One thing virtually all parties agree on when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the ultimate imperative for both parties to negotiate a peace deal, as the only way to bring about a lasting peace, and the cessation of all future claims. Whether this means a Palestinian state, ‘autonomy on steroids’, Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, or whatever, ultimately, it doesn’t actually matter as long as both sides agree to it and to end the dispute. So long as the parties agree, who’s to say it’s not a good, and fair deal.
The international community often bemoans the lack of progress, and complains that the two sides will not sit together, and sometimes hints at blame for this state of affairs. Indeed, they are partly correct, such ‘sitting down’ is clearly required for the drafting of final terms.
And yet, something vital is being missed. ‘Sitting down’ is just one form of negotiation, the endgame. Yes, we all want that to occur as soon as possible, but it is really just the final stage of a long process of negotiation by other means, and therefore, it can and will not happen until the prior stage has reached a point at which circumstances allow it to take place. The final peace deal will be essentially determined not at the table itself. The terms will already be generally understood on the basis of the relative position of both sides, and their alternative options or lack thereof. Could Israel accept giving up all of East Jerusalem and withdraw to 67 lines? If it had to, it would. Could the Palestinians accept an awkward, barely contiguous, autonomous region, and allow Jewish communities to stay within its borders, protected by Israeli soldiers, who would also be deployed along their Jordanian border? Could they even accept Jordanian rule? If it was the best they could hope for, they probably would.
The fact is, every time, there is a diplomatic initiative at the UN by the Palestinians, every time there is an approval for a new Israeli settlement, every time there is a terror attack, and yes, every time there is a war, what is really happening, is essentially, negotiation. It isn’t the nice civilised kind that the world craves to see, but nonetheless, it is a stage of negotiation, the main stage, that cannot be bypassed, and will set the stage for the ultimate ‘big sit’.
The only real question therefore, is how to reach the final stage of hammering out a deal more quickly. The answer to that question is that there is a clear imperative to create the conditions in which it becomes unavoidably apparent to the Palestinian side that time is not on their side.
Why do I say ‘The Palestinian side’? Why not ‘to any one side’? It is important to be realistic of the central aims of both parties and their attitudes to negotiations.
On the very day that Palestinians decide that they do not any longer benefit from ‘negotiating by other means’, be they violent, diplomatic, or otherwise, and call for an immediate final deal, fearing that the terms offered can only deteriorate over time and can never improve, on that day, the final stage of sitting will begin, Israel will reach out its hand and seize the opportunity, and our long awaited peace will finally come to pass. The amount of sitting, when it is timely, will be far less than we assume, because the terms will be understood in advance of the first draft. This would happen because Israel primarily cares about making peace at the earliest opportunity, at the moment that the Palestinians genuinely seek a deal, and understand that at the very least, must respect Israeli red lines.
However, if the Israelis believe that time will only weaken their position, and call to close a deal, even if the terms of that deal forced on Israel were to include all current Palestinian demands, the Palestinians would chose to wait, and choose to weaken Israel further rather than grab at peace. This is the case partly because many Palestinians still care primarily about getting rid of Israel entirely, if that were possible, and value victory over peace, partly because there is something in the Arab culture that loves to negotiate and in some respects is seen as an end in itself, but also in large part because, as soon as there is a deal, the amount of global attention they receive will decrease dramatically, and their significance in the eyes of the world, together with their agenda, will inevitably dwindle over time, as might their aid. They understand that they would cease to be treated as an especially important piece in the geopolitical jigsaw. They aren’t in a rush to swallow that, even if it’s compensated by a UN seat and membership to the family of nations. The media is largely to blame for this state of affairs by the grossly disproportionate weight of attention afforded to the conflict in general, at the expense of other issues, frequently of significantly more genuine gravity.
The Palestinians have believed for years that they have everything to gain and nothing to lose with time, and so have simply continued exploring new avenues to gain an advantage, ad infinitum. After one mode of conflict has been exhausted, whether it is bombs, rockets, tunnels, guns, knives or trucks, or whether it’s BDS, the ICC or the UN, they simply move onto the next, or wait for the opportunity. This is the reason all Israeli offers for a settlement have been rejected outright until now. There is no point pressuring the sides ‘to sit’, if the timing is wrong.
However, if, as is the case today, not only are Palestinian options running out, (Israel has what must feel like a remarkably annoying talent for thwarting their efforts, with ‘the wall’, the Iron Dome, US vetoes at the UN, Trump, continued settlement, the Bush letter, the rejection of BDS, not to mention its glaring relative prosperity) but also land is slowly but surely being lost, and so the realistic borders of a future state or even autonomous region are becoming ever less attractive. The chances of peace today are greater than ever, because the strength of that likelihood is directly linked, inversely, to the realism of Palestinian demands that are red lines for Israel.
