Friday, February 13, 2009

The Peace Process In Trouble

The recent Israeli parliamentary elections are bad news for those who retain even the faintest glimmer of hope for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The moderate Kadima party "won" the election by claiming the most seats -- 28 -- in the 120 seat Knesset, leaving it in need of 31 votes to form a government. The Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu claimed 27 seats, but the breakdown of the remaining seats with its strong right-wing tilt means that Likud may have a better chance of putting together a coalition. The once mighty Labor Party that ruled the country from its inception in 1948 until the rise of Likud in the 1970s claimed a pathetic 13. Today comes news that Kadima and Likud are considering forming a unity government including Labor that would create a coalition of 68 seats. Israel has had a unity government once before with Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud rotating the prime ministry.

While this may be better for Israeli politics than a narrow coalition that empowers narrower, more extreme parties like the quasi-racist, anti-religious party of Yisrael Beiteinu or the strict religious parties like Shas or United Torah, it doesn't bode well for progress towards the two-state solution. Rumors also abound of a Likud-Labor-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition. While it's too early to predict what result will emerge, any government that includes Likud, and Netanyahu in particular, will not be friendly to the peace process that the Obama administration is hoping to advance.

The problem is that the longer the status quo drags on, the harder the two-state solution becomes to realize. Israeli settlement in the West Bank continues more or less unabated; illegal settlements deep in the West Bank are becoming increasingly permanent. While most of the settlers live immediately around Jerusalem and close to the Green Line -- and those settlements will likely be annexed to Israel in exchange for an equal amount of territory currently in Israel -- it is the settlements deep in the West Bank that are the problems. Israel has been entirely unwilling to curtail these settlements, and the US has, to date, been entirely unwilling to use its massive leverage with Israel to force it to do so.

And Israel must do so. The alternatives to the two-state solution are entirely unacceptable. As Stephen Walt points out at his new-ish blog:
First, Israel could drive most or all of the 2.5 million Palestinians out of the West Bank by force, thereby preserving "greater Israel" as a Jewish state through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. The Palestinians would surely resist, and it would be a crime against humanity, conducted in full view of a horrified world. No American government could support such a step, and no true friend of Israel could endorse that solution.

Second, Israel could retain control of the West Bank but allow the Palestinians limited autonomy in a set of disconnected enclaves, while it controlled access in and out, their water supplies, and the airspace above them. This appears to have been Ariel Sharon's strategy before he was incapacitated, and Bibi Netanyahu's proposal for "economic peace" without a Palestinian state seems to envision a similar outcome. In short, the Palestinians would not get a viable state of their own and would not enjoy full political rights. This is the solution that many people -- including Prime Minister Olmert -- compare to the apartheid regime in South Africa. It is hard to imagine the United States supporting this outcome over the long term, and Olmert has said as much. Denying the Palestinians' their own national aspirations is also not going to end the conflict.

Which brings me to the third option. The Israeli government could maintain its physical control over "greater Israel" and grant the Palestinians full democratic rights within this territory. This option has been proposed by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians. But there are formidable objections to this outcome: It would mean abandoning the Zionist dream of an independent Jewish state, and binational states of this sort do not have an encouraging track record, especially when the two parties have waged a bitter conflict across several generations.
The first and third options are inconceivable. Which means that if the two-state solution collapses or becomes impossible the only viable alternative is the second. And the second means a never-ending moral nightmare for Israel, a never-ending oppression for the Palestinians, and a never-ending war between the two.

Israel's insane electoral system and massively divided political culture makes it unlikely that Israel will ever be capable of dismantling the settlements on its own. The Europeans are trusted by Israel or the Palestinians, nor do they have sufficient leverage over Israel to make a difference. Only the US can push Israel towards the right, nay the only, acceptable outcome. President Obama should do whatever is necessary, including curtailing US economic and military aid to Israel, to ensure that the deep settlement stops and all illegal settlements are dismantled. Failure to do so not only jeopardizes the peace process, it risks Israel's very survival.

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