For many months now I have been predicting that the US would probably be able to secure a three or four-month settlement freeze extension, allowing for the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And, indeed, the Obama administration moved heaven and earth to do so, but now it would appear they have accepted that the present Israeli cabinet simply will not agree to any such thing. Even in the face of inducements rightly called “overly generous” by the New York Times, and I would say almost absurdly generous, the present collection of politicians leading Israel found themselves unable to agree to the most practically minimal, if politically controversial, gesture in exchange for massive benefits including the transfer of a large number of the most advanced fighter jets in the world. I'm amazed, and I'm sure the Obama administration is as well. And it can't be the case that Netanyahu and his colleagues have won any new friends in Washington as a consequence.
While I thought it would happen because I did not think the Israelis would be so addicted to the settlement project that they wouldn't accept such an offer, I never understood the underlying logic of the 90-day extension drive. It always needed to be asked what the United States expected to be different three months after the extension was secured. The realistic prospect of securing a deal outlining the borders of a future Palestinian state, excluding Jerusalem, in such a time frame and under the existing circumstances was always quite remote. Perhaps the administration included some kind of unstated caveat to the inducement package that it would expect changes in the Israeli cabinet if a deal on borders could not be secured, but that's pure speculation. Suffice it to say the administration never put their proposal in writing, and the Israeli cabinet never came close to accepting it.
This is not the end of the world, or the end of the peace process. The United States has numerous options for how to proceed, although what the administration's next step will be is quite unclear. No matter what course the administration takes, it and the rest of the international community have to redouble all forms of support for the Palestinian state building project. With diplomacy in disarray, the importance and indispensability of state building, as the only real source of practical momentum at the moment, is increasingly obvious. On the diplomatic front, Palestinians were blocked from entrenching their position in the UN by the United States, but have succeeded in securing recognition from Brazil and Argentina, with Uruguay and several other states expected to follow. State building is practical and strategic, but increased international recognition for Palestine is important as well. Unilateralism is probably a dead end, but multilateralism isn't necessarily anything of the kind. Palestinians would be foolish not to understand that in the end Israeli opposition will make it practically impossible to establish and maintain a viable, sovereign and independent state of Palestine. But Israel would be foolish not to understand widespread international recognition of Palestine's legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences as well.
At this stage everyone needs to take a deep breath and assess what has and has not happened and ignore the Chicken Little voices that have yet another opportunity to tell us all about how the sky is falling. The settlement freeze was always a gimmick: temporary, partial, and with enough loopholes to ensure robust and continued colonization for the full 10 months right up to and including Sept 26. The three-month extension proposal that has just been abandoned was an even bigger gimmick, since it was after all a gimmick of a gimmick. We have lost almost nothing practical as a result of its failure. If Israel will keep building now, the reality is that it has always kept on building. And, given that Jerusalem would not have been included in any 90-day extension, it would have keep on building there the whole time, if it really wanted to. There also have always been, and this no doubt would have continued if not intensified, unauthorized settlements that the Israeli government does nothing to prevent or dismantle, with rare exceptions. And then, three months later, Israel would have openly resumed all settlement activities everywhere it wishes, and Pres. Obama would have not only provided disproportionate inducements but also committed to never asking for another settlement moratorium extension, possibly with nothing at all politically or diplomatically to show for it a few weeks later.
So the idea that, as a practical or strategic matter, we have just lost a great opportunity to achieve a breakthrough or a major diplomatic accomplishment is completely wrong. The settlement freeze issue has been, and still is, a huge political problem for all sides, in spite of the extent to which it is largely a chimera. The Obama administration clearly miscalculated on several occasions, first by making a total freeze a condition for direct negotiations but not applying sufficient pressure to secure it, and then by accepting the Israeli partial, temporary moratorium without providing the Palestinians sufficient cover to let it pass.
