Agha and Malley get the problem, but not the solution

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley have produced another in a long series of articles for the New York Review of Books on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and this one is essentially a follow-up to a very controversial New York Times op-ed they published this summer which many people took to be an endorsement of a one-state agenda. Malley in particular spent a great deal of effort trying to clarify that this was not, in fact, what they were saying at all, and that they continue to believe, along with almost all other serious observers, that the only possible peaceful arrangement would be a two-state negotiated agreement. In the New York Review of Books, they are careful to point out that a one-state agenda is "politically fanciful," since "it fails the elemental test of any proposed solution, which is to fulfill both sides’ basic needs." They also dismiss the notion that the status quo is tenable and manageable, although it is the kind of one-state arrangement, but they agree that it cannot possibly be maintained in any kind of sustainable manner.

In the New York Times, they were arguing that the essential problem with the negotiating process as it has existed until now has been that it dealt with 1967 issues — borders, Jerusalem and ending the occupation — to the exclusion of the core issues of the problem, which they link to the war in 1948. In their new article, according to Agha and Malley, the central questions defining the conflict and precluding a resolution of it are the Israeli refusal to deal with the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 and the Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish right to national statehood in Palestine:
It promises to close a conflict that began in 1948, perhaps earlier, yet virtually everything it worries about sprang from the 1967 war. Ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is essential and the conflict will persist until this is addressed. But its roots are far deeper: for Israelis, Palestinian denial of the Jewish state’s legitimacy; for Palestinians, Israel’s responsibility for their large-scale dispossession and dispersal that came with the state’s birth.

Like the other great critic of all existing ideas, Aaron David Miller, whose critiques are, if anything, even more biting and incisive, Agha and Malley are quite brilliant in anatomizing the malignancies that have rendered the "peace process" moribund and incapable of producing a solution. However, like Miller (and, I would add, almost everybody else), Agha and Malley fail to propose any serious alternative. To me this means that while their criticisms are interesting and occasionally brilliant, they’re also of no value at least in terms of policy. They don’t suggest any practical means for overcoming the problems they’ve identified. And, they don’t really propose any alternative method for correcting what is supposedly lacking. What are we to do with this, one asks. Answer came there none.

As they did in the New York Times, they now repeat the allegation that the peace process as it has been structured since Madrid has tried to deal with 1967 issues while avoiding the 1948 issues that actually define the conflict. I’m not sure this is entirely correct. True enough, the land for peace formula built into Security Council Resolution 242 which has defined every aspect of the peace process as it has developed over the past 20 years deals directly with 1967, framing the problem essentially as one of foreign military occupation, Arab hostility to and rejection of Israel, and the lack of statehood for Palestinians who live under Israeli rule without many basic human and no national rights. But I don’t think that that means that this process evades or elides issues springing from 1948 at all.

It’s true enough that Israel is not going to accept the mass return of millions of Palestinian refugees, and serious Palestinian negotiators have understood this from the beginning of the process. But I think it’s also true that no Palestinians are going to sign an agreement that allows Israel to avoid any sense of responsibility for the dispossession of the refugees. Every serious proposal I have heard linked to the peace process has involved some acknowledgment of Israeli responsibility, compensation for refugees, resettlement in Palestine or even in small numbers in Israel itself, and the creation of a state that can serve as a refuge, haven, advocate and representative of the refugees. Obviously, a two-state agreement is not resolve all the problems of the refugees, but it is also not going to ignore the refugees or fail to provide them with major benefits that they currently do not enjoy. I simply do not agree that the question of the refugees is somehow missing from the structure of negotiations built around 242. The various Oslo agreements, the Roadmap of the Quartet, and the terms of reference outlined by Pres. Barack Obama at his recent speech before the UN General Assembly all include the refugees as a core permanent status issue. To me it seems hard to imagine a mechanism for bringing the issue forward in a more proactive way, unless one is suggesting that Palestinians insist on the full implementation of the right of return as a fundamental condition for any agreement. Under such circumstances, we would never have an agreement and the occupation and the conflict would continue indefinitely.

