Sep 10th 2011

Mutual Assured Self-Destructive Policies

by Alon Ben-Meir

 

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.

No serious observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should have any doubt that both the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority have been pursuing self-destructive policies during the past 30 months. President Obama's failure to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to reengage in serious negotiations has added another significant layer of uncertainty to an already untenable environment. And the decision of the PA to go to the United Nations to seek recognition of a Palestinian state is likely to make matters worse, leading both sides to further entrench themselves into longtime, hardened positions which could potentially lead to a renewed cycle of wide-spread violence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been working hard to create a posture that suggests he is ready to enter immediately into peace negotiations, if only PA President Mahmoud Abbas would return to the negotiating table unconditionally. But then Netanyahu has set his own conditions, creating new obstacles to negotiations: He demands that Israel be recognized "as a Jewish state" at the outset of negotiations, even though this was never a requirement in previous peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu refuses to accept the 1967 borders as the base line for negotiating a two-state solution with some land swap. He insists that Jerusalem's future status is not negotiable and that Israel must be allowed to maintain residual forces along the Jordan River. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has refused to consider an even nominal renewal of the settlement construction freeze to test Abbas' resolve to enter into serious negotiations.

In reality, Netanyahu has said little and done less to convince the Palestinians that his professed desire for a two-state solution is genuine. He has skillfully led his public into believing that the status quo is sustainable and perhaps even beneficial for the State of Israel. Of course, the heinous and abhorrent terrorist attack in Eilat and the exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas along the Gaza border and the deteriorating relations with Egypt have shown otherwise. To be sure, Netanyahu has given the Palestinians plenty of ammunition to make the argument that there is no genuine Israeli partner. Even though Netanyahu's popularity has somewhat dimmed in the past few weeks over the civil protests, to many Israelis he remains the kind of 'tough' leader that is needed to navigate Israel through its equally 'tough' neighborhood. Yet in reality, he is not delivering to improve the prospects for real peace that most Israelis yearn for. As a result, Israel is becoming more isolated than ever in the international arena. Its relationship with the United States is fractured. And negative public opinion of Israel in Europe has dipped to unprecedented depths.

Tragically the Palestinians have not fared any better. They have continued their campaign to distort the history of the conflict. They have been working day-in and day-out to perpetuate the fantasy of a return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, giving Israel no reason to believe that a two-state solution will indeed be the endgame of the conflict. Furthermore, they have miserably failed to demonstrate a united front truly committed to a lasting peace. Hamas, in spite of the so-called "unity" agreement, which is faltering and has become a major liability for the PA, continues to preach the gospel of Israel's destruction and refuses to renounce violence as a means to achieve their national objective. Moreover, contrary to Abbas' revisionism in his May 16th op-ed in The New York Times, it was the Palestinians who refused to accept the UN partition plan in 1947 and it was the Arab states that declared war on Israel in 1948.

To be sure, neither side has been willing or able to agree to rules of good-faith negotiations to support their professed desire to enter into serious talks to conclude a peace agreement that meet each others' principal requirements of security and political independence.

The phenomenon of the frantic lead up to the UN General Assembly has been striking. The success of the Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad's state-building enterprise has led to rising international support for the Palestinian statehood initiative. And since the Palestinians do not believe that Netanyahu is sincere about a two-state solution, they are equally convinced that Obama's failure to persuade or pressure Netanyahu to change his posture has undercut his ability to effectively mediate the conflict.

Hence the Palestinians were left with "no choice" but to turn to the UN in an effort to achieve statehood. Recognition of statehood by the UN, they insist, will internationalize the Palestinian problem and open the door for other players, such as the EU to play a more active role. The idea, as Mahmoud Abbas has stated, is to level the playing field, and to re-enter negotiations with Israel as equals. In the process, statehood will presumably enable the Palestinians to pressure Israel through the International Criminal Court and other international forums. Abbas has been further emboldened by the fact that of the world's 20 most populated nations, only five, the United States, Japan, Mexico, Germany and Thailand, have yet to recognize Palestine.

However sincere or contrived the UN initiative may be, what will happen the day after the UNGA could be more ominous than the Palestinians have ever contemplated. Israel may annex parts of the West Bank, as was proposed by MK Danny Danon in retaliation to a UN vote, which would likely ignite a violent and defensive reaction from Palestinians. Israel may further respond by withholding tax transfers collected from Palestinian workers to the Palestinian Authority.

The United States Congress will likely be driven to halt aid for the Palestinian Authority and for the security forces, should they not continue cooperation with Israel. This could add fuel to an already major financial crisis facing the Palestinian Authority. Even if the aid from the US and other Western donors is not cut completely, the Palestinians already have been experiencing a financial test-after a UN vote it will likely only get considerably worse.

Furthermore, with expectations elevated that a Palestinian independence day of celebration is on the horizon, the disappointment among Palestinians when the Israeli occupation continues unfettered beyond September's UN General Assembly recognition of a Palestinian state will be palpable.

Mahmoud Abbas has painted himself into a corner. Reversing the progress made in the West Bank could be a dangerous course of action. Already, protests are being planned similar to those conducted on Nakba Day. What may start as a non-violent movement could lead to a third violent intifada. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has begun training and arming defense teams in the settlements in anticipation of Palestinian violence that may deliberately or accidentally be ignited.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have become victims of their own self-destructive policies undermining the very premise on which a lasting peace could be erected. If Netanyahu and Abbas want to prevent the UN from taking any action that would equally damage their national interests, they must agree to the realistic proposals set forth by President Obama, with the support of the Quartet, to start negotiations with borders and security. Negotiating borders first will resolve the future status of more that 70 percent of the settlements which is critical to the Palestinians. It will also mitigate Israel's security concerns, which is of extreme importance to the Israelis. The Obama administration's last ditch efforts at the present time to prevent both sides from sliding into the abyss could prove to be successful only if both sides recognize the dangerous course they have charted and agree to sit down and face the inevitable.

Both must put their cards on the table and demonstrate that they are ready, willing and able to make the necessary concessions that could lead to a lasting peace agreement however impossible this may seem at the present. Reaching such a compromise before the UNGA acts on the Palestinian request next month, is essential if both Israelis and Palestinians are to be prevented from racing towards a new quagmire with unpredictable consequences.

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