After a long hiatus in which neither side seemed interested in negotiating a settlement to their longstanding conflict, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are tentatively feeling their way through indirect talks coordinated by the US representative, former Senator George Mitchell.
Skeptics are probably correct that this is much ado about nothing. We do not expect very much progress toward peace will come from these talks. The primary and persistent obstacle to resumption of serious negotiations has been Israel's policy of building Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, particularly in East Jerusalem. Israel has agreed to a temporary freeze on new home construction in East Jerusalem but—and this is an important “but”—Israel continues to insist that Jerusalem, all of it, is its “undivided capital” and that the status of Jerusalem is not subject to negotiation. That is a major obstacle. The Palestinians intend that East Jerusalem will be the capital of their new state. The Arab nations agreed reluctantly to support the Palestinians in the indirect talks but with the proviso that before direct talks between the parties Israel must stop building settlements in the occupied Palestinian land because the occupied territory is the heart of the proposed Palestinian state. That seems reasonable—but unlikely.
The fact of the matter is that recent actions by the government of Benyamin Netanyahu and his political allies have made peace less likely because they have imposed a series of draconian measures on the occupied territories [restricted movement, building new Jewish settlements, taking Palestinian lands and dispossessing the inhabitants, bulldozing Palestinian homes built without Israeli permits, repressive and aggressive military and police actions, restrictions on food, medical supplies, fuel and food brought into the territories, blocking export of trade goods out of the territories, interference with international charitable and social service agencies providing relief services, etc.] using the excuse that they need these repressive and unwarranted actions as part of their “defensive” strategy.
To a non-partisan in this struggle, recent Israeli actions appear to be more vengeful and punitive than defensive. A reasonable person might conclude that they are strategic actions intended to provoke the Palestinians, making it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to work for peaceful resolution of the conflict and strengthening the hand of advocates of violent resistance to the peace process among the activists on both sides of the dispute.
Why does Israel seemingly act against their own stated interests by provoking the Palestinians? I think the answer is obvious. Retaliatory acts of violence by Palestinians against Israel give Israel’s current extremist leaders cover to justify their repressive tactics while they continue to build and expand settlements in Palestinian territory. Our conclusion is that neither side is much interested in serious discussion of peace.
There are both political and “religious” reasons underlying the Israeli intransigence. The current Israeli leadership does not want serious negotiations because they prefer the status quo—the Palestinians are under subjugation and the political extremists (primarily Fatah and Hamas) are not strong enough to create a real threat, giving the Israelis the opportunity to continue building settlements in the occupied territory to establish a permanent foothold that will be difficult to dislodge through peace negotiations.
The Palestinian leadership is likewise uninterested in serious peace discussions because (a) they do not trust the motives of the Israelis, do not believe the Israelis will negotiate in good faith, and are convinced (apparently with good reason) that the Israelis will continue to stall any final settlement because they want to grab as much Palestinian territory as they can; and (b) given that the more radical elements among the Palestinians still do not concede Israel's right to exist, the leadership fears loss of political control if they appear too willing to concede basic issues at stake in this conflict.
The politics of the Palestinians is complex, but the extremist parties that struggle for Palestinians’ allegiance have a vested interest in continuing the conflict to maintain the loyalty of their followers to their extremist position that all of Israel occupies Palestinian land and needs to be driven out. They rely on outside funds and need conflict to keep the flow of money coming from radical Arab and Muslim groups outside of Palestinian territory that are driven by ideology and not interested in a final settlement with Israel.
To put it bluntly, the leaders on both sides have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Both fear loss of power and influence without an “enemy” to unite their constituencies. Both get financial support from outside groups (the Arab community and the UN pay the bills for the Palestinians, and the US and the American Jewish community subsidize Israel) that will end or be substantially reduced when peace is achieved. Without conflict to deflect attention from home problems, both would have to set about the mundane business of government and the personalities of the leaders on both sides of this conflict do not fit well with a peace agenda. I do not know whether others agree with my assessment but I conclude that neither the current elected political leaders nor the political activists and extremists really want peace because they profit from the current standoff. The voices of moderation and peace have been muscled out of the political arena.
The Netanyahu government is a loose coalition of conservative and orthodox elements in Israel, controlled by religious fanatics who believe that Israel has some inherent historical and biblical right to much of the occupied territories, a position supported by some fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States. It appears that the Israeli tactic is to continue to stall any final settlement while settling increasing numbers of Jews in the occupied territories, thus making it increasingly difficult to abandon the settlements in any “peace for land” swap necessary for a Palestinian state.
In an earlier day there were reasonable people in the Israeli government who seriously wanted to end the conflict and were willing to compromise and trade land for peace, but until the current government is replaced by moderates and until the government stops its attempts to silence its critics by attacking Israelis and other Jews around the world who support peace, we will not make much progress toward a final resolution of this conflict. The Israeli leadership continues to shoot itself in the foot by its extremism, which not only makes dealing with its enemies even harder, but also aggravates and disappoints its friends and frustrates potential allies.
Somewhere in the middle, the need of the Palestinians and the Israelis for a peaceful two state solution must be found, but it will require political will of the moderates to bring about peace. The seeds of peace have been planted but they are being crowded out by the fast-growing weeds of extremism and conflict.
There are non-violent peace movements on both sides that promise hope although we do not hear much about them in the media. The New York Times carried a story [Palestinians Try a Less Violent Path to Resistance] recently about new forms of passive resistance among the Palestinians: senior Palestinian leaders in the West Bank have joined unarmed protest marches against Israeli policies, goods produced in Israeli settlements have been burned in public demonstrations, the Palestinian prime minister entered the West Bank to plant trees and declare the land part of the future state of Palestine, a campaign has been launched against buying goods made in the settlements, a prohibition has been issued against using Israeli telephone cards by Palestinians. Non-violent resistance is beginning and is a welcome change. With support from all sides it has the potential to become a serious movement that could help change public opinion about the Palestinian cause.
There are also serious attempts at a less violent approach to the conflict in Israel and among Israel's supporters. In the US, there are several activist Israeli-Jewish groups promoting peace, including the Jewish Voice for Peace and J Street. Within Israel there is an active peace movement and even in the Israeli Defense Force there are passive resistors, including officers who have been jailed for refusal to carry out military missions in the Occupied Territories.
There is hope. Those of us who care, and that includes the Progressive community whether religious or secular, need to make our voices heard strongly and repeatedly—in the media, by letters to the editor, by commentary from the pulpit, in the streets if necessary—to counteract those loud voices of aggression that would drown out this conversation about peace with name-calling or attempts to derail the peace movement with irrelevant arguments that question the motives of the peacemakers. It is time that the forces for peace take control of the conversation.