by Faryn Borella
“Only free men can negotiate.” Nelson Mandela
“If the peace talks fail, it will be a catastrophe. If they succeed, it will be an even bigger catastrophe,” Israeli Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy proclaimed at his lecture “Peace Process or a Masquerade?” organized by the Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel on Feb. 19. Levy, known for his weekly column “Twilight Zone,” in which he writes on the occupation and injustices within Israeli society, is considered a hero by the left and an anti-Semite by the right. Levy’s lecture, full of pessimistic yet profound quips on the current political situation and the ongoing peace negotiations, left one feeling as if one had been knocked over the head with a healthy dose of realism.
In this talk, Levy emphasized not only his belief that the time for a two-state solution had long passed, but, additionally, that the outcome of the current American-mediated negotiations could only have bad consequences, as any solution brokered would be an affront to the Palestinians, requiring them to give up almost everything in return for a state. Under such an agreement, the peace achieved would not be sustainable or lasting, as it would not fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinian people, leaving them wanting for more. Thus, the Palestinians would continue their struggle, leaving the Israelis to say, “See? We gave them everything they could have wanted, and this is how they react.” This would ruin any future chance of a real peace.
Levy also argued that he saw no chance of change coming from within Israeli society, for, as he said, “life is too good.” Why would someone who has everything give it all up for a people he does not even know, or further, a people who he understands to be nothing more than terrorists? Most Israelis, if they have met a Palestinian, have only done so as soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories, and the rest have only encountered Palestinians through the media, which, according to Levy, does a very good job of dehumanizing Palestinians. With no real drive pushing the Israelis to make fair concessions, the negotiations are presently nothing more than a masquerade.
Levy’s talk made me again contemplate a question I have been asking myself a lot lately: Are the ongoing peace negotiations necessary progress towards a final and lasting end to the occupation and the Arab-Israeli conflict, or are they projecting an image of progress that actually allows for Israel to maintain the status quo and further entrench the occupation?
Peace Negotiations: Necessary or Harmful?
I have never found the two state-solution to be the most just or feasible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question, but, regardless, I supported the resumption of negotiations this past summer because I felt that any peace achieved would be better than the continuation of the occupation. However, I now disagree with my former support. Before, I was simply pessimistic about the outcome of the current round of negotiations; now, I have come to realize that they have allowed for the implementation of many policies and actions that are absolutely contrary to the idea of peace. As Rona Moran and Hana Amouri put it so acutely in their article “For the sake of peace, it is time to put an end to negotiations”, Israeli political support for the “peace process” does not necessarily entail political support for a “peace agreement.”1 Israeli politicians are currently engaging in peace talks not necessarily because they actually want to see peace, but because their participation acts as a perfect cover for their ongoing illegal activities, including the ongoing settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as the annexation of Palestinian land through the construction of the separation barrier. Additionally, the main, if not only, impetus behind any Israeli governmental support for the creation of a Palestinian state is that of maintaining a Jewish demographic. If this self-involved, somewhat racist motivation is the only motivation for the Israeli government to engage in the present negotiations—negotiations in which the Israeli governments holds all the power—is there any chance that a deal achieved through these talks could be fair and just?
A friend said to me the other day, “I just don’t think it makes sense to be talking about peace right now.” At the time, I was shocked by his declaration. If we are not talking about peace, what are we talking about? How can we resolve the conflict and end the occupation without coming together and talking about peace? However, the more I think about it, the more I come to understand his point. Negotiations are most certainly necessary for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there is something much more pressing and immediate that needs to be addressed—and cannot be addressed through negotiations—and that is the occupation.
Negotiations are necessary in order to solve a conflict, as a conflict is necessarily bi- or multi-lateral, and thus requires a negotiated solution between all involved parties. An occupation, on the other hand, is necessarily unilateral, as it involves one party occupying and imposing its will upon another. In such a situation, bi-lateral negotiations make little sense, for what power does the occupied hold to negotiate? For a situation to merit negotiations, the two parties negotiating need to be of relatively equal power, with each side making relatively equal concessions in order to come out with a relatively balanced solution. An occupation, on the other hand, is necessarily characterized by a power imbalance in which the occupier holds all the power and the occupied holds little to none, rendering any negotiations imbalanced and unfair. The occupied cannot negotiate its way out of an occupation. An occupation only ends either when the occupier decides that it is time for it to end, or is forced by the international community to recognize it as such. Unfortunately, that is not the case presently. There is no evidence currently that Israel is truly ready to end the occupation, and there is not nearly enough international pressure on Israel to cease its internationally recognized illegal actions. Rather, we have an unbalanced negotiations process in which the Palestinians and the Israelis are expected to make equal concessions while Israel continues to enact unilateral policies—such as the issuing of new settlement tenders—that indicate its lack of willingness to ever give up the West Bank.
A peace deal is eventually necessary in this region. However, the present negotiations are not what will lead to an end to our current problem: the occupation.
Peace negotiations necessarily take a long time—time that the Palestinians living under occupation simply do not have. Every day that we spend negotiating or talking about negotiating, the occupation becomes further entrenched and less reversible. A peace deal is necessary in the long run, but the occupation and its accompanying human rights abuses need to end right now. This end, however, will never come about while Israel can hide behind the false illusion of progress created by the present negotiations.
