Is the struggle for justice in Palestine nearing a crossroads?
It’s possible (but still far from certain) that US Secretary of State John Kerry will inflict a historic defeat on the Palestinians. Yet, as disaster looms, Palestinian negotiators praise Kerry as an honest broker and pray for his success, while the Palestine solidarity movement proclaims one victory after another in its campaign to isolate Israel. What’s going on? How did it come to pass that we now stand at such a perplexing juncture?
The Kerry juggernaut was impossible to predict a year ago. In hindsight, however, it makes perfect sense.
Kerry is not the first high-ranking American official who has sought to broker a deal. President Bill Clinton endeavoured to remove from his legacy the stain of the Monica Lewinsky affair by solving the Israel-Palestine conflict at Camp David in 2000. He ultimately failed, but it’s well to remember how close he came. It was only Yasir Arafat’s refusal to capitulate, despite enormous pressure, that blocked an agreement. It’s also well to remember that Arafat paid a steep price for his principled recalcitrance. Although he was promised beforehand that blame would not be pinned on him if talks proved abortive, Clinton reneged on his word and Arafat was scapegoated, while the Palestinian cause suffered a major setback in international public opinion.
Tainted by association with George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried her hand at solving the conflict at Annapolis in 2008. These talks did not produce an agreement, but did leave behind a rich and illuminating documentary record that was leaked to Al Jazeera and became known as the Palestine Papers. The minutes of negotiations and accompanying maps clarified Israel’s bottom-line demands (more on which presently), which have been consistent since at least Camp David in 2000.
It accordingly should not surprise if Secretary of State Kerry, strapped with the shared legacy of President Barack Obama’s ridiculed foreign policy record, would want to compensate for ever-mounting policy failures, as well as cap his own political career with a Nobel Peace Prize, and possibly make another run for the presidency, by settling the conflict.
The irony is, if Kerry has invested a huge quantum of time and energy, and if Obama has joined Kerry in this undertaking, and if these efforts are crowned with success, it will not be because a critical American interest was at stake. In all the commentary on the Kerry process, one question has been studiously avoided: Why has Kerry embarked on this mission now, and why has Obama lent his prestige to it? The Israel-Palestine conflict is hardly a pressing concern: a surfeit of other crises has sidelined it on the international agenda, while Obama and Kerry already have their hands full with Iran and Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, China and Russia, and the fallout from the Snowden leaks and drone strikes. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians (not that they count) beseeched Washington to intervene. Except for the clinical diagnosis of Israel’s defence minister (“misplaced obsession and messianic fervour”), the only plausible explanation for the US administration’s interest is the mundane one of legacy. The principal impetus behind the US initiative—embarrassing as it might be to the President and his Secretary of State, and deflating as it might be to everyone else—is personal vanity. Like Clinton and Rice before them, Obama and Kerry seek historical vindication. When harnessed to the machinery of a powerful state, vainglory can prove to be an irresistible force, and has often been the root of incalculable human misery. If Obama and Kerry do not strike gold, however, it also means that, once their terms of office expire, the pressure coming from Washington will vanish, until and unless a genuine crisis arises.
It is no secret what the Kerry plan will look like. If he is to have any chance of success, Kerry cannot fight a war on two fronts. Israel constitutes a “strategic asset” of the US and can count on the clout of a powerful domestic lobby. It is consequently in a far stronger position than Palestinians to resist Washington’s orders. Judging by both official and insider statements, the Secretary of State has therefore appropriated Israel’s minimal demands as his own; the “Kerry process” refers to his efforts to foist these on the Palestinians. Kerry’s proposal will see Israel annex some 10 percent of the West Bank, including the critical water resources and some of the most arable land. The new border, which will run along the path of the Wall that Israel has been constructing, will incorporate the major Jewish settlement blocs, put municipal East Jerusalem on the Israeli side (except for some 100,000 Arab Jerusalemites who, along with the neighbourhoods in which they reside, will be excluded), and effectively trisect the West Bank. A makeshift arrangement will be worked out enabling the Palestinians (together with the Kingdom of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) to serve as custodian of the Muslim holy sites in the Old City, while Israel preserves overall sovereignty.