For their part the Palestinians allowed themselves to be sucked into the impasse without creating a political way out for themselves when it was entirely predictable that one would eventually have been needed. Worse, after direct negotiations began, they got hung up on the settlement freeze gimmick when what would have made sense was to let that issue go and take a firm stance on the substance behind the freeze issue – the borders between a future Palestinian state and Israel. The worst thing they could do at this stage is to continue to stick to their guns on this dead-end issue. It would make more sense for Palestinians to take firm and clear positions on final status issues, especially the borders of a future Palestinian state and the status of Jerusalem. The settlement freeze question is a subset of the question of settlements generally, including both existing structures and expansion, which is itself a subset of two real permanent status issues. For Palestinians, the settlement question is essentially a subset of the borders issue: how much of the occupied territories will have to be exchanged in a land swap with Israel and what areas will become the Palestinian state. For Israelis, the settlement question is essentially a subset of the security issue, or as some Israeli officials like to say, the border issue is a subset of the security issue, which would make settlements a subset of a subset. No matter how you slice it, the settlement issue itself is not a permanent status issue as such but reflects other more fundamental questions.
Israel might feel triumphant at present, that it has faced down its super-power patron, which has backed off and accepted its refusal to accede to its demands, but faces a potentially very difficult set of short term challenges and a certain set of existentially threatening long terms challenges, largely of its own making. Israel, after all, has "won" the freedom to dig itself into a bigger hole, and deepen its presence in the occupied territories which, in the long run not only threatens its self-definition as a Jewish and democratic state, but also opens the prospect of ongoing and intensifying conflict that will become less and not more manageable, containable and resolvable. And so now Israel can defiantly continue to trap itself in an impossible situation. But the fundamental strategic problem remains the same: what is the future of the occupied territories going to be? How can Israel deal with an internationally illegitimate occupation that requires the forceful subjugation of millions of disenfranchised noncitizens? How long can such a situation remain nonviolent?
Of course there is only one way out for Israel and all the parties: a negotiated agreement allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic, viable and sustainable state depends on this. The Palestinians depend on it as well, of course. Israel has already built numerous settlements that will not remain part of Israel in the event of the creation of a Palestinian state. If it wants to build more structures that it will eventually have to give up, that really isn't the burning issue. There is a minimum of territorial size (22% of mandatory Palestine, in fact), contiguity and geographical coherence required for Palestinian statehood that would be accepted by the Palestinian people and would be successful. Those of us who haven't given up on the idea of a two state solution (which of course is the only plausible solution), and that includes most Israelis and Palestinians and the international community, already base our vision of the future on the understanding that a considerable amount of Israeli settlement will end up under Palestinian sovereignty. If the Israelis add a bit more to that mix it doesn't fundamentally alter the strategic realities. Of course, gigantic settlement activity would do that, but it's clear given American frustration over this issue that the price of such activity for Israel has become more significant than ever and that US scrutiny and criticism can be expected with every major move.
In other words, we are back to square one again and, having dropped this tempest in a teacup about a gimmicky and not strategically serious partial, temporary settlement freeze moratorium extension for 90 days, are facing the same fundamental reality: we can have a two state solution which involves a land swap in which Israel keeps some settlements in about 3-4% or so of the occupied territories and gives up the rest, or we can have an ever deteriorating conflict that becomes increasingly violent, religious, fanatical and out of everyone's ability to control. Whatever the administration decides to do to try to fix this prodigious diplomatic mess, financial, technical and political support for Palestinian state building is absolutely indispensable. One can make strong arguments for quiet diplomacy with both parties, which would at this stage almost certainly have the best chances of success, or interesting arguments for the US to lay out a series of its own positions on what the end of conflict would look like, which would be a high risk but also potentially high benefit move. I doubt the administration is ready for anything too dramatic, which is probably a good thing at this stage. So while they busy themselves with careful cleanup and quietly exploring where opportunities may lie with the parties beyond the settlement freeze dead-end, the immediate focus should be on as much support for Palestinian state and institution building as possible. It was always conceptualized by the Palestinians as a parallel track that could provide momentum when diplomacy faltered or even collapsed. Could there possibly be a better circumstance for it to play this indispensable role than now?