Direct peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine will resume on September 2 in Washington, D.C. The announcement of the talks has been greeted with a polite but skeptical nod from the media and a rolling of the eyes from experts in the realpolitik of international affairs.
The assumption behind these dismissals is that peace talks have become ritualized face-saving gestures for all parties concerned — Israel, Palestine, and the United States — but serve as no more than a way of maintaining the status quo in the Middle East.
No doubt that all three countries have political factions that would strongly oppose any agreement containing concessions that, in their eyes, gave away too much or too little in land, water, or political autonomy.
In other words, the received wisdom on the state of play between Israel and Palestine is that a standoff exists, and the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is going to continue far into the future. The standoff suits not only Israel and Palestine but the other Muslim countries of the Middle East who, for reasons of their own self-interest, have distanced themselves from the Palestinians.
The facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are easily arranged to fit this scenario: Too much history, and too much blood, creating too many ideologically aligned factions always ready to fight rather than seek a solution through compromise.
During time spent in the region over the past six years, I’ve met enough people of goodwill, on both sides, to have some hope that the political deadlock will one day be broken, a two-state solution will be found, and both Israelis and Palestinians will be freed from the militarized, interlocking existence they have been living since 1967.
Israelis are increasingly concerned about the impact on their national character of maintaining the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Generations of Israeli men and women have fulfilled their required military service at checkpoints, security barriers, and through the various uprisings (intifadas). Israelis are asking whether this service is coarsening their moral outlook, encouraging an oppressor mentality. The bombardment and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 cost Israel’s international standing dearly. Zionist immigration has been steadily dropping since 2000 — perhaps due to the perception by the world’s Jews that Israel has been made a less than desirable place to live.
Palestinians, especially those in walled cities like Bethlehem, have children who have never seen the Mediterranean Sea that lies only a few miles to the east. Unable to secure travel visas, they have lost touch with relatives who live only a few miles away, on the other side of the local barrier and checkpoint. The economy has become increasingly dependent on foreign aid, since business can hardly prosper where every road is blocked with a checkpoint that may or may not be open when you get there, and if you can obtain a visa. Palestinian young people, especially those who travel abroad for college, are choosing to live elsewhere. The decline in the Christian presence on the West Bank has much less to do with Muslim hostility than loss of economic opportunity.
In a meeting with a retired Israeli general a few weeks ago in Tel Aviv, I asked him whether a two-state solution was still possible, given the fact that Israel would lose its military presence in a land where terrorists have vowed its destruction. His answered surprised me, along with all those in the room: “The time will never be perfect for negotiations, so we must do something now, and figure out how to make it work.”
The general’s attitude is echoed by many of the leaders I’ve talked to in recent years from both Israel and Palestine. But this leadership will have to figure out a way to control or neutralize their countrymen who would rather take up arms than give up any land or settlements. However, there are also many who simply want to end the madness.
Both sides have agreed to a one-year deadline to resolve the basic issues in the way of an agreement. The issues are many, but the most contentious include the drawing of borders, the status of Jerusalem, the Palestine military, the Jewish settlers — now numbering 500,000 on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem — and the “right of return.” The last of these, I am told, could be the deal-breaker, but a modest compromise solution has been floated that might satisfy both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu (but could cause them both complications at home).
It’s been widely reported that the United States used its muscle bringing about these talks and marked “a rare success for U.S. diplomacy in the region.” The presence of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, also invited to the talks, will provide the opportunity to gather much-needed regional support for any progress made during initial negotiations.
There are many wild cards that could end the negotiations abruptly, not the least of which is a newly nuclearized Iran. Thus far, Israel has not sent its air force — perhaps the best in the world — to take out Iran’s nuclear reactor, as many expected. Perhaps this is a sign that Netanyahu is willing to give the peace talks a chance. Abbas, it can be hoped, appreciates Israel’s restraint and will arrive on September 2 determined to take advantage of what may be the last chance for a Palestinian state.