Will the Relationship Change? Yes it Can
The Economist [February 12, 2009]
Israel and the Palestinians seem stuck in a poisonous morass, as Israeli voters shift to the right. President Barack Obama has a chance of hauling them out of it
AT FIRST glance, the chances of peace between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land look dimmer than ever. If Binyamin Netanyahu ends up as prime minister (see article), Israel’s voters will have elected a man who, on paper at least, is unwilling to let the Palestinians have anything more in the way of a state than a hollowed-out Swiss cheese of feebly linked cantons. He says the moderate Palestinians are too weak to control the West Bank and need to be strengthened, under Israeli supervision, before any more territory can be handed over to them.
Moreover, even if the centrist Tzipi Livni wins the day, with her support for talks leading to two states living peacefully side by side, the Palestinians are for the moment so sour and so divided that they have no government or leader strong enough to cut a deal and make it work. In any event, after Israel’s ferocious assault on the Gaza Strip in December and January, there is no certainty that the current ceasefire will hold with the Islamists of Hamas, which still rules that territory despite its pasting.
Yet hope persists, in part because Barack Obama has a chance of making American policy more even-handed and more effective, after eight years mostly wasted by George Bush and, before that, another eight years in which Bill Clinton tried but failed, to bring the two sides together. More even-handed means more sympathetic to Palestinians. But it also means more security, in the long run, for Israel.
True, nothing spectacular is likely to happen for months. For one thing, an Israeli government could take weeks or more to emerge, and could then prove hobbled by religious and other clamps. For another, Mr Obama, who sees the American economy as his priority, has yet to acquire his own Middle East team, let alone policy, under the dual aegis of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state and George Mitchell as his special envoy. Besides, not just the Palestinians but also the Arabs and the wider region are in diplomatic disarray.
Many of those Americans urging Mr Obama to take a new approach towards Iran, for instance, admit that little of substance is likely to alter until after Iran’s presidential election in June, when the erratic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may—or may not—be ousted (see article). Iran, by the by, still eggs Hamas on to make negotiations with Israel difficult if not impossible.
Syria is more promising. Even Mr Netanyahu, if he succeeds in forming a government, is likely to respond favourably to American suggestions that he continue the efforts of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert of the Kadima party, led now by Ms Livni, to negotiate a deal with Syria, whereby Israel would give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty similar to those already signed with Jordan and Egypt. Opening a “Syrian track” is widely considered, by the new policymakers in Washington, to be a good idea. But an Israeli deal with Syria alone is no substitute for negotiations over the nub of the matter: a direct deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mr Obama faces three early tests. The first, and perhaps the easiest, is to spell out his vision of a Palestinian state. Its outlines are well known and have been more or less agreed by sensible Palestinians and Israelis, including those in power, for the past decade. Israel would return to the armistice line that existed before the 1967 war, with minor adjustments and territorial swaps of equal size and quality, and would probably keep the three biggest Jewish settlement blocks that bulge out from the 1967 line. Jerusalem would be tortuously but fastidiously divided, allowing each side to have its capital there, with international oversight of the holy places. Palestinians would be granted a symbolic right for their refugees to return on the understanding that only a small and carefully calculated proportion of them would actually do so. Palestine would be sovereign but demilitarised, with an international force, perhaps led by NATO, securing its borders, both along the Jordan valley and maybe between Gaza and Egypt. A road-and-rail link, internationally monitored, might well connect the 50km (30 miles) or so between Gaza and the West Bank.
Mr Olmert himself recently announced, soon after his decision to leave office amid corruption allegations, his wholehearted adoption of the broad package described above. In particular, he mentioned a need to give back “all or nearly all” of the occupied territories and to let the Palestinians have their capital in Jerusalem, on its east side. The clear support of Mr Obama would bolster the region’s many moderates and put recalcitrant Israelis and Palestinians alike on the spot.
The president’s second big test, widely mooted, will be to warn the Israelis that further expansion of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, either by extension of boundaries or “natural growth”, is totally unacceptable—and will have painful repercussions if it goes on. It is unlikely, in the short run, that an American president, even Mr Obama, would have the nerve to cut military or other aid to Israel in a hurry. The only president to have threatened to do so was George Bush senior, in 1991, when he said he would withhold guarantees on loans. Since then, every Israeli leader has continued to allow settlement expansion, in contravention of international law, without a serious American reaction.
In a recent article in Newsweek one of Mr Bush’s advisers on Israel-Palestine, Aaron Miller, made a rueful confession:
In 25 years of working on this issue for six secretaries of state, I can’t recall one meeting where we had a serious discussion with an Israeli prime minister about the damage that settlement activity—including land confiscation, bypass roads and housing demolitions—does to the peacemaking process. There is a need to impose some accountability. And this can only come from the president. But Obama should make it clear that America will not lend its auspices to a peacemaking process in which the actions of either side wilfully undermine the chances of an agreement America is trying to broker. No process at all would be better than a dishonest one that hurts America’s credibility.
