But it is hard to see what impact this will have unless the President is prepared to put some teeth in the recommendation, and given the political cost of that course, it is highly unlikely. So laying out the Obama vision will be much along the lines of the "Clinton parameters" presented by President Bill Clinton in 2000 or the exposition by ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after his 2008 negotiation with Abbas -- a basis for future negotiations and discussion.

The truth is that unless something comes along -- either in the form of great pain or great benefit -- that galvanizes the Israeli and Palestinian general publics to see this process as a central rather than tangential issue in their lives, nothing will happen to change the political dynamics. Of course, nobody wants to see the pain of violence from an intifada or the costs of a collapse of the Palestinian Authority. And it is unlikely that in the near future the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) will have a serious impact on Israel. (See my blog "The BDS Threat To Israel: A Realistic Appraisal"). By the same token, it is difficult to conceive of significant benefits that could be available. All that seems to be left is a slow, educational process for the Israeli public on how continued control over the Palestinians can lead to pressure for a bi-national state that will erode the Jewish and democratic values of their nation and of the Palestinians on how such control will not eventuate in their being a part of Israel, but only in losing their hope of governing themselves in their own state.


Mr. Lifton, a businessman and political activist, is a Board Member of the Israel Policy Forum. His memoir "An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy" was published by Author House in 2012.