[THS] Henry Siegman: Imposing Middle East Peace
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Sat Jan 9 16:38:17 CET 2010
Imposing Middle East Peace
By Henry Siegman
This article is based on a longer study commissioned by the Norwegian Peacebuilding
Centre in Oslo.
January 8, 2010 "January 25, 2010 edition of The Nation" -- Israel's relentless drive to
establish "facts on the ground" in the occupied West Bank, a drive that continues in
violation of even the limited settlement freeze to which Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu committed himself, seems finally to have succeeded in locking in the
irreversibility of its colonial project. As a result of that "achievement," one that
successive Israeli governments have long sought in order to preclude the possibility
of a two-state solution, Israel has crossed the threshold from "the only democracy in
the Middle East" to the only apartheid regime in the Western world.
The inevitability of such a transformation has been held out not by "Israel bashers"
but by the country's own leaders. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon referred to that danger,
as did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who warned that Israel could not escape turning
into an apartheid state if it did not relinquish "almost all the territories, if not all,"
including the Arab parts of East Jerusalem.
Olmert ridiculed Israeli defense strategists who, he said, had learned nothing from
past experiences and were stuck in the mindset of the 1948 war of independence.
"With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled
territories and this hilltop and that hilltop," he said. "All these things are worthless.
Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters,
that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel's basic security?"
It is now widely recognized in most Israeli circles--although denied by Israel's
government--that the settlements have become so widespread and so deeply
implanted in the West Bank as to rule out the possibility of their removal (except for a
few isolated and sparsely populated ones) by this or any future Israeli government
unless compelled to do so by international intervention, an eventuality until now
considered entirely unlikely.
It is not only the settlements' proliferation and size that have made their
dismantlement impossible. Equally decisive have been the influence of Israel's settler-
security-industrial complex, which conceived and implemented this policy; the recent
disappearance of a viable pro-peace political party in Israel; and the infiltration by
settlers and their supporters in the religious-national camp into key leadership
positions in Israel's security and military establishments.
Olmert was mistaken in one respect, for he said Israel would turn into an apartheid
state when the Arab population in Greater Israel outnumbers the Jewish population.
But the relative size of the populations is not the decisive factor in such a transition.
Rather, the turning point comes when a state denies national self-determination to a
part of its population--even one that is in the minority--to which it has also denied the
rights of citizenship.
When a state's denial of the individual and national rights of a large part of its
population becomes permanent, it ceases to be a democracy. When the reason for
that double disenfranchisement is that population's ethnic and religious identity, the
state is practicing a form of apartheid, or racism, not much different from the one
that characterized South Africa from 1948 to 1994. The democratic dispensation that
Israel provides for its mostly Jewish citizens cannot hide its changed character. By
definition, democracy reserved for privileged citizens--while all others are kept behind
checkpoints, barbed-wire fences and separation walls commanded by the Israeli
army--is not democracy but its opposite.
The Jewish settlements and their supporting infrastructure, which span the West
Bank from east to west and north to south, are not a wild growth, like weeds in a
garden. They have been carefully planned, financed and protected by successive
Israeli governments and Israel's military. Their purpose has been to deny the
Palestinian people independence and statehood--or to put it more precisely, to retain
Israeli control of Palestine "from the river to the sea," an objective that precludes the
existence of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state east of Israel's pre-1967 border.
A vivid recollection from the time I headed the American Jewish Congress is a
helicopter trip over the West Bank on which I was taken by Ariel Sharon. With large,
worn maps in hand, he pointed out to me strategic locations of present and future
settlements on east-west and north-south axes that, Sharon assured me, would rule
out a future Palestinian state.
Just one year after the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, then defense minister, described
Israel's plan for the future of the territories as "the current reality." "The plan is being
implemented in actual fact," he said. "What exists today must remain as a permanent
arrangement in the West Bank." Ten years later, at a conference in Tel Aviv whose
theme was finding a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Dayan said: "The
question is not, What is the solution? but, How do we live without a solution?"
Prime Minister Netanyahu's conditions for Palestinian statehood would leave under
Israel's control Palestine's international borders and airspace, as well as the entire
Jordan Valley; would leave most of the settlers in place; and would fragment the
contiguity of the territory remaining for such a state. His conditions would also deny
Palestinians even those parts of East Jerusalem that Israel unilaterally annexed to the
city immediately following the 1967 war--land that had never been part of Jerusalem
before the war. In other words, Netanyahu's conditions for Palestinian statehood
would meet Dayan's goal of leaving Israel's de facto occupation in place.
From Dayan's prescription for the permanence of the status quo to Netanyahu's
prescription for a two-state solution, Israel has lived "without a solution," not because
of uncertainty or neglect but as a matter of deliberate policy, clandestinely driving
settlement expansion to the point of irreversibility while pretending to search for "a
Palestinian partner for peace."
Sooner or later the White House, Congress and the American public--not to speak of
a Jewish establishment that is largely out of touch with the younger Jewish
generation's changing perceptions of Israel's behavior--will have to face the fact that
America's "special relationship" with Israel is sustaining a colonial enterprise.
President Barack Obama's capitulation to Netanyahu on the settlement freeze was
widely seen as the collapse of the latest hope for achievement of a two-state
agreement. It thoroughly discredited the notion that Palestinian moderation is the
path to statehood, and therefore also discredited Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas, moderation's leading Palestinian advocate, who announced his
intention not to run in the coming presidential elections.
