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A Historic Moment in the Middle East


After months of intensive shuttle diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. To better understand the prospects for and implications of a revived Middle East peace process, I spoke with American activist and scholar Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein has been writing and lecturing about the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades, and is the author of, among other books, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Antisemitism and the Abuse of History and Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End. He is currently working on a book with Mouin Rabbani entitled How to Resolve the Israel-Palestine Conflict.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads J Street, the main liberal Zionist lobby in the U.S., welcomes renewed peace talks as a potentially "historic opportunity" to reach a two-state settlement. You've been a close observer of the peace process for more than two decades. Can renewed talks produce a "historic" moment, or should we expect more of the same?

When folks like Jeremy Ben-Ami speak of the "two-state solution", they are talking about two states divided by the pre-June 1967 border, with, they are always careful to add, land swaps. By "land swaps", they mean Israel’s annexation of the major settlement blocs and giving Palestinians some territory in return. In fact the delineation of their proposed border is very clear. It's the route of the Wall. Israelis speak fairly openly of the Wall as the "future border", to quote Israel's current Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni.

That kind of two-state settlement precludes any possibility of a Palestinian state. Israeli retention of the settlement blocs of Ariel, Karnei Shomron and Ma'ale Adumim would trisect the West Bank, appropriate some of its most valuable land and resources and cut off East Jerusalem. When people talk about the terms of a final settlement they often focus on percentages—what percentage of the West Bank will Israel retain, and so on—which misses the point made by the Palestinian delegation to the Annapolis talks: it's not just about percentages. East Jerusalem comprises just 1% of the West Bank, but a Palestinian state in its absence is unthinkable. Greater East Jerusalem—the triangle going from East Jerusalem to Ramallah to Bethlehem—accounts for 40% of the Palestinian economy.

However, I agree with Ben-Ami that we are approaching a potentially historic moment. Why? Because Palestinians are now the weakest they have ever been. This is due to four main factors:

• Regionally, the Arab world is completely shattered and ready to do whatever the U.S. demands. Kerry says to the Arab League "have a meeting, endorse my guidelines", so it meets and endorses his guidelines. Kerry says "change the Arab Peace Initiative to include a reference to land swaps", so it amends the Peace Initiative. It won't put up any resistance.

• Hamas, which was the principal obstacle to the Palestinian Authority (PA) imposing its will, has been reduced to zero. Hamas severed its ties with Syria and Iran, choosing to put all its eggs in the basket of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. With that gone, Hamas is in its most desperate state since its founding in the 1980s.

• The Palestinian people have never been more despondent and despairing. For all the chatter on Facebook, Twitter and blogs by the Ramallah NGOs about a third intifada, there is no sign of one. This could change, but right now, Palestinians are in a defeatist state of mind.

• The Palestinian Authority is not more corrupt than it's ever been, because it reached rock bottom a long time ago, but it's more dependent on the U.S. than ever. The U.S. holds the purse strings, and the PA has to follow orders. It seems Obama will throw in a few extra dollars that will enrich a thin stratum of the Oslo nouveau riche.

When you add up all these factors, it's possible that the U.S. can impose a historic defeat on the Palestinians, by forcing through a settlement on terms that preclude a viable Palestinian state.

One qualification is that, as my co-author Mouin Rabbani points out, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may not have the authority to ram a settlement like that through. He won't find the support for signing on the bottom line, and he can't go the final step alone. Mouin thinks they may reach a provisional settlement instead, which is great news for Israel, which wants to drag the process out until the facts on the ground are irreversible.

And this settlement would look like the Zionist doves' "two-state settlement" you just described, with Israel essentially taking the route of the Wall as its border?around 9.5% of the West Bank. And that figure has been consistent since 2000: Israel's about 9% of the West Bank, and the unofficial map presented by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Abbas in 2008 envisaged 8.7%. A fraction of one percent: that's the abyss separating the poles of Israeli elite opinion. Incidentally, the Wall's path finesses Israel's "demographic problem". It incorporates only an additional 25,000 West Bank Palestinians on the "Israeli" side, most of whom Israel will probably drive out administratively over time.

The rest is just theatre, to allow Israel to claim it has made gut-wrenching concessions. And it's working. I recently spoke to a good friend of mine, a Palestinian professor, and I said that Israel wants to keep the roughly 9% of the West Bank annexed by the Wall. Her reaction was revealing: she said, "Really? That's all they want?" That's exactly how it will be played out: we're going to be told, "Israel gave up 91% and all it wants is 9%".

Nathan Thrall in the New York Review of Books argues that in each successive round of negotiations Israel has offered more and more in terms of territory, culminating in Olmert's 2008 proposal, which offered "far more" land than ever before. Doesn't this trend offer grounds for hope in the new talks?

Israel's real bottom line, as against its theatrical one, has been absolutely consistent. There has been no change between the Taba talks of 2001 and the Annapolis so-called negotiations in 2008. Israel has consistently sought to annex roughly 9% of the West Bank, incorporating the major settlement blocs.

Thrall refers casually to the leaked transcripts of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which have come to be known as the Palestine Papers. It's a voluminous record and an extremely illuminating one. The problem is that people are lazy. They haven't read it. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has a group providing legal advice for the Palestinian negotiators, the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU). The NSU, whether or not you agree with its politics (unfortunately Saeb Erekat fired everybody with an ounce of gray matter, like Michael Tarazi and Diana Buttu, whenever they threatened to upstage him), was technically competent and well informed. It composed matrices every few months, outlining in minute detail where the respective parties currently stood on the terms of a settlement.