I also think Agha and Malley are wrong in their assessment that the extant peace process doesn’t involve Palestinian recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. Obviously, Netanyahu’s latest bugaboo about Palestinians recognizing Israel’s Jewish character is a complete red herring. Israel, like all states, will and does define itself, and while most Jewish Israelis agree that Israel is a "Jewish state," there is very little consensus about what that means. Some people see it in religious terms, others as an ethnocracy involving the rule of a Jewish demographic majority, some see it in macro historical terms as the resurrection of some kind of ancient Hebraic kingdom, others as a "normal" ethno-national state along European lines, some as simply a state embodying their view of "Jewish values," and there are even those ultra-Orthodox who reject the entire project as a sin against the will of God pending the arrival of the Messiah. All of this is of direct concern only to the Palestinian minority in Israel which has every right to participate in helping to shape the definition of their own country.

As for the Palestinians generally in the occupied territories and living in exile as refugees or expatriates, this issue of the "Jewish character" of Israel is almost entirely beside the point. A two-state agreement means Palestinian recognition of Israel with the implicit understanding that Israel will define itself, just as Palestine will, and that both parties recognition of each other is not dependent on any agreement about the nature of each other’s states. A two-state agreement means precisely that in practice: Palestinian recognition of the reality, and hence the de facto legitimacy, of a Jewish Israeli state, however that is defined by its government and citizenry. As with the issue of the refugees, I don’t know of any way to bring this issue forward more decisively in the negotiating process without creating a situation in which the difficult negotiations are rendered utterly impossible. Palestinians are not going to become Zionists, any more than the Israelis are going to allow a mass return of millions of refugees to reverse the consequence of the 1948 war which was the establishment of a state with a substantial Jewish majority in a large part of Palestine.

Saying that these core issues need to be addressed fails to recognize first that they are being addressed through the process that exists (when it works, that is), or it least the process as it is structured to work, and second that any mechanism for re-emphasizing these essentially emotional issues at the expense of practical concerns such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the future of Jerusalem, the status of refugees, and both sides’ security requirements is likely to make a negotiated agreement less rather than more likely. Agha and Malley say that the process as it has been structured so far comes close to constituting something like a confidence trick, precisely because it supposedly avoids the core historical issues as they describe them.

They do not accept that a two state agreement would entail Palestinian recognition of a legitimate state of Israel that is free to define itself as "Jewish" whatever its citizenry believes that means. They do not acknowledge any of the obvious benefits short of the implementation of the right of return that such an agreement would, in fact, provide for the Palestinian refugees, most drastically the potential rescue (and I use that word advisedly) of the refugees in Lebanon who live under unconscionable conditions that have in the past and could once again degenerate into a matter of life and death. I simply think it’s false that 60 years of struggle on the part of the refugees would be, as they claim, "in vain" in the event of a two-state agreement, even though it’s almost certainly true that the ethnic cleansing in 1948 cannot as a practical matter be reversed.

Agha and Malley are, however, probably right when they describe the current negotiating structure and positions as a straitjacket in which both sides are locked into irreconcilable positions. From this they conclude:
As currently defined and negotiated, a conflict-ending settlement is practically unachievable; even if signed it will not be implemented and even if implemented it will not be sustained. Against this background, the idea of a long-term interim arrangement acquires some logic.

The problem is that any such arrangement will in fact constitute a continuation of the occupation. Israelis might be willing to go along with such an approach, but for Palestinians it would undoubtedly suggest an interim that would almost certainly turn into a permanent situation in which their human and national rights would remain unrealized for the foreseeable future, as the authors themselves acknowledge. It seems extremely difficult to imagine a long-term interim arrangement not creating the backdrop for another explosion of violence in the foreseeable future

They also consider the "Jordanian" option, but they do not, I feel, fully appreciate the absolutism with which the Jordanian government would, under almost any imaginable circumstances, oppose any formal ties to the West Bank as a matter of almost existential national security. Any form of this idea fails their absolutely correct dictum laid down at the outset of their article that "the elemental test of any proposed solution… is to fulfill both sides’ basic needs." Bringing Jordan into the picture in this manner would most certainly fail to meet its basic needs, whatever attraction it may have for Israel and possibly even the Palestinians

What Agha and Malley are really arguing for is some method of bringing the core grievances — Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish Israeli state and Israel’s refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for the dispossession of the Palestinian refugees — to the forefront of negotiations. They don’t actually describe how this would be done or what it would precisely accomplish, but they do suggest that establishing Palestinian formal acceptance of a Jewish Israeli state (which I would argue has already been accomplished in 1988 politically if not emotionally) and Israeli formal acceptance of the tragedy that befell the Palestinians in 1948 would then set the basis for a return to the negotiations as they are now about security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. I fail to see the potential benefits from such an approach. Not only would it bring to the forefront the most difficult emotional issues, these rhetorical gestures are unlikely to accomplish anything.