Cutting aid is not the only lever Mr Obama has for jolting Israel into acquiescence over the settlements. Louder verbal expressions of dismay than any of his predecessors have made would be one more. Letting Israel know that the United States cannot any longer be certain to veto finger-wagging resolutions at the United Nations would be another.
But Mr Obama’s hardest test of diplomacy will be drawing Hamas, directly or indirectly, into negotiations. As things stand, Hamas remains excluded because it has refused to meet three laid-in-concrete conditions: a disavowal of terrorism; accepting Israel’s right to exist; and going along with previous agreements signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the nationalist umbrella group to which Hamas does not belong, which would imply acceptance of a two-state solution. Mr Obama during his election campaign and Mrs Clinton since her appointment as secretary of state have reiterated those conditions. Yet a growing body of fixers trying to solve the Israel-Palestine problem, including many Americans in the Obama camp, now think Hamas must be involved, while at the same time knowing that Hamas is certain not to meet those three conditions unambiguously or straight away.
On paper, Hamas rejects Israel’s existence outright. Its charter, which contains anti-Semitic slurs and slanders, seeks to establish sharia law on all the territory of mandated Palestine, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean. It glories in martyrdom. Since 1993, and especially during the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) from 2001 to 2004, it has carried out more than 100 suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, killing at least 400. It has sanctioned the firing of rockets, though mostly home-made and rarely lethal, at Israeli towns across from Gaza. It reviles its secular rival, Fatah, for its supposed treachery in accepting the Jewish state and the principle of Palestine’s partition.
But Hamas is probably indispensable if there is to be a breakthrough towards negotiation. For one thing, it may well be the most popular Palestinian group (see table to the left). It won the last general election in the Palestinian territories fair and square, with nearly 44% of the votes to Fatah’s 41%, getting a big majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. And it still controls Gaza, despite its recent pummelling by the Israelis and despite a blockade and economic sanctions that have lasted intermittently for more than three years. Hamas says it would stop firing rockets, at least for a period, if the blockade were lifted.
In any event, Hamas is more pragmatic than its charter suggests. In conversations with various Western notables, including former President Jimmy Carter and a former head of the American Jewish Congress, Henry Siegman, and in articles in the Western press (in the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere), its two most prominent leaders, Khaled Meshaal, its secretary-general, and Ismail Haniyeh, its prime minister, have edged towards meeting that trio of conditions.
They state that Hamas would accept Israel “as a reality” if it withdrew to the 1967 boundary and if the Palestinian people accepted the terms of a final deal in a referendum. Hamas would also agree to a hudna, a ceasefire plus a political engagement, which—depending on circumstances and on whom in Hamas you talk to—could be 18 months, ten years, or even 50.
Plainly, differences rumble within in Hamas. Its leadership is scattered, with Mr Meshaal in Damascus, Mr Haniyeh in Gaza and nearly all those elected to parliament and resident in the West Bank now in Israeli prisons. Some of the religious zealots may well believe in the obnoxious charter. Others, including Messrs Meshaal and Haniyeh, try to brush it off and then, if pressed, dangle it as an item for negotiation, much as Fatah used the dropping of the PLO’s charter, which equally rejected Israel’s existence, as a bargaining tool.
Most Palestinians who voted for Hamas also, judging by a raft of opinion polls, actually support the notion of two states. Hamas’s popularity is based not on its call for Israel’s annihilation, but on its reputation for honesty in contrast to Fatah’s for corruption, on its determination to fight against Israel and on Fatah’s failure, so far, to win a state by negotiation. Most Palestinians still want unity between Fatah and Hamas so that a broad government can prise a state out of Israel’s hands, on the West Bank and Gaza.
Nearly two years ago, at Mecca, the two groups did sign a short-lived unity accord. Hamas agreed, among other things, to “respect” previous PLO agreements, which implied an acceptance of Israel via a two-state solution, though the precise wording later got tangled up in angry semantics: did respect mean accept, and so on? In any event, a few months later, when Fatah was poised militarily to unseat Hamas from its control of Gaza, the Islamists—as they explain it—launched a pre-emptive coup, since when they have kept Fatah, often ruthlessly, out of power in the Strip.