Reading this record, we can see what Olmert's generous offer consisted of. Olmert's best official offer, made during the Annapolis negotiations, proposed an Israeli annexation of 9.2% of the West Bank. Later in 2008 he showed Abbas a map, but didn't allow him to take a copy out of the room. Abbas committed it to whatever he has upstairs and conveyed its details to the NSU, which then recent guidelines published by the EU that will limit European economic engagement with the settlements? Is the primary U.S. and Israeli objective with these talks to impose a settlement in the manner you just described, or to deflect international pressure and thereby reduce the costs of maintaining the status quo?

I have already itemised the relevant negative developments, but as you say, there have also been some positive developments, or at least non-regressions. When the EU published its guidelines, I worried that it would apply them clearly to the West Bank but would be more circumspect on the question of East Jerusalem (which Israel de facto annexed in 1967). In the event, the guidelines are very clear: the EU "does not recognize Israeli sovereignty" over "the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem", all of which constitute "occupied" territory. Despite the passage of 45 years and a massive establishment of facts on the ground, Israel has made zero inroads in trying to get its new borders legitimised. It's right where it was 45 years ago.

I think you're correct that Israel's goal with these negotiations is to mitigate the threat posed by the new guidelines and, more importantly, the spirit behind them. Israeli officials have said this openly: the EU guidelines are a consequence of the fact that Netanyahu is not pretending to negotiate, so let's go back to negotiations.

It's so painfully predictable, a five year old watching it could tell you exactly what's going to happen. We'll get to January, when the EU guidelines are due to go into effect, and the U.S. and Israel will say "we're negotiating, so now's not the time to implement the guidelines, put them on hold until we see where these talks are going". Then they'll drag out the negotiations for a couple of years. My guess is that Obama will do exactly the same as Bill Clinton. Obama's is a failed presidency, and Obama knows that. In his final year Clinton was trying to redeem himself from the Lewinsky scandal and so, at the last minute, pushed for a deal at Camp David. Similarly, at the last minute Obama will exert real pressure to try and redeem eight years of disaster. So for the next couple of years, at least, nothing will come of the EU guidelines.

From the Palestinian side, in recent weeks the big issues going into the new "negotiations" have been whether or not the pre-June 1967 borders will be the reference point, and whether or not Israel will release a certain category of political prisoners. So, what happened to Abbas’s original demand for a settlement freeze? It’s now being said that Israel will unofficially reduce settlement construction everywhere except the major settlement blocs, where it will construct 1,000 new units. Ha'aretz reports, "[t]here has almost never been a year in which more than 1,000 housing units were built under government auspices in the settlements". That’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Israel only really cares about retaining these settlement blocs, so it has secured Palestinian acquiescence in its claim over them. Incidentally, Ha'aretz also reports that even "hawkish" members of Likud have gone along with this settlement "freeze" because of course they only want the settlement blocs, and don’t care much about a freeze elsewhere. 

The PA negotiators are insisting that the '67 borders constitute the term of reference, which is kind of funny, because as Condoleezza Rice recalls in her memoirs, that was already the de facto reference point in the 2008 Annapolis talks, which went nowhere. The issue has never been whether those are the terms of reference; the issue has been over the critical phrase "mutually agreed-upon land swaps", which gives Israel a veto on the final border. Once you say "mutually agreed-upon land swaps" it's over. Is Israel going to agree to give up Ma'ale Adumim?

You mentioned that the PA is so dependent on American support that it basically follows orders. But then how was it able to resist U.S.-Israeli pressure to restart talks for so long? What changed in the past few weeks?

I'm far from an expert on Palestinian politics. But I talk to analysts who have a grasp of the situation like Rabbani. He said all along that Abbas would go back to negotiations. It was totally predictable. At some level, he had no choice: Obama calls him and says the aid package is on the line, what's he going to say to that? So we've also seen a lot of theatrics on the Palestinian side, intended to extract the maximum they could get, which in the event seems to be a Ferris wheel and a rollercoaster for the NGO theme park in Ramallah.

That's what Tony Blair's economic peace package is about?

These constitute economic bribes in exchange for maintaining 'security', while Israel gets on with the serious business of annexation. Those were, by the way, the two hats the former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad wore: he was in charge of economic development and he was in charge of security. If Palestinian leaders want the largesse, they have to clamp down hard. Fayyad was responsible for the repression of Hamas—that was the quid pro quo.

Abbas has reportedly pledged to put any deal resulting from the talks to a popular referendum. Perhaps the threat of looming capitulation will rouse Palestinian resistance.bus boycott was completely spontaneous, as were the original student sit-ins in Greensboro. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the NAACP’s plan was to go through the legal system to get a favourable court ruling. What happened—a mass popular boycott—was spontaneous. Imagine these working people, walking to work or going in makeshift car pools for a year. A year, getting up in the wee hours of the morning. Who could have guessed that they would find the inner moral resources to make that kind of sacrifice?

So you can never predict these things. But we should also be careful to avoid predicting in the other direction. When I was speaking about changes in the Middle East the past couple of years, I always described developments in Egypt and Turkey as irreversible except in the event of a military coup in Egypt, which—I always added—I considered highly improbable. Why improbable? Because who would ever have thought that there would a popularly mandated military coup in Egypt? I could not, in my wildest imagination, predict that the secular liberal-left in Egypt would support a military coup. That's a shocker. The inaugural act of the putschists in Egypt was to shoot dead dozens of worshippers at 3.30am during morning prayers. The secular liberal-left uttered not a word. Nothing. Who would have guessed that a year ago?

So history is full of surprises, in both directions. Palestinians may have reached the point where they look around and say "this is the best we can get", and, even in a referendum, sign on to it. You can't predict that they won't do that. It's possible.

If the situation is as dire as you describe, to the point where we're at risk of a defeat being imposed through these negotiations, isn't it time to radically rethink our strategy? Jamie Stern-Weiner co-edits New Left Project. 

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