Three questions about the occupation and prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace

An Ibishblog reader poses a series of questions about my recent articles:

Q: First, do you think that Israel could continue to hold out a decision onwhat to do with the Palestinians? Earlier you noted that stasis is not possible, but isn't that what we have had since the failure of Oslo, a "stasis" that perhaps dates back to 1967?

A: I say stasis is not possible for the state and institution building program. My point in this context is that this project is predicated on continual expansion and will wither and ultimately die if it does not continue to expand. It is this very quality that gives it its greatest strength in terms of challenging the occupation. It actually doesn't allow for what its strongest opponents on the Palestinian side accuse it of: accepting the status quo and making that work. If it doesn't keep expanding, it will start retracting and will not survive. If it isn't the project that lays the groundwork for statehood, it's pretty meaningless. An understanding of that was strongly expressed in Sec. Clinton's address at the Brookings Institution on December 10. I think there are a lot of Israelis who grudgingly understand it as well.

Yes, of course there has been a consistent status quo in the occupied territories since 1967, but only in the broadest possible sense. In June 1967 the occupied territories became occupied by Israel, and they remain occupied. But that's hardly “stasis.” The ebb and flow within the context of that occupation has been fairly dramatic, including the first intifada, the Oslo years, the second intifada and now the circumstances defined by the new Palestinian security forces and the state building program. And that's leaving out everything that's happened in Gaza. And of course the biggest single change has been the gradual introduction of what are now 500,000 Israeli settlers. You don't have stasis in the occupied territories even though you have an ongoing occupation. You have a continually deteriorating situation in terms of entrenching the occupation, anger on both sides and an expansion of the constituencies opposed to a reasonable peace agreement, and conditions that ensure that a failure to achieve a peace agreement will result in another round of bloodshed that is even worse and more religious than the last. Offsetting this are signs of the growing maturation in Palestinian strategy to deal with the occupation, particularly the state building program but also nonviolent protests, settlement boycotts and other such strategies.

The bottom line is the status quo of occupation is neither acceptable nor tenable. If it isn't resolved it will eventually erupt in another wave of terrible violence. The biggest illusion possible is that the situation is stable or manageable. One of the very few virtual certainties I think is worth accepting in this situation is that absent an agreement to end the occupation there will be wave after wave of violent resistance to it in unpredictable spasms. I'm also willing to bet those waves become increasingly violent and increasingly religious, as we can see developed during the first intifada and then throughout the second. I think it's even reasonable to put the Gaza war in exactly that context as a third example, and it only deepens my point. So, no, “stasis” isn't possible in the context of the occupation at all.

Q: Second, if Israel will not allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, what is the alternative that you allude to twice in your essay? How does it fit with the "broader agenda" you spoke of?

A: Of course the only real alternative outcome to an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state is further conflict. I say Israel, if it will not end the occupation and allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, needs to explain, not least to itself, what its alternative scenario is. By this I mean that it's clear that Israeli society goes to considerable lengths not to face the actual choices confronting it, and that the Israeli political system has absolutely no consensus whatsoever on the fundamental, existential questions facing the country. Look at the current cabinet. One group, led by Defense Minister Barak plainly recognizes the strategic necessity of such an agreement. The second group led by Foreign Minister Lieberman rejects both the possibility and the necessity of such an agreement. The third group led by Prime Minister Netanyahu is as ambiguous as possible about the whole point, and he has made a careful practice of always offsetting his latest move with something else that maintains this ambiguity. If he does or says something that seems to indicate a commitment to peace based on a Palestinian state, he quickly offsets this with something that creates the opposite impression. And, of course, vice versa. In other words, there are three distinct camps inside the present Israeli cabinet alone, not even including the largest single party in the Knesset, Kadima.

