Israel America Academic Exchange (IAAE) is a new organization that sponsors educational missions to Israel for American scholars in the fields of political science, international relations, international law, international economic development, modern history, and Middle East studies. By special arrangement, participants in the inaugural mission (June 22-29) have been invited to guest-post their impressions and assessments. Michael Barnett is Harold Stassen Professor of International Affairs in the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Policy at the University of Minnesota.
From Michael Barnett
Prior to the trip, I was of the opinion (1) that it is increasingly unlikely that there will be a negotiated two-state solution, and (2) that in the remote chance that the parties do negotiate a settlement, it will lead not to peace but rather to a new phase of the conflict. I believed that the trends were moving in the wrong direction, but I hoped that the trip would alleviate my fears. Although we did not meet a representative sample of Palestinians or Israelis, I came away from my encounters more fearful and anxious than ever before.
The prospects for a negotiated solution appear dim, at best. I see little ground for optimism from the Israeli side. Although Israelis insist that they will always try to negotiate, even the most hopeful of them express little hope. The Israelis seem convinced that they have offered the Palestinians nearly everything they have demanded, but that the Palestinians still prefer to fight it out. Perhaps they do. (Or perhaps Israel has still not offered the best deal possible. In every negotiation, Israel has always claimed that it could do no more, yet it always had more to give: Israeli offers have inched closer to the Palestinian ideal point from Oslo to Camp David to Taba to the purported plan of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.) Israelis also seem convinced that these failed negotiations represented nothing short of a “test” of the Palestinians’ sincerity regarding the possibility of a peaceful settlement. And Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza have not brought peace, but rather allowed their enemies to get closer to Israel’s population centers.
Moreover, and in contrast to my previous trips, I was struck by the near absence of any kind of Israeli sympathy for the Palestinians. Whereas a decade ago I heard Israelis speaking about the rights of Palestinians, the need for justice, and a genuine sympathy for their plight and suffering, this time any sort of compassion was overwhelmed by sheer frustration. Why should the Israelis continue to feel badly for the Palestinians when the Palestinians do not seem prepared to do anything to help themselves?
Because Israelis do not believe that a negotiated two-state solution is likely (though a majority continue to support the idea), they identified a mish-mash of “Plan Bs.” In nearly all cases, though, these contingency plans appears to be a jumble of inconsistencies and logical contradictions: withdrawing alongside occupying, disengaging while engaging, believing that developing the Palestinian economy is the ticket to success despite evidence to the contrary, putting their faith in a wall when Gaza tells them that good fences don’t do much good. The only thing that the Israelis seem to agree upon is that they would like to be rid of the Palestinians.
What about the Palestinians? The Palestinian representatives are certainly more polished than ever. But it was not clear what the Palestinians would accept (or, rather, what the Palestinian leadership would try to sell to their public) short of their maximum demands. I left convinced that while Israel may not have offered the Palestinians the best deal imaginable, the Palestinians might not accept even that. There are lots of explanations for why the Palestinians seem incapable of saying “yes, but,” including principled beliefs, domestic politics, and a lack of Arab support. Perhaps the Palestinian “no” is overdetermined. However, I was impressed by the Palestinian failure to imagine the conditions under which they might accept less than they demand.
Assuming that the Israelis and the Palestinians will not be able to negotiate a two-state solution, and assuming that, as one Israeli negotiator aptly said, the longer we negotiate the more “complex” the situation becomes, what should be done? Until this trip, I supported the idea of an imposed solution, putting a deal on the table (Taba-plus) and telling the parties that they will be rewarded if they accept it and punished if they do not. Some Israelis suggested that the leaders would never be able to reach an agreement on their own and that the Americans would have to apply considerable pressure on both parties. I agree that American pressure will be necessary, but I do not think that American pressure, no matter how intense, can move both parties to peace. Assuming that an imposed solution ever was a viable option, I am not sure it is anymore.
Instead, I think the Israelis should follow the British colonial strategy: withdraw and hand off the problem to the United Nations. The Israeli situation appears eerily like the one confronted by the British mandatory authorities after the Second World War. In 1947, following decades of trying and failing to find a compromise between Jews and Arabs, the British announced their imminent withdrawal and informed the UN that Palestine was now its problem. Israel might do the same. It could tell the UN that it will be “consolidating” its settlements and retreating behind the separation wall (declaring it an armistice line and not a legal border). The Israelis also could announce that they are prepared to internationalize Jerusalem once the security situation has stabilized. In short, rather than another unilateral withdrawal, the Israelis might consider working closely and coordinating with the UN.
At this point, it would be up to the UN Security Council to decide how it wanted to proceed. Ideally, the United States would lead the Security Council to authorize a Chapter VII operation, working closely with the Palestinian Authority (thus giving the moderates considerable legitimacy), replacing the Israelis forces as they withdrew from the territories, and deploying to Gaza if and when the situation became less violent. The international authority would have to be ready, willing, and able to use force if and when necessary, and it also should come bearing a significant aid package. This “strategy” has its various problems, but at least it gives the parties something to look forward to besides mutual suicide.
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