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Election-eve peace deals never work

The Deal of the Century claims to meet both Israeli security interests and the Palestinians' goal of an independent state, but, in fact, does neither
US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration's much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration's much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Israelis and Palestinians, unlike the rest of the world, have not greeted the Trump-Netanyahu agreement on the future of their relations with equanimity bordering on indifference. For them, the so-called “Deal of the Century” is a game-changer in the most profound sense of the term. In Palestinian eyes the proposal rolled out in the White House without them is nothing short of a national disaster — a path to ongoing subjugation in their own land. The prospect of a second Naqba (catastrophe) may be having a unifying effect: in the face of the loss of any horizon for life with dignity — let alone self-determination — festering squabbles are being shunted aside in order to combat what is nothing short of a historic disaster. For many Israelis, on the other hand, at first glance the plan seems to affirm their divine birthright and promises to cement their superiority on the ground indefinitely. A closer look, however, suggests more discord and unease than appears on the surface. Not for the first time, politics, peace and elections are conflated at a given point in time with immense long-term consequences.

The massive bouleversement of the last few days must be placed within the context of Israel’s third round of elections slated for exactly four short weeks from now. The most obvious outcome of the declaration in Washington has been to further divide an already severely fragmented Israeli society. Cleavages between Jews and Arabs, center and periphery, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim and, always, between men and women have been cultivated during the past few years by a right-wing government which has consciously politicized these societal splits. The quest for closure on the Israeli-Palestinian front has sought to build a new consensus around the most essential issue to Israel and Israelis. The initial response has been, superficially, gratifying to Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners on the right. In polls conducted during the past few days, a majority of Israelis have expressed support for the Washington deal, over 25 percent oppose it, and the remainder are unsure (surprisingly, some 10% admit that they haven’t heard of it and are unfamiliar with any of its provisions).

These dry figures hide more than they reveal. The right is fast splintering between those who support the plan, those who embrace its annexationist elements, but reject any form of a Palestinian state, and those who are therefore skeptical of the package in its entirety. On the left, opposition to unilateral moves and their ramifications continues to differentiate between proponents of the two-state solution and those who doubt its feasibility or viability. And in the center, approval of the broad outline of the proposed Trump-Netanyahu vision covers a multiplicity of interpretations of its meaning. In an attempt to have their cake and eat it too, various factions in this ambiguous centrist agglomerate favor very different notions of both annexation and a Palestinian state and diverge on the steps required for their implementation.

These responses mirror the stuff that electoral politics have been made of for decades, coming to the fore with reinforced vigor during the interminable electoral season of the past year. They are now being further accentuated as part of a blatant electoral ploy to break the political deadlock by a caretaker prime minister facing criminal charges. It is unclear whether it has any chance of success.

The historical record is working against Netanyahu and his cohorts. Historically, every single effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the eve of elections proved to be an electoral failure and was subsequently doomed to oblivion. This was true of the understanding reached between Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan just before the 1988 elections, the Beilin-Abu Mazen accord struck prior to the 1996 elections, the Taba agreements reached just weeks before the special prime ministerial elections of 2001, the Olmert plan presented to Mahmoud Abbas before his resignation on the eve of the 2009 elections, and the Kerry proposals raised in anticipation of the 2015 ballot. In each of these cases, the authors of successive peace plans were throttled at the polls. Should this pattern persist in 2020, Netanyahu’s lifesaver may prove his ultimate political comeuppance.

The “Deal of the Century,” however, is far from a peace plan. It is intentionally crafted to institutionalize the move from conflict management to Israeli control over the West Bank while purportedly leaving the door open for a (crippled) Palestinian state down the line. The entrenchment of this scheme rests on Israeli annexation of the Jordan valley and Jewish settlements as soon as possible. For its electorally-challenged Israeli proponents on the right it has become, consequently, a race against time to unilaterally impose incontrovertible facts on the ground without further delay. In the same vein, opponents of the plan are in an equally urgent contest to avoid any such measures prior to the elections. And the American overseers — most notably in the persons of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt — are acutely aware of the possible reverberations of such a move in the few short weeks before the March 2 ballot. They are making it abundantly — and increasingly vocally — clear that now is not the time to take to take any concrete action. Whether this will preempt a desperate move by an embattled caretaker prime minister is still open to question.

What is not in doubt is that concern over the short-term has, after a brief hiatus, refocused attention on the long-term meaning of the Trump initiative. The Arab League has now unanimously opposed the deal and unequivocally backed the Palestinian position, paving the way for a renewed regional consensus around this issue. The European Union has come out unequivocally against its provisions. The United Nations Security Council is set to overwhelmingly reject its trajectory — despite an American veto.

More and more Israelis, too, are beginning to explore the long-term consequences of the suggestions contained in the “Deal of the Century.” Even some initial supporters understand that the key components of the proposal, in the absence of a Palestinian partner, do not lay the foundation for the termination of the conflict. Not only does the one-sided nature of its provisions limit its feasibility down the line, but the manner of its implementation may doom Israel to live by the sword for generations to come. This is precisely the opposite of the quest for normality that they so dearly want. Local opponents, having had time to delve into the particulars of the plan, are even more wary of the prospects of ongoing violence and the absence of any possibility for a workable Israeli-Palestinian peace that it contains.

At root, therefore, there is a growing realization that the conceptual framework of the plan may defeat both Israeli interests and Israeli values. By attempting to simultaneously meet Israeli security interests through annexation and Palestinian aspirations for self-determination through the promise of a skeletal form of an independent state, it satisfies neither. The key to Israeli safety has always been the ability to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. Anything less than that, experience shows, is a prescription for escalation and more violent confrontation.

On the normative level, the fulfillment of the plan will make it more difficult for those who care about Israel’s future to live with themselves. Israeli control over another people against their will has impeded Israel’s own freedom for years. The “Deal of the Century” is the antithesis of what founders of the state sought to create: it threatens to transform Israel into precisely the kind of country that it was established to prevent. Anything short of reinforcing the basic necessity of fairly sharing the land between Palestinians and Israelis is calamitous at this juncture.

Israeli politics have always revolved around different approaches to achieving these goals. This is especially true now, in the lead-up to yet another round of elections being conducted in the midst of a confused and confusing proposal for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. Can it truly promote peace, ensure security and enable Israelis to live with themselves — let alone with their neighbors — down the line? This is what Israeli citizens must decide as they ready themselves to vote once again in March.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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