December 3, 2012

The four-state solution and other realities

The greatest irony of the past week has been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that the United Nations vote to upgrade Palestine's observer status was a unilateral action that undermines negotiations for a two-state solution. Netanyahu's response to such unilateralism was to announce his own unilateral move that specifically undermines a two-state solution: authorizing settlement construction to connect Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, which would effectively split the West Bank in half. The four-state solution would be Israel, Gaza, West Bank north, and West Bank south. Now who's undermining whom?

The main takeaway from this should be that the current Israeli government is in no way committed to a two-state solution, or to meaningful negotiations. This should come as no surprise to anyone, including most Israelis of any bandwidth. Every time Netanyahu calls for a return to negotiations, he or his underlings manage to take some unilateral action of their own, usually relating to growing Israel's West Bank settlements or neighborhoods within the ever-expanding definition of "Jerusalem".

Regardless of one's preferred path or destination, several myths deserve to be discontinued:


Both Palestinians and Israelis are engaged in unilateral actions. The main differences are that Palestinian unilateralism tends to manifest periodically at the diplomatic level. Israeli unilateralism is evident on the ground and continues every day, via security checkpoints, ongoing construction projects, and restrictions on Palestinian economic activity. Justified or not, these are all unilateral actions, and not the subject of bilateral negotiations or agreement. And like it or not, going to the UN may interfere with the very hypothetical potential for direct negotiations, but it's hard to call anything garnering the support of 138 governments entirely "unilateral". (For better or worse, Israel's withdrawal from Gaza was a completely unilateral decision.)


There's nothing wrong with having preconditions for negotiations, as long as we are all open about their existence. Both sides have preconditions, and it's a stretch to suggest otherwise. Israel's calls for Abbas to return to the table without preconditions ring hollow when -- in the same breath -- we are told he must first recognize Israel as a "Jewish state". No other entity in the world has had to make such a declaration as a condition for negotiations, full diplomatic relations or even military alliance with Israel, and until the past year this was never even stated vis-a-vis the Palestinians. (Just weeks ago, on Israeli television, Abbas himself ruled out a Palestinian return to pre-1967 Israel.) But it is definitely a precondition, no less than the Palestinian insistence that Israel forswear further settlement growth while negotiations are underway. When Hamas and Fatah seemed close to reconciling their differences last year, Israel revived one of its old preconditions, that any such union must reaffirm the core principles, including renouncing terror and accepting Israel's right to exist (as a Jewish state or not). 


Netanyahu's response to what he termed the undermining of the two-state solution was to... undermine the two state solution. Expanding or initiating new settlements anywhere but the area known as "E1" area might be seen as a counter-productive but proportional response to the upgrading of Palestinian status at the UN. But by announcing construction that merges the Edumim settlements bloc with Jerusalem -- while cutting off the provisional Palestinian capital of Ramallah and the northern West Bank (Biblical Samaria) from the south (Biblical Judea) -- Netanyahu is expressly writing off any interest in the increasingly anachronistic "two-state solution" involving Israel and a viable Palestinian state.


Hamas terrorism, including the massive missile barrage against Israel's civilian population, must be denounced and punished. But intentionally or not, one effect of Israeli retaliation is to bolster Hamas among Palestinians, at the expense of Abbas. Israel's reaction to the UN vote is a case in point. One of the more valid arguments against the Palestinian status upgrade was the absence of Palestinian consensus over who is the rightful representative -- can Abbas truly claim to represent all Palestinians when he comes to the UN, or when/if he sits down with Netanyahu at the negotiating table? That said, if Israel's right-wing coalition government had any interest in a negotiated agreement, wouldn't it try to find ways of making it easier for Abbas to negotiate, instead of making it harder at every turn? Hamas is a useful excuse, and one that keeps benefiting from each setback.

Personally, I find it much easier, and more effective, to explain Israeli actions as simply a popular decision by a right-wing government, representing a right-shifted population that has lost hope in the prospect of peace; since long before last week, the average Israeli would literally laugh at the idea that the Oslo Accords were anything but a failure, so why pretend they still care about preserving or fulfilling Oslo? Arguing that Netanyahu actually wants to negotiate a realistic two-state solution, without preconditions; that Israel eschews unilateral actions; that Israel has no partner for negotiations -- this should be insulting to most people who have an understanding of the issue. Those making such claims come off as either dishonest or naive. And it does not help Israel advance its case to anyone who's not already convinced.

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