Palestinian acceptance of Israel, formally through the PLO, has been on the table for 20 years. It doesn’t seem to have changed anything in the Israeli psyche. Similarly, I very much doubt that an Israeli acknowledgment of at least partial responsibility for the tragedy of the refugees would really be an equation changing development either. The occupation would still be in place, refugees would not be returning, nothing practical would change, and I find it very questionable that some kind of transformative emotional catharsis would be the result. They argue that such an approach would be "fresh," and that’s certainly true, but that’s not much of an argument in its favor. Both of these issues are, in fact, already on the table. Rearranging things to bring them to the fore and to bank on securing reciprocal rhetorical gestures acknowledging each other’s pain and fears would be not only very difficult to achieve if everything else is still in place unchanged, there isn’t any reason really to suspect that it would then allow all these other issues to be more easily resolved. And, they do not consider the consequences of the potential and possibly bitter failure of a round of negotiations focusing on these two emotional, rhetorical issues and what that would mean for any prospect of securing an agreement on substantive matters.

Agha and Malley reasonably complain that the Obama administration is following the same path previous administrations have in pursuit of an agreement. There has certainly been a new level of energy and commitment, but it’s also true that no fresh ideas are on the table. And I don’t think they’ve really provided any either. But there is one new approach recently developed that is genuinely fresh, and potentially very effective in changing the equation and the strategic conditions between Israel and the Palestinians.

Agha and Malley are, I think, wrong in seeing the PA government state-building plan as an example of a long-term interim arrangement, lumping it in with a number of implausible ideas that are supposed to be a substitute for diplomacy designed to produce a permanent status agreement. In fact, the PA State building plan is not an interim arrangement at all but a unilateral, proactive agenda for developing the administrative, bureaucratic, institutional and economic framework for an independent Palestinian state in preparation for independence. This is a completely different approach than anything the Palestinians tried in the past, and although left to its own devices Israel would undoubtedly block any such moves, this interference can be greatly attenuated by Western and especially American political protection as well as technical and financial aid to the project.

It is essentially calling everyone’s bluff: you say you want a Palestinian state, negotiations are stalemated, therefore we will begin peacefully, constructively building the institutions of our future state in spite of the occupation. This is consistent with Palestinian, Arab, American, international and even Israeli stated policies about what the Palestinians should be doing. But they cannot accomplish this on their own, both because they need aid and technical assistance and because they need political protection from Israeli interference. All Americans interested in real, potentially transformative progress should be sparing no effort in rhetorically, politically and practically assiting it. It’s the only game-changer in sight and it’s extremely serious.

But it strikes me that anyone looking for a fresh approach and a new option for salvaging the moribund peace process, saving the prospect of a two state agreement, creating improvements on the ground that encourage hope rather than despair, and ultimately transforming the strategic context in which Israel and the Palestinians negotiate should take this state-building agenda very seriously. It is complementary and parallel to diplomacy and negotiations and provides an alternative path for forward progress and positive change in the face of diplomatic gridlock. The one or two lines that Agha and Malley devote to the plan and their erroneous identification of it as part of a group of interim arrangements I think shows a considerable lack of imagination on the part of two extremely intelligent people who are trying to think imaginatively about how to find a way forward in a seemingly foreclosed space. Agha and Malley seem to have concluded that practical measures are less important than emotional breakthroughs. Personally, I can’t see the justification for this approach.

I find the relative indifference of so many of the most intelligent American commentators on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the PA government state building plan puzzling and slightly disturbing. If it’s true, as almost every sensible commentator seems to agree, that ultimately a Palestinian state is a sine qua non for Middle East peace, for goodness sake let us begin to create it in spite of the occupation and whether the Israelis like it or not.