Allan Massie: Compromise and common sense

John Kerry, centre, with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Picture: Getty
John Kerry, centre, with Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, right, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat. Picture: Getty
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The solution appears a long way off, despite talks underway in Washington on the Middle East crisis, writes Allan Massie

There are intractable problems, and then there are intractable problems. This is the common sense view of the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by the US secretary of state John Kerry, and the common sense view is supported by experience.

Proof of this is supplied by the fact that it is considered a real achievement on Mr Kerry’s part to have got the two sides sitting round the same table. Yet expectations of a successful outcome could scarcely be lower. It is, after all, 20 years now since the Oslo Agreement seemed to pave the way for the implementation of the two-state solution based on the pre-1967 border, and arguably, that solution is now much further away.

Two things have made it so. First, while there is a Palestinian Authority, with its headquarters in Ramallah, this body has no responsibility for that part of the Palestinian population domiciled in Gaza which is ruled by Hamas, an organisation that still refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, and is capable of firing rockets into Israel. So Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of al-Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, is much weaker than Yasser Arafat was at the time of Oslo.

Second, over the intervening two decades Israel has continued to build settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; there are now half a million Israelis living in what was then envisaged as the territory of the future Palestinian State. These settlers will not be easily dislodged, and there is very little evidence of a political will in Israel to remove the settlements, or indeed to stop building new ones. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has scarcely given even lip service to ending the settlement programme, let alone removing existing ones; and there are hawks in his Cabinet beside whom Mr Netanyahu seems a moderate dove.

Furthermore, in the name of security, Israel has extended and intensified its control of the West Bank. It has built a protective wall and established check-points on every road. For Israel this is justified; life for Israeli citizens is much safer than it used to be. There has been no third infitada and even attempted suicide bombings have become rare. For the time being existing conditions suit Israel. Indeed you could say that they suit Israel precisely because the Palestinians find them so awful.

Yet Israel has consented to engage in these talks despite the doubts voiced by some of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners. It has done so because of a perception that the present stability is unlikely to be permanent. Occupation of the West Bank, and the maintenance of what is in effect a police state there, have done great harm to Israel’s international standing. Israel can live with this, despite boycotts and the threat of further boycotts – so long as it retains the support of the USA. But it irks the Americans too, because failure to achieve a peaceful and just settlement of the Palestinian problem weakens US influence in the region. Hence, John Kerry’s initiative; achieving what is called justice for the Palestinians would make it easier for the US to negotiate with Iran and would restore its standing in the Arab world. The catch is that justice for the Palestinians must be yoked to security for Israel.

Israel has its own dilemma. How is it to remain a Jewish state and a democracy? The Israeli Right which proclaims Israel’s entitlement to the whole “Biblical Land of Israel” shuts its eyes to the reality that what is called “the one-state solution”, permanent occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of new Jewish settlements, would create a state where there was no Jewish majority. How could such an Israeli state remain a democracy? The answer is clear. It could be a democracy only in the sense that South Africa was a democracy in the years of apartheid, that is to say, a democracy where the majority people were deprived of democratic rights. This would surely be as unstable as white majority rule proved to be in South Africa.

So it remains the case that the two-state solution is the best for Israel as well as for the Palestinians, however hard it may be to persuade the advocates of a greater Israel to accept this, and to agree to the evacuation of settlements. Yet it is the best only on one condition: that some means can be found to guarantee Israel’s security, and to prevent the return of terrorist activity. This will be very hard to achieve, but it is surely imperative. Otherwise there is no chance that the latest round of talks will achieve anything of substance.

There is however one other incentive for Israel: the establishment of a peaceful self-governing Palestinian state in the West Bank might discredit Hamas, and weaken its grip on Gaza, for this would demonstrate that more may be won for Palestinians by dialogue and consensus, than by confrontation. Yet one has to recognise that this too is a long shot.

It has always been clear that any durable settlement will require Israel to surrender land in exchange for peace. The Israeli fear is that the surrender of land – withdrawal to the 1967 borders, albeit somewhat amended – would be irreversible, while the peace might be broken at any time, with Israel less able to defend itself and protect its citizens than it is now. Surrendering land and the security that occupation of the West Bank affords is a physical act; peace is not an act, but a promise that can be broken at any time. Consequently it is difficult to see an agreement being reached that will satisfy Israel. Moreover, the closer the two sides may seem to be coming to an agreement, the more likely it is that Mr Netanyahu’s coalition would break-up.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for from negotiations over the coming months, even years, is that Israel will consent to the formal recognition of a Palestinian state, and the handover of some settlements, while at the same time insisting on its right to maintain a military presence in the West Bank. And even this may be too much to hope for, too much for either side to concede.