The year 2011 will go down in history as the year when the two-state solution went into deep freeze. Yet even during this hibernation there is much that can, and indeed must, be done to prevent an even graver crisis.
The causes of the freeze are many: continued settlement building; the US veto of the UN settlement freeze resolution; the failure of the Palestinians to gain UN membership without an American veto being needed; and the distraction of the Arab states with the Arab uprisings. All of these delivered debilitating blows to the peace process and the prospects of a two-state solution.
Feeble attempts to restart negotiations continue, more to sustain politicians' fortunes than to achieve strategic objectives.
Some advocate what are styled as alternatives to both the two-state solution and the status quo. These include a single state along post-apartheid South African lines; a bi-national state; an apartheid system; or a limited Palestinian entity with civil but no political or national rights. Yet none of these are closer to realization than the two-state solution, which at least has the theoretical advantage of offering a conflict-ending solution, something none of these "alternatives" offers. We are now at an interregnum between a failed attempt to create a Palestinian state and an uncertain adventure toward conflict, chaos or accommodation.
A Jewish and democratic Israel cannot rule over the Palestinians and the whole land and remain democratic. Israeli Jews would have to make a choice between the two attributes if they continue ruling the land.
Those Palestinians who harbor dreams of control over the historic land of Palestine, and the Israelis who have the same aspirations, believe that time is on their side. Yet they both will live to see their goals crushed by the harsh realities of demographics and the limits of political power. Their mutually reinforcing, protracted guerilla warfare against compromise will only prolong the fight and aggravate the victimization but it cannot alter the stubborn fact that both people would have to find a way to live on the same piece of land.
This conflict is about real estate and dignity and its resolution requires simultaneous progress on both tracks. However, the current politics of Palestine, Israel and the United States make it unrealistic to expect any meaningful progress.
In Israel, the debate is shifting towards nationalist and religious claims to the land, devaluing the Palestinians, their claims and aspirations to a state and to using the present sense of security to diminish the consciousness of the Israeli citizens of the conflict. A reactionary trend to stifle dissent, downgrade the status of women and minorities cleaves with political movements opposed to compromise.
The Palestinian polity is divided politically, geographically and ideologically. There is no resolution in sight for the split of authority between Gaza and the West Bank. The presidency and the Legislative Council have outlived their tenure of legitimacy, and the leaders of both Fatah and Hamas are opposed to holding elections that would reshape and revitalize the Palestinian political system. While Arab masses were clamoring for regime change Palestinians were calling for unity and reconciliation. Their leaders signed several agreements about unity to buy time. However, the prospects of unity and reconciliation at this time are no closer than those of a two-state solution. On the other hand, the public desire for elections may prove to be unstoppable in the days of the Arab Spring.
Regionally, it is still not clear how the Arab uprisings, which swept away several regimes for their failure to deliver domestically, will change the basic geopolitical orientation of the various states in the region, particularly Egypt and Syria which still engage in a similar but less robust version of their old foreign policies. While it is clear that the Arab uprisings will have a multi-dimensional impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is impossible to predict the exact nature of this impact or even its general trajectory. The emergence of Iran as an over-arching issue in the region has failed to yield the one possible advantage, which is to expedite the resolution of the Palestine/Israel conflict in order to create a Middle East /Western coalition that would confront the emerging Iranian threat and its proxies.
The United States is the essential partner for resolution of the Palestine Israel conflict. It is not necessarily a safe bet that the current policy of neglect would automatically be replaced by an energetic and engaged policy after the presidential elections. Failure to mention the conflict, and Palestine, by both President Obama and PM Netanyahu in their public remarks at the White House and at AIPAC meeting has not gone unnoticed.
In lieu of a strategic debate during this interregnum, we are witnessing an indulgence in the "process" of meetings that are not even called negotiations: declaring deadlines and redlines that are ignored with impunity, military skirmishes, and engaging in symbolic and theatrical gestures with an endless series of threats, blame and posturing while the status quo is sliding downhill and offering diminishing prospects of a resolution. We continue living and watching a zero-sum, protracted tribal fight between occupied and occupier with a scandalous imbalance of power.
The politics of victimization and victimhood makes it impossible for politicians on both sides to lead and to compromise without a huge political price. Threats, killings, calumny, racist words and deeds, and consistent impugning the motives of leaders and people come easy, and they come with tactical political dividends, even as they undermine the strategic goal of ending the conflict. Political reality has been defined by the perception of enemy motivation. Local politics consistently stymied the declared policy of the two-state solution.
There is no word for strategy in Hebrew as there is no word for strategy in Arabic. Yet there is no hope for the Middle East without a shared strategy because there is no military solution. The 5 million Palestinians and 6 million Israelis and their descendents will live on the same land. They have nowhere else to go and neither of them can be annihilated.