In the 2008 Annapolis negotiations, the Palestinian delegation presented a generous map that would have enabled Israel to keep 60 percent of its settlers in place as part of a two percent land swap, while also maintaining the West Bank’s territorial contiguity. The Israeli delegation rejected the map, not, however, on topographical grounds but because it was deemed politically infeasible—as then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni insisted, no Israeli leader could accept it and still survive in office.
Stripped of natural resources, tourist revenues from Jerusalem, and territorial contiguity, the so-called Palestinian state envisaged by the Kerry plan will at some point—there’s already talk of it—be forced to confederate with the Kingdom of Jordan. The “Jordanian option” dates back to the Peel Commission recommendations in the 1930s; was realized from 1948 to 1967 when Jordan annexed the West Bank, and was supported by Israel’s Labour Party after the 1967 war. But, although shelved after the first intifada and the Palestinian declaration of statehood in 1988, it appears to have been given a new lease on life: Not just in effect but also in fact, Palestine will disappear from the map.
As for the refugee question, a bare minimum precondition and departure point for righting the wrong is Israel’s acknowledgment of its responsibility for creating the problem by ethnically cleansing Palestine in 1948. However, Israel has persistently rejected any historical, legal or moral responsibility for the refugees, so its culpability will not appear anywhere in the final document. The Palestinian “chief negotiator” has himself effectively conceded Israel’s right to deny responsibility. Adopting post-modern lingo, Saeb Erekat speaks of each side having its own, and not being obliged to adopt the other’s, “narrative” of the past. As it happens, in the official Israeli “narrative,” Palestinians left of their own volition in 1948; indeed, Palestinians only arrived in Palestine after Zionist settlers “made the desert bloom.” Erekat has managed to undercut not only the rights of Palestinians but also their genealogy.
If Kerry’s plan reinvents Israel’s bottom-line demands as a just solution, why do some Israelis appear to oppose him?
Like the US, Israel does not currently have an urgent stake in ending the conflict. Israel negotiated an agreement with Egypt at Camp David in 1977 because it had suffered a major military setback in the 1973 war, and feared the outcome of a second round. It negotiated the Oslo agreement with the Palestinians in 1993 because it suffered a major public relations debacle during the first intifada, and worried about the army’s fighting ability if it got bogged down in policing the occupied territories. Even when compelling motives do exist, moreover, agreements don’t necessarily follow. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin drove the U.S. delegation to distraction at Camp David, while Arafat did the same during the various stages of the Oslo negotiations. The treaties only look inevitable in hindsight; politics is a delicate business, and in any such complex undertaking, with so many moving parts, negotiations can easily fly apart. In any event, today there is no motive of equivalent magnitude driving Israel to the negotiating table with Palestinians. The occupation neither figures on the international agenda nor impinges significantly on Israel’s daily life. If Israel decides to end the conflict, it will be because of an “on-balance” weighing up of the pros and cons.
On the pro side of the ledger, an agreement will free Israel once and for all of the albatross of the occupation, while enabling it to keep almost everything it wants, and ridding it of what it doesn’t (i.e., the Palestinian people); it will normalize relations with the Arab world, opening up new vistas for regional trade, investment and military cooperation; it will enable Israel’s fuller integration with the EU, its largest trading partner; and it will further entrench the US-Israeli “special relationship” by placating the Washington establishment, much of which has also grown weary of the occupation. If a treaty is signed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the toast of the town in Tel Aviv, Washington, Paris, London, and Berlin, and bag a Nobel Peace Prize into the bargain. If, on the other hand, he refuses to play ball, Netanyahu will incur the wrath of the US and EU. For a person of Netanyahu’s outsized ego, the potency of these incentives shouldn’t be underestimated.
