The one thing almost all observers agree on is that progress towards realizing a two-state solution is on indefinite hold for the foreseeable future. This means we are facing an open-ended interregnum that all parties can use to seriously debate their options and to act unilaterally to either promote or obstruct peace. The problem is that both Israelis and Palestinians are mystifyingly avoiding their crucial national debates so that the real momentum has been handed over to some of the most dangerous forces at play, particularly the Israeli settlement movement. Today’s disturbing New York Times op-ed by Dani Dayan demonstrates the current triumphalist spirit of the greater Israeli project.
Most Israelis, living far from the occupation in the central coastal area around Tel Aviv, appear to be living in a dangerous collective denial about the threat this poses to their future. They are choosing to ignore it, and there seems to be no stomach for confronting or restraining the settler movement.
Every poll shows that the Israeli majority wants a two-state solution. Yet they are doing nothing to stop the settlers and their supporters from seriously damaging the chances of such an outcome. Settlement construction has rarely been more vigorous; the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank, according to the Israeli government, has surpassed 350,000. And that frightening figure doesn’t include the settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.
Numerous other measures are entrenching the occupation in significant ways. The recent official recognition of a university in the Ariel settlement, which is a panhandle deep into what would have to be any future Palestinian state, is only one such example.
Meanwhile, the Israeli extreme right is increasingly calling for the creation of a greater Israel involving the annexation of most or all of the occupied West Bank. A recent conference to that effect in Hebron demonstrated the momentum this movement has gained, as do numerous commentaries in the Israeli media. And, of course, the Levy Committee Report recommendations in effect advocated doing exactly that.
So the only real long-term vision being promoted and actively pursued in Israel is the untenable notion of transforming the occupation into permanent Israeli rule in the West Bank without giving full political rights or citizenship to its Palestinian population (Gaza goes unmentioned). In other words, the political and practical dynamics in Israel are moving the country ever closer to becoming a formalized apartheid state. The rest of Israeli society appears to be reacting with a collective shrug.
The Palestinians, too, are avoiding their own crucial national debates. Palestinians need to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with a protracted period in which real progress with Israel on agreeing to an end to the occupation is likely to be forestalled.
But both the public and much of the leadership appear fixated on issues that are largely symbolic. The most telling barometer of this is the uproar over the question of whether or not the late President Yasser Arafat was poisoned, and if so by whom. The Palestine Liberation Organization was recently able to secure its latest hollow victory, UNESCOrecognition of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site in its newest member, Palestine.
And the leadership is apparently seriously contemplating an effort at the UN to secure non-member observer state status for the PLO mission. Not only would such recognition do little to alter the prerogatives of the Palestinian mission at the UN, it wouldn’t change any aspect of the strategic equation on the ground or improve the life of a single Palestinian.
These symbolic issues are not only a kind of collective evasion of the crisis facing the Palestinian people, but some of these moves, such as renewed UN efforts, could come with very high real costs in terms of relations with, and aid from, the West. As a consequence of last year’s UN bid, Western aid has been cut to about half of its previous level and much of American support for the Palestinian Authority for fiscal year 2012 is now, once again, subject to congressional holds. Some news reports have even suggested that the US is privately urging Arab states to withhold aid to the PA in order to pressure them not to resume any UN initiatives.
Meanwhile, many grassroots pro-Palestinian activists in the West are pursuing quixotic boycotts against Israel that are unlikely to be realized, would also be almost entirely symbolic, and are disconnected from the broader national strategy, such as it is, of the Palestinian leadership. Much of these efforts are connected to a one-state aspiration that, in practice, has only been adopted as a cause by the most extreme factions in Israel, which are seeking to realize it as a “separate and unequal” entity. In effect, the one-state agenda has predictably fallen into the hands of the settler movement, which is the only party on the ground seeking to implement any version of it.
Some Palestinians and their supporters in the West are placing most of their hopes on the emergence of a widespread movement of nonviolent resistance against occupation. And while there are some efforts to promote a culture of nonviolence among Palestinians, there is still a widespread misunderstanding that conflates nonviolent with unarmed resistance. Protests that routinely degenerate into rock-throwing are not, in fact, nonviolent. They fail to mobilize the moral power that genuine nonviolence evokes. Not fighting back in any way against oppressive forces when they engage in violence pricks the conscience of the dominant society and the world—which is what nonviolent Palestinian resistance needs to do.
Others place their hopes in national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which, as things stand now, simply won’t happen. Neither do these parties agree on anything substantial nor do they have any incentive to share power. Under such circumstances, national elections remain, unfortunately, out of the question.
Majorities on both sides are sacrificing their agency and are thereby allowing a dangerous and untenable status quo, that could erupt into another round of violence at any moment, to continue.
So how do we move forward? To start, the Israeli majority that favors peace must begin to reassert its agency by forcefully pressing its government to rein in the settler movement, halt settler violence, dismantle outposts and stop the expansion of existing settlements, particularly those that cut deep into the occupied West Bank. Moreover, it can loudly and clearly insist that Israel views its presence in the territories as a temporary occupation that will be resolved and ended through future negotiations with the Palestinians.
Palestinians should redouble their commitment to the institution-building program led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad that has created many positive changes on the ground, improved the quality of Palestinian life, and begun to lay the foundations for a successful independent Palestinian state.
To do this, they will have to work to repair their relations with the West and restore the aid that was so central to its successes in recent years. Palestinians, Israelis and the world at large should pay careful attention to the recommendations of the most recent World Bank report, which stresses the centrality of international aid to the PA, the need for fostering a robust private Palestinian economic sector, and the crucial importance of education reform, as well as the onerous effects of continued Israeli restrictions.
Neither side is benefiting from the politically convenient but extremely dangerous bout of self-imposed debate aversion therapy. The majorities in both societies are likely to pay a high price if they continue to surrender their agency, avoid crucial debates and avert their eyes from what is actually happening around them.