No serious observer should be surprised at the failure of the diplomatic process. However, it is lamentable that no political force was available to shield the real, concrete progress made on the Palestinian state and institution-building track from the failure of the negotiation process. The Palestinians, after decades of attempting to redress their grievances and victimization by means ranging from armed struggle, popular resistance, to muddling through with passive accommodation, have failed to achieve their state. However, they eventually learned, and they did confront their own victimization by acquiring agency and accepting responsibility for their own fate, security, governing and institutions -- building, even under occupation and while suffering from a dysfunctional and fragmented polity. They are establishing a footprint for a state.
The reason this state and institution-building initiative is significant is that it has offered an innovative alternative to the zero-sum game model that has defined the relations between the Palestinians and the Israelis throughout war and peace despite agreements and conflict. It offered a glimpse of the possibility of a different future between old enemies into what could be called in the future "frenemies" or even partners.
If meaningful political negotiations about final status issue cannot be conducted now then the charade has to end. It has already deepened the distrust between the sides and damaged the promise of the institution-building program and relegated it to an underfunded development program to be managed by technocrats. If a state of Palestine cannot be built in the immediate future let us look at what can be built. Let us confront those who block all avenues of contact and accommodation, and brand normalization as treason in the name of excessive zeal. Let us equally confront, with moral force that rises to the level of contempt, the behavior of violent rogue elements and hooligans who terrorize civilians. Let the judgment of decent human beings precede the law till it forces the law to defend civilians everywhere in Israel and in Palestine.
While the two-state solution will not be realized immediately, there are many steps that can and should be taken to create the right underpinnings and environment for a successful peace deal once the politics is right. What is to be done during this interregnum?
- First and foremost, do no harm. Final Status negotiations that have no prospect of success at this point in time and must stop. They have not merely been unproductive but have in fact caused damage but deepening cynicism about what is ultimately the only way of ending the conflict. In addition, they have undermined less ambitious yet more meaningful progress on the ground.
- Instead of the zero-sum reality and the lofty, but elusive comprehensive partnership, the Palestinians and Israelis need to enter into a partnership with limited objectives at the present time. Its ultimate goal is a strategic relation leading to reaching a conflict-ending solution, but should operate in the interim towards limited, but achievable, goals. The United States must be a general partner in this emerging partnership. Our strategic relationship with Israel would be an asset in this regard. We must enter this partnership because our own national interest is at stake. The international community, too, needs to continue being engaged and motivated to help.
- It is essential to preserve the PA and its institutions to keep the Palestinian polity and national identity. This includes its financial viability with appropriate funding and transparency. An understanding must be made to reliably deliver Palestinians' tax money withheld by Israel at the end of each month. The U.S. has to be part of this deal.
- Palestinians need to proceed with the quest and implementation of Palestinian political reform that includes building a multiparty system with political and civic institutions that will ultimately be legitimated by free and fair elections.
- For their part, the Israelis must be encouraged to undertake an internal strategic debate in Israel and with their allies abroad to examine publicly the political and demographic implications of settlement expansion on the Jewishness of the state and its democratic character.
- The current unprecedented security cooperation should be strengthened and insulated from the vagaries of politics, providing joint iron-clad security, that is unapologetic and robust, for the mutual benefit of both peoples and their future political coexistence. The current unprecedented security cooperation should be strengthened and insulated from the vagaries of politics.
- The destabilizing, violent, gratuitously humiliating and arbitrary actions by Israeli military and rogue civilians and organizations must end.
- A new approach to public discourse and incitement needs to be adopted. Today incitement by one side is used as an excuse by the other to avoid meaningful interaction. What is needed is a real, solution-oriented effort to combine the different strands of ideas, actions, and vehicles to combating incitement, religious and ethnic racism on all sides and identifying this as a global priority deserving of allocating resources and creating a political correctness to buttress it.
- In addition to public messaging strategies, the role of religion needs to be addressed. The belief that the land is Holy has added the incendiary dimension of passion and religion to the complexity of the conflict. Those of us who are secular, sometime militantly so, and all the governments that have dealt with this conflict, simply ignored the religious dimension to this conflict in negotiations except in reference to religious sites. Ground rules to engage religious figures and institutions have to be explored for their potential to help fashion a resolution.
- Identifying the improvement of the Palestinian economy, institutions and services as a strategic objective of all partners, no matter what the end game is. The Palestinian infrastructure and governance must be upgraded with reliable international assistance. Funds can be created to provide Palestinian business people with financial incentives to create jobs and products.
- Areas of economic development beyond the present restrictions by creating economic zones in different localities must be expanded. They should each be adopted by a Western, or Arab country, to build factories and import skills with the view to transfer ownership in the future to Palestinian public holding companies. Israeli participation can be treated as part of international business until the transition matures into direct partnership between more equal actors. Western and international countries should provide tax exemptions or substantial incentives to companies that participate in such projects.
There are no quick fixes, but time can be used to see to seek more modest objectives and prepare for real solutions, which eventually must and will be found. Even the Hundred Years War lasted but a few years beyond a hundred.
Ziad Asali, MD, is President of the American Task Force on Palestine.