The Road They Didn’t Take
Thoughts of mortality, of committing thousands of young men and reservists to war, ought to trouble and concentrate the mind. Worrisome, then, are the loose lips of Israel’s top brass like Eli Yishai, who stated Saturday, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. Disconcerting too are the attitudes of Michael Ben-Ari, who stated he wants to see 2,000 killed in Gaza, and Gilad Sharon, son of Ariel, who wrote in The Jerusalem Post the following:
We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.
Their detached attitude to combat, the blasé stance on the sanctity of life, the ease with which they would commit their nation to a war of destruction and desolation, is wicked, callous, and truly frightening. It can’t help but bring to mind, during this month in which we mark the conclusion of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s take on the Binding of Isaac, “The Parable Of The Old Man And The Young”. After the angel of the Lord appears before Abraham and commands him to offer up “the Ram of Pride” over his threatened son, Owen’s verse takes a grim turn:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Four years ago, Israel was on the verge of a ground war with Hamas and other militant organisations based in the Gaza Strip after a significant uptick in rocket attacks upon civilians living in the Negev. In the elections that followed Operation Cast Lead – which halted the showers of explosives, at a cost of thirteen dead Israelis and 700 dead Palestinian non-combatants – Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud gained fifteen more seats and formed a government of parties opposed to peace, or to use the father Benzion’s adage, in favour of an accord that they must know the Palestinians would never accept.
To say that history is repeating itself, or is in danger of doing so, would be facetious and a little cheap. Yet the familiarity of the position Israel finds herself in – at war with Hamas once more, no closer to an agreement with the PLO, and weeks away from a general election – should certainly sharpen the focus of the Israeli voter and give them just cause to reflect on the Netanyahu administration’s failings.
“The truth,” Benjamin Netanyahu told those assembled at the United Nations, “is that Israel wants peace. The truth is that I want peace”. Across a number of high-profile speeches, beginning with the June 2009 address at Bar-Ilan University, and more recently his appearance before Congress in May, Netanyahu has put forth his vision for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as even as his government’s inertia has made peace dip further below the horizon).
Out of these texts, including his UN address, a Netanyahu Plan for peace can be constructed. Just as Barak and Olmert proposed before him, he envisages something akin to a two-state solution with frontiers based on a revision of the Green Line. But Bibi’s peace – if you can label it so – is perhaps the most trenchant and regressive proposal to have been articulated since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Bibi’s peace means first demanding that before the Palestinian state is established, Mahmoud Abbas must recognise Israel as a “Jewish state”. This represents a shifting of the goalposts and a roadblock to a resolution. Previously, it had always been required of the Palestinians that they accept Israel’s right to exist. This was achieved in 1993, when as an addendum to Oslo, Yasser Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin in a letter: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security”.
More importantly, Netanyahu’s keenness to define Israel in any agreement as a Jewish state, as he understands it, would have a considerable impact on minority rights, particularly given that he has stressed repeatedly that the foundation of Palestine would be the total solution to the issue of refugees. His coalition partners, particularly Yisrael Beiteinu, believe it is inconsistent to have “a Jewish state with a minority group comprising over 20pc of the general population”.
Bibi’s peace means not retreating to the “indefensible” 1967 borders. “Without Judea and Samaria, Israel is all of 9 miles wide”; in perspective he explained this as being equivalent to “the distance between Battery Park and Columbia University”, or as he told President Obama “half the distance of the Washington Beltway”. The Green Line was a boundary which enticed war, and left Israeli land exposed to attacks on its vital economic assets and its infrastructure, namely Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Yet alterations to the border would not only be based on security concerns, but on “certain changes that have taken place on the ground over the last 44 years”, namely the influx of Israeli settlers unto the hills of Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu would push to incorporate the major settlement blocs along the Seam Zone into Israel proper. In return, Palestine would be afforded land in the Judean Desert, or if Lieberman is to be believed, the area between Jenin and Nazareth where there exists a dense population of Arab-Israelis.
These two concerns – safety and demography – are fundamentally incompatible. Messy adjustments to the border like those Netanyahu seeks would make the country if anything less secure and more vulnerable. In order to include Ariel, for example, a talon would in effect extend into the West Bank that would at its narrowest be around 2 miles wide. Worse still around Bethlehem, the Olmert Plan called for a snaking stretch of land the width of a connecting road, to link Gilo to the Gush Etzion bloc.
Bibi’s peace means that Jerusalem would become the united capital of Israel. Echoing Menachem Begin, Netanyahu told Congress in May, “Jerusalem must never again be divided”, whilst adding that: “I know this is a difficult issue for Palestinians, but I believe that with creativity and with goodwill, a solution can be found”. Thus the Netanyahu Plan would surely regress back to the early stages of the Clinton Parameters – ones Arafat could not accept – that offered the Palestinians ‘custodianship’ or a similar sort of loose self-governance over the Arab areas of the city.
Bibi’s peace means a demilitarised Palestinian state, with as he stated categorically in the Bar-Ilan speech, “no army and no control of air space”. And, in order to protect exposed sites like Netanya or Tel Aviv airport, Netanyahu would like to “maintain a long-term Israeli military presence in critical strategic areas in the West Bank”, one he slightly mendaciously compared to the existence of American forces in Europe and Asia, and British air force bases in Cyprus. Under his plan, the IDF would be stationed along the Jordan River, controlling entry into the Palestinian state in order to “stop the smuggling into the West Bank”.