Netanyahu's "limited" freeze was described by the Obama administration as
"unprecedented," even though the exceptions to it--3,000 housing units whose
foundations had supposedly already been laid, public buildings and unlimited
construction in East Jerusalem--brought total construction to where it would have
been without a freeze. Indeed, Netanyahu assured the settler leadership and his
cabinet that construction will resume after the ten-month freeze--according to
minister Benny Begin, at a rate "faster and more than before"--even if Abbas agrees
to return to talks. In fact, the Israeli press has reported that the freeze
notwithstanding, new construction in the settlements is "booming." None of this has
elicited the Obama administration's public rebuke, much less the kinds of sanctions
imposed on Palestinians when they violate agreements.
But what is widely believed to have been the final blow to a two-state solution may in
fact turn out to be the necessary condition for its eventual achievement. That
condition is abandonment of the utterly wrongheaded idea that a Palestinian state
can arise without forceful outside intervention. The international community has
shown signs of exasperation with Israel's deceptions and stonewalling, and also with
Washington's failure to demonstrate that there are consequences not only for
Palestinian violations of agreements but for Israeli ones as well. The last thing many
in the international community want is a resumption of predictably meaningless
negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas. Instead, they are focusing on forceful
third-party intervention, a concept that is no longer taboo.
Ironically, it is Netanyahu who now insists on the resumption of peace talks. For him,
a prolonged breakdown of talks risks exposing the irreversibility of the settlements,
and therefore the loss of Israel's democratic character, and legitimizing outside
intervention as the only alternative to an unstable and dangerous status quo. While
the Obama administration may be reluctant to support such initiatives, it may no
longer wish to block them.
These are not fanciful fears. Israeli chiefs of military intelligence, the Shin Bet and
other defense officials told Netanyahu's security cabinet on December 9 that the
stalled peace process has led to a dangerous vacuum "into which a number of
different states are putting their own initiatives, none of which are in Israel's favor."
They stressed that "the fact that the US has also reached a dead-end in its efforts
only worsens the problem."
If these fears are realized and the international community abandons a moribund
peace process in favor of determined third-party initiatives, a two-state outcome may
yet be possible. A recent proposal by the Swedish presidency of the European Union
is perhaps the first indication of the international community's determination to react
more meaningfully to Netanyahu's intransigence. The proposal, adopted by the EU's
foreign ministers on December 8, reaffirmed an earlier declaration of the European
Council that the EU would not recognize unilateral Israeli changes in the pre-1967
borders. The resolution also opposes Israeli measures to deny a prospective
Palestinian state any presence in Jerusalem. The statement's endorsement of PA
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's two-year institution-building initiative suggests a future
willingness to act favorably on a Palestinian declaration of statehood following the
initiative's projected completion. In her first pronouncement on the Israel-Palestine
conflict as the EU's new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy,
Baroness Catherine Ashton declared, "We cannot and nor, I doubt, can the region
tolerate another round of fruitless negotiations."
An imposed solution has risks, but these do not begin to compare with the risks of
the conflict's unchecked continuation. Furthermore, since the adversaries are not
being asked to accept anything they have not already committed themselves to in
formal accords, the international community is not imposing its own ideas but
insisting the parties live up to existing obligations. That kind of intervention, or
"imposition," is hardly unprecedented; it is the daily fare of international diplomacy. It
defines America's relations with allies and unfriendly countries alike.
It would not take extraordinary audacity for Obama to reaffirm the official position of
every previous US administration--including that of George W. Bush--that no matter
how desirable or necessary certain changes in the pre-1967 status may seem, they
cannot be made unilaterally. Even Bush, celebrated in Israel as "the best American
president Israel ever had," stated categorically that this inviolable principle applies
even to the settlement blocs that Israel insists it will annex. Speaking of these blocs at
a May 2005 press conference, Bush affirmed that "changes to the 1949 armistice
lines must be mutually agreed to," a qualification largely ignored by Israeli
governments (and by Bush himself). The next year Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice was even more explicit. She stated that "the president did say that at the time of
final status, it will be necessary to take into account new realities on the ground that
have changed since 1967, but under no circumstances...should anyone try and do
that in a pre-emptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation
at final status."
Of course, Obama should leave no doubt that it is inconceivable for the United States
not to be fully responsive to Israel's genuine security needs, no matter how
displeased it may be with a particular Israeli government's policies. But he must also
leave no doubt that it is equally inconceivable he would abandon America's core
values or compromise its strategic interests to keep Netanyahu's government in
power, particularly when support for this government means supporting a regime
that would permanently disenfranchise and dispossess the Palestinian people.
In short, Middle East peacemaking efforts will continue to fail, and the possibility of a
two-state solution will disappear, if US policy continues to ignore developments on the
ground in the occupied territories and within Israel, which now can be reversed only
through outside intervention. President Obama is uniquely positioned to help Israel
reclaim Jewish and democratic ideals on which the state was founded--if he does not
continue "politics as usual." But was it not his promise to reject just such a politics
that swept Obama into the presidency and captured the amazement and respect of
the entire world?
About Henry Siegman
Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York, is a visiting
research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental
and African Studies, University of London. He is a former national director of the
American Jewish Congress and of the Synagogue Council of America.
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