It has lately become the accepted wisdom that the Middle East peace process is dead, finished, kaput. This belief has been reinforced by Al Jazeera’s release this week of some 1,600 documents that are said to describe the inside workings of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2008.
The arguments claiming that the peace process is dead come from all corners: Some contend that the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is ineffectual or illegitimate. Some say the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is simply too great for a genuine compromise. Some insist the conflict is driven by unabated anti-Semitic incitement on the part of the Palestinians, or by irredeemable Israeli racism.
Other arguments are more specific. Some analysts feel that the real problem is that the Palestine Liberation Organization has become trapped by the Obama administration’s quest for a settlement freeze, which has prevented direct negotiations with Israel. Still another argument points out that Gaza, which has no future independent of the rest of Palestine, remains under the boot of the brutal fundamentalists of Hamas, rendering the P.L.O. incapable of delivering a final status agreement for the whole of the Palestinian people.
It is also argued that the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the support to Hamas and other extremists provided by Tehran, makes a deal impossible. And many observers have noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, perched atop a governing coalition that is both internally argumentative and habitually intransigent, has not provided much confidence in the chances of even a provisional compromise, especially as settlers continue to build in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
There are large elements of truth to many of these observations. Yet there are other, more heartening, trends that have gone largely unnoticed. And there are indeed palatable steps that both the Israelis and the Palestinians could take, separately but simultaneously — call it joint unilateralism — that could help revive the peace process.
We tend to forget, amid the welter of commentary about Palestinian incitement and Israeli belligerence, that we have recently seen startling shifts in both Israeli and Palestinian attitudes on the need for compromise. The Palestinian Authority government, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, two of the most conscientious and sober-minded leaders the Palestinian people have had, continues to push forward a remarkable state-building program, and has been innovative in working against violence and incitement.
In Israel, the shift is also startling. Prime Minister Netanyahu — the leader of the Likud Party, which was previously the guardian of the ideology of territorial maximalism — has openly endorsed the creation of an independent Palestine. A majority of Knesset members plainly realize the necessity of a two-state solution. (Even Israel’s truculent foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said that he was “ready to quit my settlement home to make peace.”)
Mr. Netanyahu, in a quiet way, has also encouraged a greater normalization of life on the West Bank. On his watch, the overall pace of settlement growth has slowed, especially when compared with previous Labor Party-led governments during the years of the Oslo peace process. He allowed the Palestinian flag to be raised in his private residence during a formal meeting with Mr. Abbas, and now employs the diplomatic term “West Bank” instead of the biblical term “Judea and Samaria.” He has also condemned an initiative offered by a group of Orthodox rabbis that sought to forbid Jews from selling or renting homes to non-Jews.
But it is on the Palestinian side that change has been the most notable. Gaza, of course, remains an intractable problem, since no peace treaty will end the conflict so long as Hamas is in power and loyal to the uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood ideology it espouses.
The West Bank, however, has lately been the scene of undeniably impressive developments. The new, highly professional Palestinian Authority security forces have restored order in formerly anarchic cities like Jenin and Nablus. The resulting calm has spurred a high level of investment and improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. It is almost impossible for those of us who saw firsthand the violence and chaos of the intifada that began in 2000 to quite believe the extent of positive change in the cities of the West Bank.
It is, in part, the high level of Palestinian security cooperation with Israel — involving intelligence sharing and on-the-ground measures — that has reduced violence so significantly. According to Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, 2010 was Israel’s most terror-free year in a decade. This has prompted Israel to remove many checkpoints from roads used by Palestinians, allowing for greater mobility, which also encourages economic growth. (The calm has also helped spur Israel’s economy to new heights.) Still, Israeli incursions into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory have been damaging to the authority, and should be carried out only for essential security reasons, not political ones.
The Palestinian Authority in the last three years has completed more than 1,700 community development programs across the West Bank, and built 120 schools, three hospitals and 50 health clinics. Prime Minister Fayyad has created what is probably the most transparent public finance system in the Arab world. The court system is being reformed (though it is still susceptible to corruption) and it has seen a jump in the number of criminal prosecutions. Around 1,000 miles of roads have been paved and 850 miles of water pipes have been installed. The Palestinians of the West Bank are finally beginning to build their state.
But this project is as fragile as it is vital for the international community, and especially for Israel. Its future as a Jewish democratic state depends on the creation of a peaceful, democratic and stable Palestinian state by its side.
There are a number of steps that Israel could take to help Palestinian moderates. They are, in the main, not overly onerous, and not irreversible should Israel’s security be newly threatened. But they could have a galvanizing effect on the attitudes of Palestinians who doubt the possibility of reaching a two-state solution.
Mr. Netanyahu, who acknowledges the effectiveness of the Palestinian security forces, could allow these forces to develop advanced counterterrorism capacities, which they do not now possess. This would carry some obvious risks, but also some obvious benefits: the sine qua non of governance is the provision of basic security, and meaningful security cooperation is the most powerful argument against the idea that an independent Palestinian state would be a threat to Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu could also cede control of more West Bank land to the Palestinian Authority. It is crucial that the Palestinian government be allowed to rule in areas that are generally understood to be part of the future Palestinian state.
