Saturday, January 25, 2014

Impasse: Why the current negotiations are going nowhere

1 Solomonic judgment on Jerusalem
Negotiating away part of Jerusalem, especially the sensitive part of Jerusalem referred to as the “holy basin,” is like expecting someone to give away the store. Israeli Jews see themselves as the caretakers of a place that, with its capture from Jordan in June 1967, came under Jewish sovereignty for the first time since the days when the Romans destroyed the temple in AD70. The Temple Mount, though still a Muslim sanctuary and surrounded by the predominantly Arab Old City, has always been the apple of the religious eye of the Jews, and there is no way that Israel can remove itself an inch from this territory without attenuating what—a century and counting after Herzl—has become the raison d’etre of the Jewish state: the redemption of people and land of Israel.

Conversely, the Palestinians are not simply Arabs or Muslims in a generic sense, but their specific identity is based on a millennial guardianship for holy land and holy city. While the naming of elite military guards after Al Quds is fashionable across the world of Islamic resurgence, and while myriads of Arabic satellite television stations pay lipservice to the liberation of Palestine (this absurdly hollow solidarity is nicely captured in the final pun of the exquisite Saudi Arabian movie “Wajda”), Palestinian identity is uniquely based in Jerusalem and Hebron, the twin holy cities that were among the first conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century, making them the rightful guardians of these holy shrines.

Redividing Jerusalem would require no less than a Solomonic judgment. Except this time a modern day Solomon would be dealing with two genuine mothers of the same child. More precisely, he would be dealing with the offspring of two grandmothers fighting over a joint inheritance. (“I was here first!” “All mine!”)

At what point might one of the grandchildren cry “halt!”? To quote former Jerusalem vice-mayor Naomi Tzur, now a green-tourism activist: let the dividing line run where it may, as long as it doesn’t matter.

2 Palestinian pragmatism
The developments of the last twenty years have a) strengthened Palestinian identity in East Jerusalem, and b) eroded Palestinian life in Jerusalem. From a Palestinian national perspective, East Jerusalem should be restored to something like the status quo ante June 1967, though with an eye to Palestinian sovereignty and a diminished role for the Hashemites of Jordan. Moderate Palestinians (those willing to coexist with Israel within the boundaries of historical Palestine) hope for a partial fulfillment—after nearly a century—of hopes instilled by the British Mandate for Palestinian statehood centered in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s Arabs are hurting. They are hurting from administrative policies such as housing demolition and the many subtle and unsubtle obstacles placed in their path to prevent them from remaining and thriving in the city.

What would hurt Palestinians, Arab, and Muslim aspirations even more would be a dramatic change in the status quo, such as Arab expulsion or a Jewish take-over the holy places, especially the Haram ash-Sharif. But these are things that only extremists on the Jewish side might advocate, and they are not likely to happen. As bad as the status quo may be from a Palestinian perspective, it is more tolerable than accelerated Jewish settlement expansion. Palestinian interest in compromise is grounded in a pragmatic weighing of the odds.

3 The Israeli bottom line
Israel has been pushing its luck by encroaching on Palestinian Arab territory in and around Jerusalem that, from Jewish historical perspectives and for sentimental and religious-national reasons, are considered legitimately Jewish territories: the ancient city of David beneath the Arab village of Silwan (a case of vertical territorial recovery), the Gush Etzion bloc that had to be evacuated during the War of Independence and that was reclaimed and resettled after 1967, the Jewish heritage of Hebron, and many places of biblical pedigree across Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank.

While it would hurt Jews and Israelis to give up some of these territories (illegal settlement outposts may be the least problematic, even though they might be fiercely defended by a few; Massadah-type Zealotry happens to be a hallmark of Jewish history), there are certain changes Israel can agree to without endangering itself: Israelis will likely accept the demographic status quo of Jerusalem where Arabs currently constitute about one quarter to one third of the population; they may even accede to yielding part of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a demilitarized Palestinian state centered in the West Bank (with or without a land-bridge to Gaza). Where then is the limit? At which point will Israel cry halt! before the child is killed?

The bottom line, the casus belli, the true raison d’etre of the Zionist enterprise will reveal itself at that point. Is Zionism truly about keeping Jerusalem the eternally undivided capital of Israel, as the Basic Law of 1982 states, or can that law be dialed back to a symbolic aspiration that can suffer compromise on the ground, e.g., by sharing Jerusalem among its actual inhabitants and their political representatives? Is Zionism truly about redeeming the Land of Israel in its entirety and completeness (eretz yisrael ha-shlemah), i.e., is it about the realization of a maximalist ideal of a restoration of the land to its presumably biblical proportions? Or is it about the safety and integrity of a Jewish state of Israel within militarily defensible and economically viable boundaries in a peaceful and constructive relationship with its neighbors, including the Palestinians within and outside those boundaries?

