CRISES come and go, and new ones understandably hold our attention: Ukraine today, Syria yesterday. Difficult and dangerous as things are in Ukraine, appalling as they are in Syria, we may nevertheless not only hope but expect that some day these problems will be resolved. Some sort of settlement will be achieved. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian question goes on and on and on.
It is more than 60 years since the State of Israel was created and the first Arab-Israeli war was fought. This year it will be 47 years since Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War enabled it to seize East Jerusalem and occupy the West Bank, which had been part of the territory of the kingdom once known as Transjordan. Peace proposals have been aired in abundance. Peace talks have been held and abandoned. The Oslo agreement, which seemed to offer the prospect of a negotiated agreement eventually acceptable to both Israel and the Palestinians, recedes into the past. And the problem remains.
Israel has just withdrawn from the latest round of talks. It has done so because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is president of the Palestinian Authority, has come to an agreement with its rival Hamas, which governs Gaza, to form a new unity government. In a speech to PLO leaders on Saturday, Abbas said that this government to be formed of political independents would recognise Israel, reject violence and abide by existing agreements. These are the requirements for a peaceful settlement as laid out by the Middle East peacemaking Quartet.
The inclusion of Hamas in the deal is unacceptable to Israel. “We will not negotiate with a government backed by Hamas, even if it is a technocrat government,” said Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister for the economy. It should be said that Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, which is strongly supported by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been opposed to peace talks. Indeed he advocates the formal annexation of what is called Area C, some 60 per cent of the West Bank where most of the Israeli settlements have been built, and granting Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians living there. This is not a proposition which any Palestinian politician could accept.
Israeli’s security concerns are genuine. No-one should doubt this. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist and remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. This may now be mere rhetoric, divorced from reality, but until Hamas changes its tune, Israel will have nothing to do with a Hamas-backed Palestinian government. Meanwhile, Israel insists that any agreement must provide for at least a limited Israeli military presence in any future independent Palestinian state. To say that this demand is a formidable barrier to any agreement is an understatement.
The breakdown of the latest round of talks and the unlikelihood of their renewal in the near future have exasperated US secretary of state John Kerry. Whereas his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, paid little more than lip service to the need to find a satisfactory settlement, perhaps because she thought any attempt was doomed to failure, Kerry has committed himself to the task. Apart from other considerations, the defeated presidential candidate in 2008 surely recognises that this is his last big job, and his last chance to achieve something of value and make his mark on history. So he has made frequent visits to the region, held talks with both sides, and worked very hard to bring them together. Now remarks made in what he assumed to be a closed meeting in Washington indicate the depth of his frustration.
According to the leaked report, Kerry said that, without a peace deal, Israel was “in danger of becoming an apartheid state with second-class citizens”. There is nothing new in such an observation. Plenty of people have already called Israel that. But coming from an American secretary of state, it is provocative. If Kerry hopes that speaking like this will shame Israel into returning to the negotiating table, he is likely to be mistaken.
Israel’s position remains strong. No matter how exasperated Kerry may be, the US will remain Israel’s friend. Israel’s grip on the West Bank is firm. Its security is scarcely threatened. Israeli hawks such as Naftali Bennett who believe that the two-state solution is neither possible nor desirable are not going to be shamed into favouring the revival of peace talks because the American secretary of state gives way to his sense of frustration. After all, they never wanted the talks to succeed, because any resolution of the problem will require Israel to make substantial concessions – among them the dismantling of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an embargo on building new ones.
Israeli intransigence depresses and infuriates many. It has done Israel’s international standing great harm, just as apartheid did white South Africa’s. Moreover, just as the injustices of apartheid there provoked boycotts and demands for an embargo on investment, so now with Israel. Few in the European democracies can be found to defend Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank or the seizure of Arab land for building Jewish settlements. Yet for Israelis themselves the question of security remains paramount. No Israeli government of whatever complexion is going to risk compromising on that.
Optimists may hope that the latest political developments on the Palestinian side, ending (for the moment anyway) the struggle for leadership between Fatah (the PLO political party) and Hamas, may lead Hamas to recognise Israel’s legitimacy and so remove that major obstacle on the path to a negotiated and durable peace. Sadly, given the Palestinians’ own chequered history, it is more probable that this new government of unity won’t last long. In which case, hope of a successful deal will remain remote.
Other crises come and go. The Israel-Palestine one outlives them all. The US can urge, cajole, threaten and offer rewards, but it cannot deliver. Nobody can deliver, because, in truth, the will for that peaceful settlement is too weak on either side of the divide.