Some Israelis might kid themselves that there are ways of making the occupation, or a modified occupation, work as a tenable status quo in the medium term. I think they're plainly wrong, and I was glad to see Sec. Clinton bluntly repudiate any such view in her most recent speech. Looking at the improved security situation in the West Bank, social and economic development in Area A, and the easing of the Gaza blockade (for what it's worth), and thereby concluding that the situation is stabilizing is about as self-deluding as possible. Palestinians plainly don't have any real desire to resume armed struggle or violent resistance, and any such move is clearly a terrible idea. However, over time if the occupation is not ended and the PLO strategy of negotiating with Israel to that end and the PA strategy of building the framework of a Palestinian state both atrophy and die, I don't think there's anything on the horizon at the moment that can stop an explosion of violence and/or the takeover of the Palestinian national movement by Hamas. So the alternatives are very clear: we can have a negotiated two-state peace agreement or we can have more conflict. Those are the only outcomes that existing forces are likely to produce.

Q: Third and this relates to the settlement freeze blog, what do you think of Abbas's threat to disband the PA? I know it's an old threat/tactic dating back to Arafat, but do you think that it will actually happen if Israel refuses to budge on the settlements and Area C?

A: I think it's a pretty empty threat under the present circumstances, because dissolving the PA makes no sense whatsoever. One can understand where it comes from: extreme frustration with lack of progress in ending the occupation and actually the intensification of the occupation, especially through ever expanding settlements. But politically and diplomatically it would be, under the present circumstances, a bizarre gesture indeed, and it won't happen.

However, there is a coherent underlying logic to this rhetoric. I do think it's true that in the long-run Palestinians will not accept partial, limited self-rule in population centers under occupation as an acceptable or tolerable status quo. The PA was supposed to be the vehicle of a transition that began in 1993 and was to have ended in 1998 that was supposed to have left the Palestinians in control of all of the occupied territories except for settlements, military areas and Jerusalem, pending a final status agreement after that. Instead, there was never any progress beyond the creation of Areas A, B and C, and no follow-up to the five-year interim period. Indeed, it was the lack of any such progress that set the stage for the disastrous second intifada. This was followed by the death of Pres. Arafat, the split within the Palestinian movement and the new era of state building. Developments have followed hard upon each other, with continual changes that have created new challenges and opportunities at every stage. So there has never been a serious consideration of dissolving the PA even though its purposes are limited and its time frame expired more than 10 years ago.

However, the PA is not an acceptable long-term solution. I can't think of a single Palestinian or pro-Palestinian perspective that thinks it is. Even if one wanted it to be viable over the long run, it can't be. It doesn't meet the minimum necessary standards for viability or political plausibility. It can't last. The PA is on something of a roll at present, because of the strong performance of the new security forces, the creation of a clean and transparent public finance system for the treasury and the ministries, and the impressive and strategically significant state building program. This definitely isn't your uncle's PA. However, even this more robust and dynamic PA is ultimately of limited purposes, and has defined its role even more clearly and specifically than ever as the body to manage the transition towards independence. Nobody is more forthright about this than Pres. Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. So it's not as if anyone imagines decade after decade of stable PA control limited to Area A as the occupation and colonization march on unimpeded. That's just not going to happen. Either the PLO and PA strategies will succeed or they will fail to secure independence, and the future of both entities will be decided entirely by that outcome.

I doubt there will ever be a formal dissolving of the PA outside the context of an agreement with Israel, but it's always possible in some future scenario. What's more likely, if there is no agreement to end the occupation, is the collapse of the PA and/or the PLO and their marginalized nation or capture by Hamas and other Islamists whose preferred aim would be to take over both of those entities entirely. So I read Abbas' comments as being a warning that is very strongly rooted in ineluctable political realities: if the occupation is to continue indefinitely, there is no future for the PA and Palestinians don't and won't accept the present arrangement as a semi-permanent one that can continue in calm and stability. Just like Sec. Clinton, he's trying to tell the Israelis that if they imagine that because the situation in the West Bank seems under control and largely positive compared to previous years therefore the medium and long-term circumstances will allow for the perpetuation of a modified occupation, they are dead wrong. This is a message that needs to be sent as strongly as possible by everyone and received by any Israelis who are making this disastrous miscalculation.