During the now-infamous encounter between Netanyahu and Obama in May, where the latter received a condensed lesson in Jewish history from the former, the Israeli Prime Minister used the same refrain: “Israel wants peace; I want peace”. He told the UN that “peace must be anchored in security”; he informed Obama that peace must be ‘genuine’, it must ‘hold’, and it must ‘endure’.
Bibi’s peace would be none of these things. The Netanyahu Plan calls for a kind of Potemkin Palestinian statehood: a West Bank sliced and diced by settler roads and pockets of Israeli land, where access and movement are controlled by the IDF. A viable Palestinian state is essential to the vitality and prosperity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Bibi’s peace, in seeking to form a weakened Palestine, ultimately threatens Israel’s existential security, and undermines her status as a nation based on noble values.
PEACE in the Mideast, and the pursuit of it, has been renewed so many times that each revival has become less sincere, effective and credible. It’s had more facelifts than Joan Rivers, more comebacks than Cher and been through almost as any periods of rehabilitation as the Sheen family. And to the fountain of youth it returns once more.
This Thursday, President Obama is due to speak on the future of talks between Arabs and Israelis as to coincide with a visit from Benjamin Netanhayu. Bibi, incidentally, is due to address a joint session of Congress on May 24, an opportunity which will in all likelihood be used to make clear again an unmoved Israeli stance.
A resolution at this point may seem a little fainter on the horizon that at any time since the al-Aqsa Intifada, though we are at least a little clearer on what a peace might eventually look like. The Palestine Papers revealed many things we already knew – the Palestinian Authority is spineless and incompetent; Israeli high command by contrast is stubborn and obstinate – but they also made evident that the issues which separated the two sides in 1948, 1967, 1993 and 2000 remain so in 2011.
Borders: The call of Palestinian high command since the Oslo Accords in 1993 has been for the creation of an independent state along the Green Line: the line of ceasefire which existed before the commencement of the Six Day War. The international community seeks this too, and in a manner of speaking so do most Israelis. Their position, however, has been complicated by the construction of settlements and the Security Barrier on the West Bank, in some places penetrating miles deep inside the West Bank.
As such, the 1967 borders are more an outline to be traced around. Current negotiations centre about the Clinton Parameters, which recommended in 2000 that Palestinians receive 94-96pc of the West Bank and 1-3pc of Israeli land. The Olmert Plan, which added some meat to these considerations, gave Palestine 94pc of Cisjordan, and swapped the land annexed by Israel around settlements for territory east of the Gaza Strip and south of the West Bank in the Judean Desert.
Settlements: Avi Shlaim stated in a 2010 lecture at the LSE that the obstacles to peace can be surmised in three words: settlements, settlements, settlements. In 2009, some 304,569 Israelis lived in West Bank settlements, with growth rates topping out at 4.5pc in places like Modi’in Ilit. Estimates suggest too that around 192,000 reside in East Jerusalem.
These settlements are illegal under international law; nonetheless, any concord would provide for the incorporation of most of these towns into the Jewish state. The Clinton Parameters specify that parts of the West Bank annexed by Israel would include 80pc of settlements in blocs. Indeed, Olmert’s plan provided for the incorporation of all major localities in the Seam Zone, the patch of land between the Green Line and the Security Barrier: Gush Etzion, a collection of villages south-west of Bethlehem; Ma’ale Adumin east of Jerusalem, and Ariel in the north near Salfit.
Jerusalem: The conflict in microcosm, this divided city and how best to partition it was the issue that made Yasser Arafat jack it all in at Camp David in 2000. The Palestinian position is that East al-Quds would become the capital of the new state, including the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. The current Israeli Mayor Nir Barkat however has made clear that he would not accept a cantonised Yerushalayim, claiming that no city split into two has ever lasted the course.
Differing interpretations of the Olmert plan provided for either a unitary city under Israeli governance, or a rump East Jerusalem sliced and diced by the loss of land in the north around French Hill and the south around the settlements of Har Homa and Gilo. Of these, the latter is the more likely outcome. A solution for the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has never been achieved. Camp David 2000 provided for ‘custodianship’; Olmert left the matter to further negotiations; Saeb Erekat in 2009 merely implied that ‘creative ways’ could be found to deal with it.
Right of Return: What the ‘right of return’ constitutes for those Palestinian refugees who fled during what the Arabs call al-Naqba (the catastrophe) has never been properly defined. As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has stated, the right to return to what exactly? Sixty-three years on, the Naqba still smarts and remains a cornerstone of Palestinian unity, but several generations removed from 1948 any notion of going back to the villages of the Mandate is purely notional. Any treatise would demand Israel pay restitution, assist in the finding of homes for those in absentia in Palestine, and admit a limited number of refugees to Israel as recompense.
THERE remain other matters to iron out of course: how will Palestine be governed? and by whom? Will they be permitted to maintain an army? When will the IDF leave? and will the Israelis use force to remove settlers from disengaged areas? Such delicate matters cannot be dealt with through sweeping ‘take it or leave it’ programmes like the Clinton Parameters, but will have to be dissected over a number of months by negotiators and international mediators.
Such details notwithstanding, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the global community are well aware of how a most basic peace might be fashioned out. It is this that makes the previous forty or so years of terror, combat and impasse all the more perplexing and frustrating. Bitter religious and nationalistic sectarianism has barricaded the path to peace, to the detriment of those living in the Land of Israel.
The events of Naqba Day have shown the Palestinian hand, that of deep-seated rage, a yearning for autonomy and, in the case of Hamas, contempt for Israel’s right to exist. Netanyahu in turn has rarely been dovish, and his coalition is certainly prepared to wait indefinitely for a palatable peace. This week will reveal whether Obama can branch the chasm, and gift to the world the peace we all yearn for.