For as long as I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been covering the Mideast peace process.
I was at Ben Gurion airport in 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed, and on the White House lawn in 1993 when Bill Clinton, Yassir Arafat, and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accords. Back then, a two-state solution seemed possible.
That was then. Too much has changed for the worse over the past decade. President Obama’s kickoff of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington last week — after a gap of nearly two years — may be desirable. But barring a radical shift in approach by the parties, these talks will fail.
Some of the reasons for pessimism are well known, some not. Among the former: the gaps between the sides over key issues: Jerusalem and the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.
Among the latter: the mistrust on both sides caused by the failure of 30 years’ of talks, exacerbated by a lack of any normal contact between Israelis and Palestinians. In decades past, Israelis traveled to the West Bank and Gaza to shop and eat, and Palestinians worked in Israel. Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals met frequently. Palestinian militants who’d spent years in Israeli jails concluded the only solution was two states.
Today, Palestinians and Israelis are walled off from each other, with no contact except at military checkpoints on the West Bank. An older generation that believed in peace has lost credibility with Palestinian youth.
Add to the above: Palestinian leadership is weak and divided; President Mahmoud Abbas presides only over the West Bank, and is in no position to deliver compromises. Isolated Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which rejects these talks.
Meantime, the Israeli public is disillusioned by Palestinian rejection of previous peace offers and has turned rightward. An increasingly radical (and violent) Jewish settler population rejects any efforts to disband settlements on the West Bank. Their militance may scuttle talks if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to extend a partial freeze on settlement building that ends Sept. 26.
Even if the hawkish Netanyahu morphed into a dove, the security situation has changed in the past decade. Helped by U.S. mistakes, Iran has grown more powerful, and it assists Hamas and Hezbollah, who have rocketed Israeli cities. Israelis fear their heartland could be hit from a Palestinian state.
Given all of the above, plus his own skepticism, Netanyahu is likely to push for an interim solution: something the Palestinians could call a state, but leaving Israeli troops and most settlements in place, Gaza unresolved, and Jerusalem under Israeli control. Abbas could not accept such a limbo — which might become permanent.
The only way out of this trap would require the following: Any “interim state” would have to be part of a larger accord that reached final agreement on all issues — but required a testing period first.
And negotiations would have to draw in key Arab states, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. “The Palestinians cannot make concessions without cover from the Arab world,” says Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian minister and ambassador to Israel who helped draft the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Only a regional peace could undercut the clout of Hezbollah and Hamas and counter Iran.
Is such a shift in approach likely given a weakened Obama, a weak Abbas, and a skeptical Netanyahu? Probably not. But the talks as now structured will go nowhere.
“We’ve run out of time,” says Muasher, now a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. “You either take difficult decisions now or you have to deal with the impossible tomorrow.”
We are headed, by default, toward a one-state solution — in which Israeli Jews will ultimately be outnumbered by Palestinians — unless something changes dramatically, and soon.