Talking to what end?
On Feb. 28, I attended a meeting of the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation at the Everest Hotel in Beit Jala, a unique organization which characterizes itself as a third party joint Israeli-Palestinian governmental initiative aspiring to promote policies that will effect both peoples and both countries.2 At a time in which the world is trapped in the framework of a two-state solution and the necessity of separation, I found the mission of the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation to be quite compelling. I have always thought that dialogue around alternative governmental models is necessary if we want to have a real conversation about peace in the Middle East. However, the events of the day caused me to drastically reformulate my views on what is necessary at the present time.
At the meeting, four pieces of legislation were proposed. The first required the teaching of tolerance in both Israeli and Palestinian school systems; the second called for the creation of two joint economic zones, one between Gaza and Israel and one in Qalandiya; the third addressed the right of return, allowing for the return of 100,000 refugees while providing monetary compensation to the rest; and the fourth called for the Old City of Jerusalem to be controlled by a joint Israeli-Palestinian police force. In order for the legislation to pass, 55% of the Israelis present and 55% of the Palestinians present had to vote in favor. The Israelis were about to take their vote when a group of Palestinian civilians and Palestinian press charged into the room.
“How dare you come here!” yelled a resident of Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp. “Just yesterday, the Israeli army killed Muataz Washaha. Shot him 6 times in the head. And you come here as if nothing happened—as if you have a right to be here.”3 He then began to accuse the Palestinians present of normalization, at which point the whole meeting erupted into mayhem. Then in came the hotel owner, who kicked us all out of the hotel, where protests and arguments continued on the streets.
It was in this mayhem that the absurdity of such theoretical talks about future peace scenarios finally hit me. In that room sat many people with very good intentions and with high hopes for both the future of the region and their ability to effect change in it. However, what those thirty people were trying to achieve was so beyond the scope of the present reality that it rendered the meeting entirely pointless. What is the purpose of passing pseudo-legislation in a confederation that does not yet truly exist and which could never be enacted while the Israeli government is still militarily occupying the Palestinian component of this confederation? Does talking so theoretically actually achieve anything? Or does it simply make one feel better about the fact that one has no agency to achieve change in this reality, creating the false illusion of forward movement and progress?
The Kerry Talks and Alternatives to Them
Over the past few months, I have met many different members of Palestinian civil society and the Palestinian government, and they all express relatively the same sentiment regarding the current negotiations: the Israeli and Palestinian visions of a peace deal are far too disparate, and the gap between both sides is only growing wider. With Israel’s introduction of a new final status issue—that of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state—and its enactment of other “confidence-destruction measures,” there is good reason to believe that the present talks may not even make it until April 29, the deadline set by American Secretary of State John Kerry upon which he is expected to present a “Framework Agreement.”
One Palestinian legal adviser that I heard speak at an event in Ramallah stated that she finds the current peace talks to meet Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For the past twenty years we have been engaged, to some extent, in an attempt to achieve a two-state solution, and for the past twenty years we have failed, over and over again, each time making the situation worse for the Palestinians and making a lasting peace less possible. It is time to open our minds and move past the idea of bi-lateral negotiations for a two-state solution.
In these repetitive bi-lateral negotiations, we always enter into the discussion as if Israelis and Palestinians are equal, failing to acknowledge the occupation and the complete inequality that exists between these two parties. With such a power imbalance, negotiations are inherently unjust. Therefore, before entering into any further bi-lateral negotiations, we need to find a way to equalize power. This would be best achieved, as suggested by the speaker at this event, through a push for complete decolonization of the Occupied Territories.
So what would a push for decolonization look like, according to this speaker? The most obvious answer is the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. No longer should settlements be a bargaining chip in bi-lateral negotiations, in which Israel expects something in return for ending its illegal settlement construction. Rather, sanctions should be issued for each additional settlement built, and the Palestinians should not agree to any land swaps, as this legitimizes what are internationally recognized as illegal settlements. Secondly, it is time for the Palestinians to employ legal strategies to combat Israel’s unjust policies, including appeals to the International Criminal Court. With the widely recognized illegality of the settlements and Amnesty International’s recent statement that some Israeli killings in the West Bank may be war crimes, it is clear that international law is on the side of the Palestinians.4 Why continue to pretend as if both sides are equally in the wrong, and thus should make equal concessions? The Palestinians have already conceded enough. It is time that they start making demands.
So what about peace?
Peace is something we all desire for this region, in one form or another. However, the way in which we currently talk about peace is preventing us from actually achieving it. We keep talking on a macro-level about two states and land swaps and Jerusalem, all the while allowing for micro-aggressions to happen before our eyes. For there to be peace, the occupation needs to end, and its end cannot and should not be negotiated; its end should be demanded. International law clearly delineates who is in the right and who is in the wrong in the current status quo, and by continuing the masquerade of negotiations in which the Palestinians are expected to make concessions in order to escape their own persecution and oppression is wrong. Only through a demand for justice—a demand that the international community recognize and fight against the injustice of the present—can justice be served.
2You can read the Constitution of the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation at http://aboutipc.com/Constitution.html
3Read an amazing article by Amira Hass on the murder of Muataz Washaha at http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.577477