What to Think of the Talks, Part 3

The current round of negotiations between Israel and Palestine will surely fail, but not because they are too ambitious

For the last couple of days I have been trying to catch this site up, after a brief hiatus, on the direct  negotiations between Israel and Palestine.  So far, I have only reviewed what others have said (see Part 1 and Part 2) and have yet to put down some of my own thoughts.  While many argue that the current talks will inevitably fail because they are too ambitious, it is far more likely that these direct negotiations will amount to nothing other than more violence because the talks are not ambitious enough.

The reasons for potential and probable failure are pretty straight forward: Palestinians want a state along 1967 borders while Israel – rightly concerned for its security – contends that such borders would leave the Jewish state far too vulnerable to attack.  Accordingly, Israel is pushing for a result that leaves the resource-rich Jordan Valley in Israeli hands while maintaining control over the entire Palestinian airspace:

the international consensus that the foundations for any peace agreement are the 1967 borders is unacceptable because it violates Israel’s security needs. Hence Israel needs to return to a security-based diplomacy in which the parameters of any peace agreement must be defined by Israel’s security needs. Israel must have enough time for reserves to be mobilised in case of a ground attack from the east; hence Israel must retain control of the Jordan valley as well as of critical areas inside the territories. Israel is extremely vulnerable to air terrorism, whether through rockets or 9/11-style suicide attacks; hence it needs complete control over the whole airspace west of the Jordan and the electromagnetic spectrum.

From the Israeli prospective, this makes perfect sense.*  With Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah all posing a threat, Israel must have a way to ensure its defensive capabilities (putting aside Israel’s massive military advantage over the rest of the region).  For the Palestinians, though, such an outcome is completely unacceptable as the Jordan Valley is by far the most economically viable land in Palestine and relinquishing the area would submit the new state to Swaziland/Lesotho type dependence on Israel without any land access to the outside world.

Thus, even before one takes the settlements and the hawkish Israeli government into account, the Palestinian demand for a viable state and the Israeli demand for security are mutually exclusive as long as Israel still faces or perceives legitimate threats from the east.

[tweetmeme] As long as the United States remains the sole moderator in these talks, the only two options for these talks are failure or the imposition of the Israeli view on the Palestinians.  There is no question that the United States is favorable to Israel, despite President Obama’s empty Cairo speech (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – aka Abu Mazen – has recently said “of course the US is biased towards Israel; they have not been our allies since 1993.”)  It would be delusional to think that after backing down to Netanyahu twice (once after the Cairo speech and again after the Biden construction fiasco) that the US President would be willing or able to push Israel to accept anything else.  More questionable is the President’s capability to satisfy both Arab and Israeli publics.

So where is the fundamental flaw in these talks?  Certainly, the Israeli lobby and the general American view of the conflict poses a massive problem, as does the hard-line composition of the Israeli government (Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman recently dismissed all hope for success and called for an immediate start to unrestricted settlement construction.)  Palestinian political division is also a major obstacle to successful negotiations as is Abu Mazen’s democratically illegitimate and corrupt regime.

Ultimately, though, the basic flaw that will prove to be the undoing of these negotiations is that they do not reach far enough.  Without input from Hamas, Abu Mazen is negotiating for only a fraction of the Palestinians, leaving Hamas and other groups in Gaza to continue to threaten Israel.  Furthermore, if Israel is indeed worried about attacks from the east (and it should be considering the stance of Iran), why hasn’t the United States tried to pull Iran and Syria into the talks?  Peace between Palestine and Israel will not relieve the threat from these two countries.  Similarly, such a limited peace does little to confront the storm to the north in Lebanon where Hezbollah is rearming after its 2006 war.

These are the real threats that concern Israel; Palestinians pose perhaps the most modest threat to Israeli security.  Agreeing to peace with the Palestinians – even if such a deal unjustly finalizes Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley – might take some of the wind out of the sails of Israel’s enemies, but it certainly would not completely eliminate the threats that Israel sees.  Syria would still be angered over the illegal annexation of the Golan Heights while Lebanon (and thus Hezbollah) would feel the same concerning the Sheeba Farms and the 400,000 Palestinian refugees unable to return home.

Right now, Israel is sitting in a chair with three broken legs; creating peace with the Palestinians still leaves the Israeli state wobbly and insecure.  To succeed in peace talks, Israel must include every party and fix every leg.  It must reopen negotiations with Syria regarding the Golan Heights as well as with Lebanon concerning the Sheeba Farms and it must try to engage Hamas.  Moreover, Israel must be prepared to make even more concessions for peace.

Syria has made remarks suggesting that a peace is possible if Israel withdraws from the Golan (and thus from the Sheeba Farms as well) while Hezbollah would lose its most well-worn argument for its continued resistance against Israel (Sheeba Farms and Palestine).  An appropriate deal between Israel and Palestine – one that leaves the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians and is truly based on 1967 borders – would be accepted by Hamas as well.

Here lies the true power of the Arab peace initiative that was rejected by Israel.  The collective recognition of Israel, with the normalization of political and economic relations with the entire Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.  Such a comprehensive package ensures Israeli security and even lends credibility to reports of Arab-Israeli cooperation against Iran.  If Israel or the United States were able to create such a comprehensive regional peace, Israel would still have reason to be concerned in the short-term, but its long-term safety would be assured.

There are many reasons to be completely dissatisfied with the current round of talks and to expect complete failure.  Yet these concerns, while valid, are merely secondary to the fact that a limited Palestinian-Israeli peace does nothing to ensure Israel’s security.  Divisions and Palestinian politics, American bias and Israeli insincerity are all blisters on this round of talks, but they are not the fundamental problem.  Indeed, the belief that these are the main issues have driven Israel, Palestine and America into an impossible negotiation.

Predictably, negotiations between Abu Mazen and Netanyahu will fall quickly and hard, perhaps leading to a third intifada and the death of thousands of people.  It is for this reason that the Palestinian, Israeli and American leaders must work towards a more comprehensive peace that undermines the Arab resistance to Israel.

Of course, a regional peace deal is exponentially more daunting and would be one of the greatest diplomatic feats in a very long time.  But there is no excuse to substitute something difficult with something impossible.

* This is assuming that Israel is being sincere while highlighting the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley and the necessity of maintaining control of this region for its defense.

Photo from The Guardian

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