And though Mr. Netanyahu’s interest in Palestinian economic development is commendable, the notion that “economic peace,” as he terms it, is a substitute for a comprehensive, negotiated agreement is wrongheaded. This is a political conflict, and a political conflict requires a political solution. The term “economic peace” also suggests to Palestinians that Israel is set on depriving them of their right to national self-determination, and has caused some Palestinians to misread the authority’s state-building program as an instrument of Israeli government manipulation and control.
Of course, no Palestinian state will emerge on a West Bank blanketed with settlements, and the future of the larger, more far-flung settlements must ultimately be decided by a negotiated agreement. However, a modified and limited, but very public and systematic, withdrawal of settlers from remote or particularly confrontational settlements, especially from the so-called outposts that even Israel considers illegal, would have a powerful effect on Palestinian perceptions about Israel’s long-term intentions.
WE do not expect Israel to unilaterally withdraw both its military and the settlers from the West Bank, particularly given the consequences of Ariel Sharon’s flawed unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which ultimately led to the rise of Hamas. No doubt Israeli troops will remain in control of settlements until there is a negotiated withdrawal, whether it occurs in one stroke or in stages. But we believe even a modest effort by Israel to reverse the pattern of settlement growth could strongly improve conditions for negotiations — and improve Israel’s sinking image.
It should also go without saying that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for settlers simply cannot continue. Mr. Sharon’s Gaza plan was flawed, but the insight that brought it about (one shared by his successor, Ehud Olmert) was acute: Israel has no future as the occupier of Palestinians who don’t agree to be occupied. One hopes that Mr. Netanyahu shares that insight, although one must also recognize that politically he has every incentive to remain ambiguous.
There are important steps the Palestinians can take, as well, that would create a more positive atmosphere for negotiations. Last August, Prime Minister Fayyad pledged, in a widely broadcast speech, to use the West Bank’s public education system to combat religious and political fanaticism. And while many Hamas-influenced imams and schoolteachers in the West Bank have been removed from the state payroll, incitement and indoctrination continue. The Palestinian Authority should follow through on Mr. Fayyad’s promise, and the rest of the world should support this with as much financial and technical assistance as possible.
Things have been further complicated in recent weeks as several Latin American states have recognized the Palestinians and upgraded the diplomatic status of their missions. Many Israelis are discomfited by this. The P.L.O. should be as clear as possible that these efforts do not constitute an end-run around an American-brokered negotiated agreement, but are an adjunct to both negotiations and the state-building program.
The best Israeli response to these initiatives would be to institute confidence-building measures that demonstrate that the key to Palestinian independence does not lie with Chile and Bolivia, but with Israel and the United States. Palestinians understand, of course, that at the end of the day, their independence depends on one country, Israel, more than any other, since it is Israel that controls the land that would comprise their state.
THERE are, however, Palestinian initiatives that are completely counterproductive. Continued threats to unilaterally declare independence are pointless and provocative. Support for boycotts against all Israeli products and companies also serve only to convince Israel and its supporters that the Palestinians seek its elimination. Israel is a member of the United Nations and must not be delegitimized. It is understandable that Palestinians are supporting boycotts of products made in settlements, however, since the settlements are illegitimate and must not be legitimized.
There are two other steps that the Israelis and Palestinians could take that could reignite hope. The first would see the end of obfuscation about long-term intentions. Both sides need to emphasize their commitment to a genuine two-state solution with an independent, sovereign Palestine living alongside Israel in peace and security. Ambiguity on this point for cynical political purposes is destroying confidence on both sides in the capacity of the other to compromise. At least since the Camp David talks of 2000, both parties have argued one line in public and another behind closed doors, an unhappy tactic that has been underscored by Al Jazeera’s release of the alleged diplomatic documents.
Polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they both want a two-state solution, but also say they believe the other side is lying. Peace will not come if politicians refuse to prepare their citizens for it through clear and consistent language. Officially produced Israeli and Palestinian advertisements and maps that depict Israel as Palestine and vice versa must also be put to an end.
The other step is even more difficult to achieve, because it requires the softening of hearts. In 1997, a Jordanian soldier murdered seven Israel schoolgirls who were on an outing on an island in the Jordan River. King Hussein of Jordan crossed the border and visited the families of the girls to apologize for their deaths. In Israeli eyes, this simple act of compassion transformed the king from an enemy into a hero.
Imagine, then, what would happen if Mahmoud Abbas were to visit Israel and tell Israelis he acknowledges that they have national and historical rights on the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and that he understands their suffering. And imagine what would happen if Benjamin Netanyahu were to visit Ramallah, acknowledge Palestinian suffering and also Palestinian national and historical rights, particularly to a country of their own, on their native land.
The two of us have been following the Middle East peace talks for years, and we are not naïve about the chances for peace. We disagree on a dozen aspects of this conflict, which is not surprising for an Arab and a Jew. But we also know that giving up or walking away is not an option, because the alternative to compromise is the abyss.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent of The Atlantic and Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.