That’s the decision for Israel today, provided there is a similar moment of truth on the other side and provided that moment of truth reveals the Palestinians to be similarly inclined toward accepting a less than ideal, less than complete, less than perfect reality instead of striving for the elimination of the Jewish state in what used to be Palestine.

4 Mother Palestine
In the Palestinian imagination, Palestine is a mother and the Palestinians are her children. They are a product of the land. Their mother was divided when Palestine was divided into a Jewish and an Arab state. At that time, the people, too, were divided into those who fled and those who remained; another division. One should not be too surprised that Palestinians, many of them refugees, took a long time to resort to violence in response to this traumatic event. Their motherland had been divided and the people became dependents or refugees; a trauma and injustice of numbing proportions.

Historic injustices are not always evened out, especially if they are widely perceived as something people brought onto themselves. Many Germans were driven out of that country’s eastern provinces where they had settled for generations, paying the price for a war they had not sought or chosen. No one expects their grievances to be redressed. When it comes to the Palestinians, no one can expect them to simply give up on the right to return. On the other hand, many people believe that the refugees are at least in part the victims of choices made by Arab leaders who resisted the UN decision to partition Palestine. But then, why should they have agreed? Who would agree to the dividing up of their motherland on behalf of a group of immigrants from another continent?

To accede to the two-state solution requires of Palestinians to reveal themselves as the sympathetic party of a Solomonic judgment. It would say to the great arbiter: you have slain my mother and divided her body; we are willing to accept half (or less) of what remains of her in order not to lose all of her. But we can never stop mourning over this loss. We can not be happy or reconciled with the partition of our motherland as compensation for others on whom you, great arbiter, had wreaked a great evil: whom you murdered, expelled, or failed to help when they were ghettoized, worked to death, or exterminated. You put them in detention camps, not us. The pressure you generated was unleashed on us. We paid the price, and now you expect us to be peaceful and accept the division of our land as a fact never to be rectified. Our villages, fields, and orchards, our ports, cities, markets, schools, and mosques, our communities, histories, identities: you have taken half and you want us to accept it as legitimate and final. And you also want us to tell our grandparents and grandchildren, still living in refugee camps, that they will never regain their ancestral homes.

5 Israelis and Palestinians don’t care about the current negotiations
Most Palestinians would agree that their situation will not be rectified by force any time soon. But one cannot forbid them from dreaming. If the liberation of their homeland is far off, the question is what to do about the status quo. Time seems to be working both for and against the Palestinians, which makes it unclear whether action or inaction is more desirable. Time works for the Palestinians in that they are a young people, in a relatively safe environment, less chaotic than many other places in the Arab world, and with a cause that makes them feel alive and connected. Economically speaking, foreign powers are pouring a lot of aid into the Palestinian territories, making the status quo tolerable, at least to some, though still difficult enough to make it attractive for many of the gifted young people to seek educational and economic opportunity elsewhere. This is why time is working against the Palestinians. After a brief period of enthusiasm, back in the nineties, the territories are now divided and—because of intifada, closures and the wall—psychologically exhausted. Israel is expanding settlements. Facts on the ground are constantly shifting, territories are claimed for development or military security, Palestinians are confronted with the rogue violence of Jewish settlers (“price tag”), and the military courts are making it ever more difficult to get justice. The international community just wants the problem to go away.

From the perspective of the international community, the current negotiations seem to offer an opportunity to put a stop to the further encroachment of Israeli settlements onto Palestinian territory and to keep as much as possible of Palestine for the Palestinians including an equitable land-swap; to create a heaven of sanity and coexistence in the middle of a chaotic and unpredictable Middle East; and to deprive the Arab and Muslim street of the oxygen of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism by producing Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. These are really items of an international or, more precisely, American agenda. The art of diplomacy is to persuade the partners in this conflict to accept this American agenda as advantageous to themselves, as better than its alternatives.

What are the alternatives, if we rule out the maximalist possibilities that would entail extreme violence for which neither side has the stomach? Maintaining the status quo is possibly the only serious alternative. But the status quo is like a very slow erosion of Palestine: brain drain and settlements are slowly erasing Palestine and Palestinians from the map of an Israel that is growing incrementally. The only party that can really be interested in status quo maintenance, and has many arguments on its side, is Israel. The Palestinians will return to arguing for international sanctions and for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood. Recent developments suggest that there may be increasing support for this strategy across Europe and the US, which acts as a disincentive for Palestinians to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the current negotiations. This explains why neither Israelis nor Palestinians are fully backing the Kerry talks. Rhetorical assurances to the contrary not withstanding, both sides hope that digging in their heels and holding on to maximalist positions will advance their strategic interests more than eagerly investing in the current negotiations to achieve a framework for a final status agreement. This is why no one really cares about these negotiations: everyone knows that they are doomed to fail because neither party in the conflict is fully invested in its resolution. Only the broker is truly interested.

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