Therefore, if peace is to be made, the Palestinians must realise time has become their enemy and they have no other option, not even credible bluffing, other than to make peace. The settlement project, in light of this truth, is not only justified, but is clearly of absolute necessity. It is an aid to peace, not an impediment. To be most effective the expansion of Israeli settlement as a rule should be not too fast as to create acute desperation by hitting Palestinian aspirations so sharply it’s a humiliating public slap in the face, and as to attract heavy international condemnation, but also not so slow that it fails to exert the required pressure, or to put it another way, create the required incentive. The current growth of settlements has been, wisely, somewhere in the middle.
It has also been made crystal clear that initiatives to accelerate the project will always be triggered, often at the expense of international empathy for Israel, whenever aggressive moves are executed against the Jewish state, whether in the wake of terror, incitement, or unilateral diplomatic attempts to gain advantage. This is also a crucially important tactic, mastered by the current government, who understands that there must be a price to pay, there must be a deterrent, even when it means, as we have seen in recent times, risking the alienation of our greatest ally.
Some might say that this analysis disregards morality, that it legitimises bullying and encourages enmity, which cannot be right or helpful. I say that the most ethical, worthy, and only wise approach is the approach that can realistically lead to peace. Fanciful notions of fairness and equanimity do nothing to advance the genuine prospects for a better future for the people of the region. The Palestinians are not for changing course out of love, and they will not renege on their wider dreams unless the alternative is effectively a slow painful death of all national aspirations. I have to say, it is not inconceivable that ultimately, the instinct to harm Israel will preside, even if it means national suicide. That eventuality, in other words the intentional self-destruction of the PA in order to dare Israel to annex everything and live with the mess, is something that must be planned for very seriously. I am however somewhat comforted in the belief that the PA leadership, while not at all averse to recklessness, simply loves power too much. If they could sacrifice the nation to stick it to the Jews they might, if only it didn’t mean sacrificing themselves.
There is much proof that the settlement strategy is working, in advancing the Israeli dream of peace on acceptable terms, whether by design or good fortune. But, the signs of that progress are not always clear. The lack of direct negotiations over final terms for an extended period, and the futility of many such former efforts, is misinterpreted as a cause for despair. Settlement activity is seen by some as pushing peace further away. The opposite is true. The real signs of progress can be seen in the succession of Palestinian failures in every single strategy embarked upon to further their aspirations, and thus the resulting scarcity of combative options remaining for them to gain leverage: the failure to threaten Israelis with violence in a way that profoundly affects public opinion, or weaken the government’s leverage, as was once a concern, the failure to yield strategic results, that meaningfully influence Israeli policy, through garnering international pressure against Israel, failure to build credible institutions of state, failure to hold elections, failure to maintain the effective and unified support of all Arab states, failure of losing the status of being the foremost Middle East concern and focus of Western Powers to the Arab spring, Syria, ISIS and Iran, failing in unity and fracturing into warring factions. Then there’s the failure of their leader, Abbas, who fails to charm or impress the world with any noteworthy kudos or gravitas, a man comprehensively outmatched by his counterpart, ‘King’ Bibi, who whilst despised by some, has proved himself to be undeniably courageous (in taking on a US president), a foe of formidable ability and judgement (he saw Obama off against all odds and was instrumental in the process), and a supreme political operator who does quite nicely without the luxury of repeatedly cancelling elections to hold onto power, unlike some of his friends in Ramallah. It may not yet be peace, but it has become far from a decent fight.
So now we are at the point at which, if the diplomatic fight, the one last genuine Palestinian hope, somehow also became unwinnable, perhaps say in light of new US policy that can somehow make it so, not just for the next few years but for the foreseeable future, that may well prove enough to finally trigger an imminent deal. Looking back in years to come, we may consider this period as the ‘endgame’ of the conflict, and wonder how we didn’t know it.
The recent settlement legalisation law is in my view, is akin to a sprint at the end of a marathon. It has been timed for maximum effect, to help our neighbours recognise the game is lost, to see the force of our momentum, and reflect on their comparable stagnation. If it helps lead to peace as I believe, any condemnation must be highly inappropriate. If it doesn’t, it was the best shot we have, and the right thing to do.
Whether or not it comes to pass soon, the simple truth will remain that only when Palestinian dreams, both big and small, respectively, of either destroying Israel, or that based on 67 lines, the return of refugees, and Jerusalem, both become completely unachievable, only when there is no other way, then and only then will we see expectations fall into line with what are acceptable terms for Israel, and, at last, true reconciliation.
The sooner this happens the better. For now, I hope that at least it will dawn on some, that to call for an immediate return to table-sitting, and to condemn settlements in the same breath, is a curse wrapped in a blessing.