As we approach the final stages of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine month attempt at brokering a peace treaty between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is important to take a closer look at the consequences of failed negotiations and the repercussions of a continuation of the current status-quo. There is a general assumption that negotiations taking place between two parties usually involve a more dominant party and a weaker one. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many identify Israel as the stronger actor, and Palestine as the weaker one. This oversimplified depiction, which may unconsciously derive from the association of strong military force with dominance, is in fact misleading, particularly when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. More importantly, it becomes extremely dangerous when key Israeli decision-makers buy into the illusion that they are in a dominant position and start believing that the Palestinians have more to lose than they do. While it remains true that, from a politico-military perspective, Israel has developed a powerful mechanism of domination over the Palestinian territories, in essence suffocating them with settlement policies, grinding military checkpoints, etc., it can be argued that Israel would have a lot more to lose in the long run were the negotiations to fail and the conflict to endlessly stagnate.
Status Quo: The Path to a One State Solution
Two distinct states, Israel and Palestine, can only be established following a mutually agreed-upon treaty in which borders are clearly defined. A two-state solution therefore hinges on the successful negotiation of a peace treaty, and each failed round of negotiations engenders major setbacks to its possible implementation.
So what then of endless stagnation? The status of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as they stand today is gradually starting to resemble that of an ‘Extended Israel’, a core Israeli state that borders unilaterally annexed and semi-annexed areas, which through the continued building of settlements are causing the fragmentation of the Palestinian state into small and disconnected clusters. These clusters are themselves gradually incorporated into this extended Israeli state as Israel continues to build the infrastructure (roads, etc.) to accommodate new settlements. The longer this ‘Extended Israel’ continues to grow, the more difficult it will be to part with.
Dr. John Mearsheimer, a world-renowned Political Science professor currently working at the University of Chicago, has explained that the continued existence of what he refers to as a ‘Greater Israel’ will most likely lead to the rise of one of two things: either the creation of an ‘apartheid state,’ with one set of citizens (Jewish Israelis) possessing rights that the second set of citizens (Palestinians) would not, or that of a bi-national state, with citizenship and equal rights for inhabitants of all three territories (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza). As he asserts that an apartheid state is not a viable solution for Israel, particularly considering its position as a democratic state, a bi-national solution seems more likely. He goes on to explain that if this were to happen, the politics would inevitably be dominated by the majority of Palestinian citizens living within the new state's borders. Essentially, Israel’s current policy towards the peace process and its continued construction of illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories will have two major consequences on the future of Israel: the loss of its autonomy and its Jewish identity1.
Consequences: The Loss of the Israeli State as We Know it Today
It is therefore clear that the continued pursuit of a ‘status-quo’ policy by the Israeli government is in no way sustainable. Ironically, it puts Israel at risk of losing the three tenets that have remained so central to its raison-d’être since its creation in 1948, and which it has fought time and again to maintain (1948; 1967; 1973, etc.). These are: the integrity of the Israeli state, the maintenance of its Jewish identity, and the assurance of its safety and security.
With failed negotiations and the prolonged existence of a ‘Greater Israel,’ the gradual merging of territories and of the people that lie within it will inevitably cause the incorporation of an Arab Palestinian population that exceeds the Jewish Israeli population. Anyone who has visited or lived in Jerusalem can realize the growing difficulty of separating East Jerusalem from West Jerusalem as the number of Jewish settlement neighborhoods rises. Though this newly created multicultural state would be welcomed by some, both Palestinians and Israelis, it would go against the national aspirations that the Israeli government and an overwhelming majority of the population it represents has strived to defend for so many years. The establishment of two separate states much better fits the current goals of the Israeli government, and the failure of negotiations to establish them will only increase the infeasibility of this solution.
Though there has recently been a wave of articles delving into the consequences the creation of a bi-national state would have on the maintenance of Israel’s Jewish identity, there is still little understanding of the implications of a prolonged conflict on Israel’s security concerns. During the recent negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was very clear in stating to Kerry that Israeli security concerns had to remain at the forefront of the agenda were the negotiations to progress in any meaningful way. This position shows a lack of understanding of the consequences of failed negotiations. The reality reflects a drastically different situation and would require the inversion of Netanyahu’s premises: it will only be thanks to a comprehensive and just peace agreement that Israel’s security concerns may be ensured. Indeed, we need only look back at the first and second Intifada to note a correlation between frustrated, disillusioned Palestinians and growing instability and insecurity in and around Israel and the occupied territories. The causes of the second Intifada are particularly revealing: though the Intifada was sparked by Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, it remained inextricably linked to the failed negotiations that preceded it, first with the deterioration of the Oslo Accords and then with the failure of Camp David 2000 and the rejection of the Clinton Parameters. The frustration eventually catalyzed into a full blown uprising as clashes and disturbances were felt not only within the Occupied Territories, but also within Israel proper. Talk about a rise in instability and a lack of security!