Since Kerry launched his initiative, Netanyahu has tacked a pair of new demands to Israel’s bottom-line position: an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. If commentary on the Kerry initiative has homed in on these demands, that’s because the core issues—Israeli retention of the major settlement blocs, nullification of Palestinian refugee rights—are already a done deal.
The Jordan Valley possesses zero strategic value. If Netanyahu now demands it, it might be so that he can later pretend to be making a “gut-wrenching concession for peace” by ceding it, or he might be calculating that Israel can keep significantly more arable land than it originally envisaged because Palestinians are now so politically enfeebled. Still, in any scenario, Israel will maintain some (perhaps joint) military presence on the Jordanian border, the modalities of which have already been pretty much resolved.
The demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state lacks both precedent and sense. Neither Egypt nor Jordan recognized Israel as a Jewish state when they signed peace treaties with it. It figures neither in the text of the Oslo agreement nor in Bush’s 2003 Roadmap for Peace. In addition, Palestinians would be hard-pressed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, when no two Israelis agree on who is a Jew, let alone what is a Jewish state. If Israel were truly invested in such recognition, it could simply rechristen itself the Jewish State of Israel, just as the mullahs, after the 1979 revolution, rechristened Iran the Islamic Republic of Iran. The recognition of Israel (a Rubicon that Palestinians crossed long ago) would then go hand-in-hand with recognition of its “Jewishness.” If Israel hasn’t taken this step, it’s because the 20 percent of non-Jewish Israelis would be outraged, as would be the (dwindling number of) resolute Israeli liberals. Perversely, Netanyahu insists that Palestinians do what Israel itself won’t do. In a revealing contrast, whereas every Tom, Dick and Shlomo is now weighing in on whether Palestinians, for the sake of peace, should recognize Israel as a Jewish state, one searches in vain for op-eds on whether Israel, for the sake of peace, should recognize its 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
It is widely speculated that Netanyahu threw in the “Jewish state” demand to sabotage the Kerry mission. The likelier explanation is that, if he extracts such recognition, this ideological victory and—the yet more satisfying flipside—humiliation of Palestinians will win over to the Kerry plan his right-wing governing coalition and natural constituency. (The same motive might impel Netanyahu to make acceptance of the Kerry plan contingent on Obama’s release of Jonathan Pollard, a cause célèbre on the Israeli right.) The danger lurks that Palestinians might be painted into a corner, such that the more Netanyahu holds out on this demand, the more it becomes framed, including by Palestinians, as the defining issue. If Netanyahu reverses himself (another “gut-wrenching concession”) or acquiesces in a “compromise” redaction (in which President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes Israel as a “Jewish state and state of its citizens,” so as to secure the rights of Palestinian Israelis), Palestinians will be freighted with the rest of the Kerry package: Wasn’t Netanyahu’s “Jewish state” demand the crux of your demurral and hasn’t he relented, so what’s the problem now? In any event, polls show that an overwhelming majority of Israelis support the likely terms of the Kerry initiative and do not attach cosmic import to Netanyahu’s newfangled demand. Even if Netanyahu is forced to dissolve the current government, he (or another prime minister) can still form a new left-centre coalition in order to ratify the agreement.
But why does Kerry harbour hope for success when it eluded his predecessors?
In the first place, Palestinians face unprecedented isolation. Historically, the Palestine struggle has waxed much larger than its actual geopolitical significance. When Palestinians launched a popular resistance campaign in the 1930s against the British Mandate, this revolt resonated throughout the Arab world. Although eventually crushing it, Britain nonetheless effectively rescinded the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in a 1939 White Paper as war with Nazi Germany loomed on the horizon, in order to secure its foothold in the Middle East by appeasing popular Arab indignation.
A groundswell of Arab outrage at the massive expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 also figured as an impetus behind the decision of otherwise reluctant and poorly-coordinated neighbouring Arab leaders to invade Israel after it declared independence. In the wake of the humiliating military defeat inflicted by Israel, the cause of Palestine became a rallying point (albeit more in words than deeds) of a resurgent Arab nationalism fanned by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. And, after neighbouring Arab states endured another trouncing by Israel in 1967, the Palestine struggle reemerged as a symbol of Arab resistance and pride, climaxing in the hero’s reception accorded Arafat when he spoke at the UN in 1974.
The Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation in 1987 yet again galvanized the imagination of the Arab world. The courageous nonviolent, mass civil resistance stood out as a beacon of honour and hope in the otherwise bleak landscape of Arab despotism and submission to Israeli diktat.
But the Palestine struggle no longer inspires like it used to. Partly it’s because Palestinians themselves have mostly stopped resisting; partly it’s because other humanitarian crises—in Iraq, Libya, Syria—have displaced it. For the first time since its emergence a century ago, the Palestine struggle has been reduced to its paltry geographic dimensions. It amounts now to little more than a provincial secession movement.
Because popular regional support has evaporated, Palestinians can no longer count on the backing of Middle Eastern states. Hoping to end crippling US sanctions, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not jeopardize negotiations by going to bat for Palestine. Meanwhile, in their bid to contain Iran’s growing influence, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have entered into a tacit alliance with Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly upbraided Israel during its 2008-9 massacre in Gaza, and after Israel killed nine Turkish citizens aboard a humanitarian vessel headed for Gaza in 2010. But in the face of regional reversals (Erdogan bet on the wrong horse in Syria) and increasing domestic unrest, Palestine now ranks low on Turkey’s priorities.
In a word, Palestine stands alone.
The internal Palestinian picture is no less desolate. Not just a physical but also a psychological chasm has opened up between Gaza and the West Bank. During the 2008-9 Gaza massacre, few West Bankers ventured into the streets to protest. The people of Gaza are being economically squeezed on all sides—from Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority—to break their will so that they rid themselves of Hamas. The strategy appears to be working. Gaza’s economy is on the brink of bankruptcy, while recent public opinion polls suggest Hamas would be thrashed in an election.
Despondent and depressed, Palestinians have by and large, and notwithstanding noble and brave pockets of resistance, grown cynical of and given up on politics. The economic horizon of short-term calculation has displaced the political horizon of personal sacrifice in the service of a greater national good. Instead of a collective will to resist, it’s now every man for himself. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. It survives by virtue of mass apathy and dread of chaos if it collapses, the dependence of a large portion of the population on PA-issued paychecks, and an apparatus of repression refined by the CIA and Jordanian torturers, and seconded, as Israel’s defence minister put it, by “our bayonets.” Amidst the squalid internecine power struggles played out on the public stage (most recently on Egyptian television between Abbas and his arch-rival Mohammed Dahlan), a Palestinian observer despaired, “The Palestinians have become a joke.”
The PA in turn is in thrall to US and European Union (EU) handouts. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund periodically issue meticulous reports on the “state of the Palestinian economy.” They even juxtapose the Palestinian economy with that of other “developing” countries. But the notion of a Palestinian economy in this sense is pure mystification. It doesn’t exist; indeed, how could it? Israel controls half the land in the West Bank and the critical water resources; it controls all imports and exports; the already meagre West Bank territorial base is fragmented by a rat’s maze of roadblocks and checkpoints, impeding the movement of people, goods and services. If foreign subsidies were suspended, the so-called Palestinian economy would collapse in the blink of an eye.
Put simply, Palestine hangs by the slenderest of threads. The EU and US can sever it at any moment and, since Kerry launched his initiative, they have repeatedly threatened to do just that.
The EU has grown weary of this absurdly interminable conflict, and wearier still of footing the bills that attend it. Formally, the EU has supported the international consensus for resolving the conflict based on international law. But, in practice, it has always proceeded on eggshells so as not to antagonize Washington. The EU now sees light at the end of the diplomatic tunnel and, anyhow, the Kerry mission is, as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton put it, “the only game in town.” In recent months, the EU (together with individual member states) has laid down the law to both of the conflict’s protagonists: either you negotiate seriously on the basis of Kerry’s initiative or you pay the price. It has threatened to pull the plug on the Palestinian economy and to impose stiff sanctions against Israel’s settlement enterprise. Besides the stick, the EU has also dangled the carrot of an economic windfall—“huge opportunities in trade, research, innovation that will benefit both Israel and the Palestinians” (Ashton)—if they sign on Kerry’s dotted line.
