Mitchell Plitnick

How Peace Can Survive Trump and Bibi

In the wake of the United States’ elections, the waning weeks of 2016 are being defined by despair for progressives. That despair is at its thickest when considering the prospects for ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The questions that are troubling everyone concerned with resolving the conflict are existential: Is there any possibility of a Palestinian state anymore? How can we even keep hoping in the aftermath of the election in the United States? Is there any path forward? Yet, as troubling as the current situation is, hope and opportunity remain.

The obstacles facing advocates for a peaceful and just future for Israelis and Palestinians are difficult to overstate. In Israel, we have a government that has been marching farther and farther to the right since 2009. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fears nothing quite so much as being outdone from the right by Naftali Bennett. Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, is working to stake out a position as the sensible character who can, with more care than Bennett, defend the interests of the settlements. These forces continue to push Bibi farther and farther rightward and can be expected to do so for the foreseeable future.

On the Palestinian side, little has changed. Mahmoud Abbas’ activities center around holding on to power. Around him, various challengers jockey for position in a post-Abbas Palestinian Authority, while Abbas’ supporters in the PA maneuver to keep control of the West Bank after Abbas’ departure or death. Meanwhile, the rift between the PA and Hamas is as wide as ever, the occupation of the West Bank grows ever deeper and the brutal living conditions in Gaza continue their precipitous decline.

While no one is certain about where Donald Trump might take United States policy on Israel and Palestine, early signs are not promising, to say the least. His campaign advisors, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, all support Israel’s settlement project. Kushner has been mentioned as a possible special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace while other key names rumored for Trump’s foreign policy braintrust have included Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani and Tom Cotton, all of whom are known to harbor similar views.

This summer, the party which nominated Trump and which controls both houses of Congress altered its platform regarding a two-state solution. While not stating its opposition to such an outcome, the new Republican party platform does say that they do not consider Israel to be “an occupier” and that it sees any measures taken against settlements as no different from those taken against Israel itself. The platform itself defers to Israel as to how best to deal with the Palestinians. The Democrats, for their part, rejected a change to their platform that would have called for an “end to occupation” and would have specifically called Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.

When one considers these realities, it is difficult not to despair. President Barack Obama’s best intentions have produced nothing but setbacks, and now it seems matters will only decline from here. How, then, are advocates for justice, peace, and security to respond to this grim new alignment?

First, we must bear in mind that, while the circumstances appear very bad, it can also be argued that the potential for a sudden shift has never been higher. Trump is a wild card. His unpredictability can lead to an explosion in the region, or it could lead to much more decisive action by other parties – Europe, the Arab states, Russia, the United Nations – than we’ve seen in the past 50 years. This is a conflict that has been prone to sharp and sudden changes in the past, and current circumstances make that more likely in the near term.

That same unpredictability applies to Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian politics have been bogged down in internal issues for a quarter of a century, and while that situation is persisting, the simple passage of time is going to bring some new voices to the fore. It remains to be seen how they will approach the considerable issues facing them, but a shock to Palestinian politics could well have profound effects on the current leadership. In such an event, it will be crucial that there be external support for Palestinian democracy and a real readiness to support a new Palestinian leadership that can both stand strongly against the occupation and find a path to a mutually agreeable deal with Israel.

In Israel, there are similar conditions. It is easy to observe the profound rightward shift in Israel and despair, but there is reason to think this might not be as permanent a shift as it appears.

The Israeli right certainly grown in popularity and influence and has become more and more radical in recent years. But it is likely that elections tip their way, at least in terms of security and peace issues, because many Israelis no longer believe that centrist and left-of-center political leaders can provide the security they need. A pragmatic, progressive leader who can change that perception may well be able to unseat Netanyahu and shift votes back to the center.

Just like with the Palestinians, such a shift is more possible in the case of some shock to the Israeli political system. In that situation, a more progressive voice that can credibly sell the advantages of peace while keeping the public’s faith that peace will make them more, rather than less, secure could very well win the support of the Israeli people, and with it, the support of much of the international community that Netanyahu has squandered.

Of course, leaders on both sides with the sort of vision that is required do not seem to be on the horizon now. Yet, even if profound political changes in Israel or among the Palestinians do not come about, there are still opportunities that advocates for a just peace can take advantage of.

In the United States, the number of Democrats favoring an even-handed US approach to Israel-Palestinian peace and stronger US action to promote it is already a majority and growing. That is something to build on during a Trump presidency.

This is a time for all of us to take stock and realign our efforts. It’s a time to recognize that the Oslo process is a failure, and that if there is to be hope for a two-state solution, or any other solution, it must be along different terms than what has failed in the past.

An end to this conflict must be based on a vision of equal national, political, civil and human rights for every Israeli and Palestinian. A rights-based approach must be the basis for any agreement, rather than the idea of “land for peace” or “separation.” Those ideas may be an integral part of the solution, but equal rights must be the basis for it.

To realize such a vision, international law must be the bedrock on which any agreement is built. International law worked to create Israel, and Israel’s sovereignty is now a legal reality as are its legal responsibilities. Israel has the legal right to self-determination, but it also bears responsibility for decades of settlement expansion, denial of Palestinian rights, and theft of Palestinian land and resources.

Progressive groups do not have to agree on what the ultimate solution looks like. But they must find common ground, and, above all, they must agree on one principle that forms the basis for their advocacy: the rights of every Palestinian are equal, in every way, to those of every Israeli. And international law applies to all equally as well. Palestinians and Israelis are equal in their entitlement to peace, security, the opportunity for prosperity, and the protection of their rights.

That is the essential principle that both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump hold in contempt, no less than those who would deny these rights to Israelis. If we emerge from the coming years with equal rights and international law as a universal basis for our work, our differences will matter less and we just might be able to come up with a better path forward than those that have failed in the past.

About the Author
Mitchell Plitnick is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Previously, he was Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2008-2010) and Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace (2002-2008). His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. He received a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park and a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
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