Another round of failed negotiations, especially with Israel’s announcement this past September that it had approved the construction of new settlements in East Jerusalem, will predispose the region to a renewed bout of conflict. Now, as a policy-maker primarily concerned with security, what would be your next move? Would you take the risk? Sure, you have the military power to ‘dominate,’ but at what cost? Comparatively, what higher security concerns would you really face with the creation of a Palestinian state? In essence, would you not have more to gain from the successful implementation of a two-state solution?
This is not to say that these concerns have been completely misunderstood by all Israeli policy-makers. For instance, the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, understood the consequences of a prolonged conflict and dedicated his second term in office until his assassination in 1995, to the achievement of successful negotiations. He said in his 1993 address in Washington D.C:
“Let me say to you, the Palestinians: We are destined to live together on the same soil, in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their children, we who have fought against you, the Palestinians- We say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: Enough of blood and tears, Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, to live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free men. We are today giving peace a chance, and saying again to you: Enough. Let us pray that a day will come when we will say: Farwell to the arms2.”
However, I believe that the current Israeli leadership has not necessarily understood the severity of problem they face and the rapidity with which it may spiral out of its control. This state of mind was recently exemplified at last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos when Netanyahu stated that he did not intend to uproot a single settler in a future Palestinian statehood agreement. Such unconstructive rhetoric and mindset has little place in the strategy of a policy-maker who believes he has more to gain by negotiating a two-state solution.
A Changing Environment: Facing Normalization and Growing International Pressures
Another important aspect to address is the growing international awareness around the Palestinian-Israeli issue, an awareness that does not favor Israel and which has began to extend beyond political and academic circles. This perception is gradually filtering through to the general population, pockets of which have began to subscribe to the ‘Palestinian cause,’ epitomized in the growing popularity of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement that aims to use economic and political pressures against Israel in an attempt to end the Israeli occupation of Arab land, promote the full equality of Arab-Palestinians in Israel and force Israel’s acknowledgement of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. An example of its implementation that readily comes to mind is the string of cancelled concerts scheduled to take place in Israel over the past few years by artists such as the famous British band Gorillaz, French actress and singer Vanessa Paradis, classical singer Thomas Quasthoff and many more. Most artists quote their dismay at Israel’s handling of the Palestinian question as the fundamental reason behind their actions.
Though realists would scoff at the idea that any of this really matters, I would argue that the changing international dynamics of the last ten to fifteen years are gradually restricting Israel’s available options, making certain policies no longer sustainable. Israel’s portrayal of itself as a democratic state that abides by norms and values dictated by democratic principles, whatever that may mean, is becoming increasingly difficult to uphold.
What’s more, Israeli policy makers are noticing. The Goldstone report is a prime example: in 2009, a fact finding mission on the Gaza Conflict accused both the Israeli Defense Forces and Palestinian militants of war crimes, and possibly crimes again humanity. Netanyahu stated in response to the report that “the report makes it difficult for democracies to fight terror3.” Indeed, though both sides were accused of war crimes, Israel’s reputation was the one that suffered the most, as it put into question some of the fundamental values the country relies on for domestic and international legitimacy.
Another example is the 2006 Herzliya Conference (an annual political conference that helps analyze and guide Israeli policies), during which Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an Israeli academic specializing in foreign affairs, explained the impact of what he terms “soft powerlessness” on Israel’s international standing. He argued that the growing perception and negative image of Israel as an “international villain” was causing the de-legitimatization of Israel on the international scene4.
The prolongation of the conflict and the inability of the Palestinians and Israelis to come to an agreement in the near future does not bode well for Israel’s international standing. Firstly, it will further restrict Israel's policy options, with regards to the Palestinians. Secondly, it will cause the erosion of the support from major powers (including the U.S.), which feel an increasing domestic and international pressure to use their influence to sway Israel.
1 One of his lectures on the subject available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq9PsXRbAzM
2 Full transcription o f his speech available here: http://www.rabincenter.org.il/Items/01100/signingoftheDeclationofPrinciples.pdf
3 Israel Democracy Institute, 2009.
4 Emmanuel Navon, Powerlessness: Arab Propoganda and the Erosion of Israel’s International standing. Herziliya conference, January 21-24, 2006.