Can the PA resist the pressure to capitulate? It’s not as if it has many cards to play. The long and short of the Palestinian diplomatic repertoire consists of Abbas and Erekat periodically threatening to resign. After the ten thousandth performance, this shtick begins to wear thin.
A Palestinian capitulation will mark the consummation of the process that commenced at Oslo some two decades ago. It will end just as it began. Arafat signed on to what Edward Said characterized at the time as a “Palestinian Versailles” because the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was broke. After Arafat backed Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War, the Gulf states retaliated by cutting their subsidies to him. The PLO has always functioned as a patronage machine. Without ready cash, Arafat would have been consigned to oblivion. He grasped at the lifeline thrown by Washington and Tel Aviv, but at the price of serving as “Israel’s enforcer” (Said) in the occupied Palestinian territories. Faced with the prospect of another economic meltdown, Arafat’s successors will almost certainly hand over the deed to the house.
It’s child’s play to deduce the PA’s current negotiating position: in Wayne’s World style, simply negate whatever Abbas and Erekat emphatically avow in public. Abbas is not looking for the US to improve its core terms of a settlement—he knows it won’t—but for some face-saving gesture (such as the release of Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti from Israeli prison) enabling him to sell the historic defeat to Palestinians. The US will probably sweeten the pot with a promise of a “new Marshall Plan” (its favourite cliché)—that is, a hefty bribe aimed at winning popular support, even if grudging, for a second Palestinian Versailles, and it’s not beyond possibility that the tactic will succeed. An international rogue’s gallery has already been assembled, led by Tony Blair and Madeleine Albright, to tempt Palestinians with the prospect of “hundreds of thousands of new jobs” if they embrace the Kerry plan. Back in the day, the Oslo agreement was marketed by the mirage of a Gaza transformed into the “new Singapore of the Middle East.” Twenty years later, it’s more like the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Notwithstanding this stark political landscape, leaders of the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) suggest that the Palestine struggle is on the cusp of victory. It is asserted that BDS has arrived at a “South Africa moment,” and made a “qualitative leap” forward. Is this true?
The international anti-apartheid sanctions movement unfolded in rhythm with the internal mass struggle in South Africa. It reached successive peaks after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the Soweto massacre in 1976, and the state of emergency imposed in 1985. How can the BDS movement be reaching a zenith when internal Palestinian resistance to the occupation has reached a nadir and, concomitantly, the focus of international public opinion has shifted elsewhere?
It’s one thing for a thousand BDS internet activists to successfully hound and shame Scarlett Johansson. It’s quite another to break the will of German chancellor Angela Merkel. If Germany now threatens Israel with punitive sanctions, it’s not because of BDS. Rather, it’s because the US, EU and even Israelis are using the threat of boycotts, and the like, to isolate right-wing Israeli opposition to the Kerry plan. When the EU simultaneously threatens economic sanctions against the PA if it doesn’t get on the Kerry bandwagon, should this also be reckoned a BDS victory? BDS has inadvertently encouraged a disconnect from political reality. It is hard to conceive a more bizarre spectacle than the Palestine solidarity movement celebrating as victories those developments that, in reality, augur Palestine’s historic defeat.
If the goal of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is, as it should be, justice and reconciliation, then the Kerry process is a sham. It amounts to unilateral Palestinian submission to Israeli diktat.
