Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Abbas and Israel

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that he does not plan to run for re-election in the upcoming Palestinian elections in January. According to the Associated Press, "Abbas says the stalemate in peace negotiations with Israel prompted his decision not to run again. He charged the U.S. with backtracking on its Mideast policy and refusing to press Israel to freeze construction in its West Bank settlements." Today, at a ceremony honoring former PLO Chairman and the first head of the Palestinian Authority Yasir Arafat, Abbas called on Hamas to honor the Egyptian-broked reconciliation deal designed to ease tensions between the Islamic organization based in Gaza and the West Bank-center, and more moderate, PA.

Abbas's resignation has raised serious concerns over the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (if one can be said to still exist) as well as the future of any moderate Palestinian political faction willing to talk and negotiate with Israel. If the PA does, indeed, collapse, Hamas will certainly benefit the most from being able to point the fruitlessness and foolishness of trusting in talks with Israel and the US to bring about an independent Palestinian homeland.

The problem, as Abbas apparently sees it, is Israel's unwillingness to negotiate in good faith towards a Palestinian state along the lines set out by the US and its international partners (the EU, the UN, and Russia), coupled with the American refusal to pressure Israel to make any real progress (exemplified by President Obama's caving in on the settlement freeze issue). Between the ridiculous Israeli electoral system that inevitably produces weak governments beholden to small extreme parties and the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has certainly seemed to lose interest in the peace process, and has repeatedly rebuffed requests to make any kind of commitment to an eventual independent Palestinian state (Netanyahu claims he favors "negotiations without preconditions" which forbids him from discussing any eventual end-game) or offer any kind of serious freeze on the building and expansion of West Bank settlements. The latter is perhaps the most important issue to the PA and Abbas, as the Palestinians rightly fear that continued and unchecked settlement expansion threatens to create a fait accompli on the ground that will determine the boundaries of any Palestinian-governed lands, sovereign or not, outside of the negotiated process. Palestinians are also worried that Netanhayu is, in essence, trying to bribe the West Bankers, hoping that allowing economic development in the occupied territory will quiet cries for independence.

Certainly, economic conditions have improved recently in the West Bank, and concurrently (although not necessarily causally) the West Bank has for the last years been relatively quiet. It's certainly possible that this is indeed Netanyahu's strategy; it's also possible that this is simply the result of Israel's domestic political system that is more likely to produce paralysis than results. It's also entirely possible that Abbas's threat of retirement is a political ploy, intended to coax more concessions from an Israel scared of an Abbas-less Palestinian political apparatus.

Either way, however, it's a bad strategy for Israel to play such a dangerous game of chicken. Israel has no choice, ultimately, but to move towards an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank (most likely in Gaza too, but that's a different story). Simple demographics about the growth rate of the Palestinians in the West Bank make it inevitable that Israel will become, very soon, an apartheid-type regime, with a minority population of Israelis governing and oppressing a majority population of Palestinians (I know the analogy isn't perfect as the West Bank is an occupied territory and not part of Israel proper, but the problem is basically the same). Furthermore, the longer the Palestinians feel the peace process isn't moving forward, the weaker the moderate PA-based wing will become, and the stronger and better Hamas looks as a representative of the Palestinians. Armed struggle will begin to look a more attractive option; it's certainly not out of the question that the West Bank could initiate a third intifada, although the security wall along the Green Wall and the removal of many of the deepest settlements will certainly blunt the impact of any such uprising.

Israel also suffers on the international stage for its refusal to make any meaningful progress. While Israel often claims, with much merit, that the international community is massively biased against it, the unjust occupation and continued settlement of the West Bank does nothing to help Israel in the international court of opinion. And Israel does, despite its claims to the contrary, need the international community. Just last week, Israel captured a ship it claimed was carrying from Iran to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon a supply of weapons large enough for a month's worth of military operations. In a speech discussing the seizure, Netanyahu argued that "[the smuggling] is a war crime that the U.N. Security Council should have a special meeting over. A major component of this shipment were rockets whose only goal was to hit civilians and kill as many civilians as possible — women, children, old people." That may be true -- in fact, it most likely is true -- but given Israel's repeated refusal to comply with international demands to freeze settlement expansion and enter into serious negotiations about the future of a Palestinian state, not to mention Israel's refusal to investigate allegations of war crimes in January's invasion of Gaza (all states, especially democratic ones, have an obligation to fight their battles in a moral and legal manner; Israel should, as it has in the past, willingly investigate the behavior of its troops and commanders, not because the UN demands it, but because liberal democracies hold themselves to higher standards), the international community isn't likely to spend much time looking into Israel's claims.

Israel's national interest demands that it divest itself from the occupation of the Palestinians. It no longer needs the West Bank as a defensive buffer against Jordan; nor, given the security fence being built and its overwhelming military dominance, does it have much to fear about a terrorist or military threat from the West Bank itself. But by seriously committing itself to negotiations, including an meaningful ex ante freeze on settlement building and expansion, Israel can gain several things: It can begin to avert the impending racist crisis; it can begin to capitalize on the fears of its Arab neighbors over Iran; it can begin to transform international public opinion; and it can protect its relationship with the United States.

Even if Abbas's threat is just a negotiating ploy, Israel cannot allow the PA to collapse. And preventing that collapse may require that Israel stop dithering, and start taking seriously the inevitable.

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