There is little doubt that Mr Mitchell will seek to draw Hamas in. He learnt, during his successful peace-broking in Northern Ireland in 1995-98, that groups such as the Irish Republican Army could not be expected to meet preconditions, such as a definitive disavowal of violence, if an eventual peace was to be achieved. It would be astonishing if he did not apply similar logic—though necessarily, at this stage, in private—in dealing with Hamas. Britain’s Tony Blair, who as prime minister worked closely with Mr Mitchell for peace in Northern Ireland, may become more active as an international envoy for peace in Israel-Palestine. It is increasingly clear that no deal in that case will stick if only one half of the Palestinian movement is involved.
In mainstream American politics, especially Jewish-American circles, the idea of talking to Hamas has been virtually taboo. This is no longer true. After Mr Obama’s election, a group of senior bipartisan foreign-policy veterans handed a compelling letter, still unpublished, to the incoming president. Its signatories included Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, who headed the National Security Council in Mr Carter’s and George Bush senior’s White House; Lee Hamilton, a Democrat who for many years chaired the House committees on foreign affairs and intelligence; Sam Nunn, a Democrat who chaired the Senate’s armed services committee; Paul Volcker, a long-time chairman of the Federal Reserve; Mr Siegman; and James Wolfensohn, a former head of the World Bank who was more recently entrusted by the younger President Bush with reviving the Palestinian economy.
The letter’s three key demands were that Mr Obama should appoint an even-handed special envoy with real clout (done); that he should spell out a clear vision for a Palestinian state (awaited); and that he should seek to draw Hamas into talks (not so easy). A key member of Mr Mitchell’s staff, Fred Hof, who previously co-drafted Mr Mitchell’s famous report on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2001, is close to the Scowcroft group.
Mr Mitchell’s appointment was warmly applauded by that group and greeted coolly by many in the old pro-Israeli lobbies, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). More to the point, though there have been other recent envoys to the Middle East, none has as much potential influence on the president as Mr Mitchell. General Jim Jones, too, Mr Obama’s new national security adviser, is a tough realist with recent experience in trying to improve security between Israel and Palestine. He is in hock to neither side.
No one is sure how Mrs Clinton, as secretary of state, will relate to Mr Mitchell—or to the Israelis and Palestinians. Since she became a senator for New York, she has ardently echoed more or less whatever AIPAC has said about Israel-Palestine. But some people recall how, when it was still controversial and her husband was president, Mrs Clinton called for a Palestinian state and even kissed Yasser Arafat’s wife after she had castigated Israel, a moment of horror in AIPAC’s eyes. Most probably, if Mrs Clinton sees a chance for a breakthrough to peace, she will go for it, whatever her previous constituents may think.
As for Mr Obama himself, no one is certain what he thinks; listening on such ticklish issues has been his forte. But those who have discussed Israel-Palestine with him reckon he is a lot more knowledgeable, even-handed and open-minded than his predecessor. He will not jump into the morass without careful preparation, but there is a fair chance, once Mr Mitchell has drawn up a plan, that the new president will engage quite soon.
Most Americans still strongly back Israel in its determination to defend itself. Expressions of support for the Israelis during the Gaza war and an inclination to blame the Palestinians for starting it ran nearly four-to-one in the Israelis’ favour. Evangelical Christians, a large and powerful constituency, still revere Israel as ordained by God to hold sway over the Holy Land.
But look harder at the polls and you see a striking shift in several sets of American attitudes, particularly among Democrats and liberal and younger Jews, which may give Mr Obama more room for manoeuvre. A big gap in support for Israel between Democrats and Republicans has opened up. Most striking is the emergence of a vigorous bunch called J Street, which declares itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace” but is far keener to see the Palestinian point of view. It is bluntly opposed to AIPAC and the array of groups that have backed Israel whatever the circumstances. In the new Obama era, the J Street people, together with a budding variety of other outfits, such as Americans for Peace Now, are on a roll, and are beginning to make at least some headway on Capitol Hill. Most strikingly, J Street has outspokenly called for Israel and its American friends to engage with Hamas.
AIPAC is still very powerful. Many congressmen who have lauded J Street for what it is doing are wary of backing it openly, though it says more than 40 (of 435 in the House of Representatives) have publicly accepted its endorsement. But AIPAC is rattled. The point that J Street makes most forcefully is that, in the end, AIPAC has been bad for Israel’s security by invariably encouraging it to pursue policies that will not lead to peace with Palestinians.
Mr Obama has many friends who passionately back the Israeli cause, not least his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. The new man is also close to many young Jewish Democrats who sympathise with J Street’s thesis that “tough love” is what Israel needs if it is to survive, by squeezing it into giving the Palestinians a fair deal. Many knowledgeable gloomsters think a two-state solution is too late already. Today’s picture is bleak. But maybe there is a last-chance opening for a new president with a new team, new tactics, and a different set of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian backers, including Jewish ones, back home.