In a 2004 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice denoted the whole of the West Bank (and Gaza) “occupied Palestinian territory,” but under the Kerry plan Israel will annex 10 percent of it. The Court designated the whole of East Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory,” but under the Kerry plan Israel will annex the vast bulk of it. The Court declared that all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are illegal, but under the Kerry plan Israel will keep 8o percent of the settlers in place and annex the major settlement blocs, fragmenting what remains of the West Bank and stripping it of its vital resources. The most respected human rights organizations—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch—have found that Palestinians who were expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967, and succeeding generations that have maintained “genuine links with the land,” have a right of return, but under the Kerry plan this right will be comprehensively negated, and Palestinians denied even recognition of the tragedy that befell them.
In short, on all the “permanent-status” issues—borders, East Jerusalem, settlements, refugees—Palestinians lose, Israel wins. Kerry’s defenders will deride this as “zero-sum” reckoning, but what else is one to conclude if Palestinians get zero and Israel gets the sum? It is hard to see how such terms of settlement will achieve historic reconciliation and not just pour salt in Palestinian wounds.
The fact that the Kerry plan is a sham, however, doesn’t mean that it can be safely ignored. If Palestinians sign on the bottom line, they will forfeit their essential rights under international law, especially because the UN Security Council and General Assembly will in short order ratify the result. The Wall will no longer be illegal; it will become Israel’s internationally recognized border. The Kerry plan will render the most formidable of Palestinian weapons, international legitimacy and international law, null and void.
Can the Kerry juggernaut be stopped? It’s hard to be optimistic. The PA fantasizes that it can liberate Palestine via international diplomacy, while BDS fantasizes that it can liberate Palestine via international sanctions. But the only ones who can liberate Palestine are the Palestinian people themselves, principally those living under occupation. Only mass nonviolent civil resistance can catapult Palestine back on the international stage. If a popular revolt, like the first intifada, erupts under the simple slogan, Enforce the Law, and if the international solidarity movement does its part, it might be possible to mobilize public opinion—including sectors of liberal American Jewish opinion—and exert sufficient pressure on the international community such that Israel will be compelled to meet its legal obligations.
Although inevitably secondary, the solidarity movement nonetheless has a critical role to play right now. Once Kerry officially unveils his framework for peace, unbearable pressures will be exerted on Palestinians to capitulate. “If Palestinians have qualms about the [Kerry] plan but sense there is strong international support for it,” Dennis Ross recently observed, “then it makes it more difficult for President Abbas to not go along with it.” The Obama administration and the EU, liberal Israeli and American Jews, media pundits and think-tank experts, PA toadies and freelance Arab hacks, will implore Palestinians to sign on. Of naysayers, it will be said (quoting Abba Eban’s tired phrase), “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace.” Playing his role to the hilt, Netanyahu will anguish over how Israel has agreed to withdraw from fully 90 percent of Judea and Samaria in a “painful concession for peace.”
It’s our job to patiently explain the reality of Kerry’s so-called two-state solution: that it breaches international law, as it shafts the Palestinians. As Palestinians stand poised on the precipice of a historic defeat, shouldn’t exposing Kerry’s perfidy rank at least as high a priority as chronicling the comings and goings of Scarlett Johansson? The good news is, for all my criticism of it, BDS has, to its credit, managed to plant in the public consciousness the idea of imposing sanctions on Israel if it flouts its legal obligations. If Palestinians in the occupied territories enter into revolt, the foundation will already have been laid for a global campaign compelling Israel to comply with the law.
I said it’s hard to be optimistic, but I still sincerely believe that victory—a just and lasting peace—is within reach if we are guided by truth, on the path to justice, and make one last push, before it’s too late.
This article was based on a talk given at several British universities in mid-March 2014.
The author wishes to thank Jamie Stern-Weiner, Maren Hackmann-Mahajan, and Allan Nairn for their assistance.
Norman G. Finkelstein is the author, most recently, of Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land (OR Books, 2014).
 On a personal note, in the past month I gave talks in Turkey and Iran. Although the Israel-Palestine conflict is my area of expertise, no one inquired about it. I was also recently invited to appear on an Al Jazeera program. I begged the producer to let me speak on Palestine, but, although finally agreeing, he devoted the hour-long interview to Egypt.