The Jews of European descent and the Arabs of Palestine have much in common. Both groups of people have forged their own unique nationalisms in response to oppression and injustice at the hands of more powerful groups of people. For this reason, it is hard not to have sympathy for the national projects and aspirations of both people. They are both pursuing the state they believe will give them independence from persecution. Ultimately, my primary focus is on the injustices that are happening now. With this orientation, it is clear that the Israelis have allowed their own tragic history to blind themselves to the cruelty they have inflicted on the Palestinians. It gives me hope to know that segments of the Israeli population do realize that peace is in their interest as citizens of the Jewish state and as human beings with a humanity which transcends borders and nations. This segment of the Israeli population can be helped in its desire for a two-state solution by meaningful American intervention in the process. The question is what strategy the United States should employ to bring to bear the appropriate incentives and pressure to the Israeli government and public as a whole.
Understanding the factors that led to Israel’s recognition of the Palestinian Authority is essential in assessing how the United States might foster the environment necessary to persuade Israel to begin negotiating with the Palestinians in earnest. These factors must include positive steps by the Palestinians, pressure and incentive from the American government, and an ability of American supporters of the two-state solution to overcome the domestic political influence of groups such as AIPAC. Failure to pressure Israel successfully will jeopardize the goal of both a Palestinian and a Jewish state by making the one-state “solution” inevitable.
Though Israel dwarfs the Palestinians in economic and military might and is allied with the world’s last superpower, the Palestinians at times have been able to advance their interests against Israel. It is important to take a look at some of these successes to understand how Palestinians acting alone or in concert with the United States may use them as a model for future progress. Starting in the 1960’s the Palestinians began to be pragmatic about the existence and rights of Israelis in what the Palestinians considered to be Palestine. Initially Fateh began this course by calling for a secular democracy which would not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of religion (Khalidi 191-192). By the 1970’s the PLO went further than this and endorsed the notion of a two-state solution (Khalidi 192). This position was cemented in the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988 (Shlaim 481).
Eventual recognition of the reality of Israel helped the Palestinian cause in the West (Khalidi 154). The notion of two separate states has the benefit of allowing people to be sympathetic to the cause of Palestinian statehood without having to take the often uncomfortable stance of denying the right of zionists to the state of Israel (Khalidi 154). This is very important because in the West there is a justified recognition that the Jewish people have endured a tremendous amount of discrimination and persecution (Khalidi 169). Despite this, with the endorsement of the two-state plan and renunciation of armed conflict the PLO was able to garner much international recognition, including from the United States (Khalidi 169).
The Palestinians are primarily the victims of the much stronger state of Israel. It makes no sense to believe that the Palestinians on their own can achieve peace, yet, building on their acceptance of a two-state solution, there are certain steps they can take to invite more American support and to make it more difficult for the Israeli government to insist it does not have a real partner for peace.
One of the most obvious steps the Palestinians can take is instilling in its youth the example of nonviolent movements. Khalidi puts it nicely by saying the Palestinians must realize “that what is necessary [is] the reeducation of the Palestinians away from armed struggle and toward a whole new approach of unarmed mass popular struggle” (Khalidi 178). Whereas I believe strongly that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and am not in principle against violence in the context of an uprising against oppression, I think it needs to be admitted that in the end the Palestinians will not win their state in a military contest with Israel. Given that Israel uses oppression and violence against the Palestinians, it makes sense that there will be a violent element to the resistance. Yet, there has to be more to the resistance than just that. Palestinian youth would be well-served to have a knowledge of movements that were entirely peaceful, or at least had strong peaceful aspects as necessary elements of their success, such as the Indian struggle for independence from the United Kingdom, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. While the Palestinians are living under very poor economic conditions, I imagine it would be possible to get funding from the United States to help in such a venture. Not only would this be a way for the United States to be humanitarian, it would be easy to define every dollar towards such education as a dollar towards a peaceful and secure future for Israel to the very pro-Israeli American public. Such education will help the Palestinians forge a more coherent resistance movement and fundamentally change the narrative that Israel likes to propagate of being in a sea of violent extremists.
In better absorbing the examples of other resistance movements, the Palestinians will be able to consider other best practices. For instance, Edward Said argues that in the agreements between Israel and Palestine, the Palestinians have unwittingly “become Israel’s enforcer… Interestingly, the ANC [African National Congress] has consistently refused to supply the South African government with police officials until after power is shared, precisely in order to avoid appearing as the white government’s enforcer” (Said). I do not believe that the Palestinians in principle should refuse to provide any security, however Said brings into question what the Palestinians are getting when they help to ensure Israeli security. Israel providing security directly in the territories would not be easy, and presumably the Palestinians can get concessions from Israel in return for their cooperation in security.
Said also rightfully insists that the Palestinians must retain the right to civil disobedience (Said). This right will be all the more powerful when the population becomes more educated on methods that have worked in other instances of oppression, and when the Palestinian Authority acts in a nuanced manner to combat the Israeli narrative of Palestinian militancy, while also fostering effective means of resistance.
Another way of empowering the Palestinian voice so that it might better be heard over the Israeli attempts to silence it is to conduct a Palestinian census. Though a census does not seem like a difficult feat, Israel, the United States, and Arab nations all oppose such a census (Said). I do not imagine that the Palestinians can conduct a meaningful census in the face of such opposition. I do however maintain optimism that this will change with the right American president. It is important to keep in mind that the power of the American president in pursuing Middle Eastern policy is constrained by the pro-Israeli congress and public. However, the president does have some room for maneuvering, and I believe that when we elect a president serious about peace, she or he will be able to argue that such a census is in the interest of peace and not a threat to Israel. Hence I support strongly Said’s call to keep the census as a “leading item on the agenda for Palestinians everywhere.”
In order to achieve peace, the Palestinians need a partner. Unfortunately Israel has often failed to be that partner. I maintain that the United States is in a position to move Israel towards a more constructive and engaged role in the peace process.
The Administration of President George HW Bush deserves credit for being quite even-handed between Israel and the Palestinians compared to the Reagan and Clinton Administrations. On May 22, 1989 Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker explicitly called for the end the “unrealistic vision of greater Israel” and instead insisted that Israel recognize the political rights of the Palestinians in a speech to AIPAC (Shlaim 483-484). To back this courageous stance the Bush Administration was willing to withhold loan guarantees of ten billion dollars to Israel, which forced the sitting Prime Minister, Shamir, to negotiations (Shlaim 503). Bush was able to present Shamir with a choice, “keep the occupied territories or keep U.S. support” (Shlaim 503). There is no reason why the American Administration today cannot exert similar pressure on Israel, and we have every reason to believe that doing so will lead to positive results.
Aside from withholding much needed loans to Israel, the United States can also pressure Israel by joining the international community in expecting Israel to live up to its humanitarian and legal obligations. In 1997 when Netanyahu declared the “battle for Jerusalem has began” (Shlaim 603) the United Kingdom led the international outcry and sought to pass two United Nations resolutions against Israel, with the United States vetoing both of them (Shlaim 604). There is no justification for Netanyahu’s behavior, nor for America’s enabling of such behavior. A courageous and pragmatic American president will be able to abstain at the very least and allow Israel to be condemned. I have no doubt that even if such an American posture does not immediately change the calculations of the government, it will send a very strong signal to the Israeli public that its government’s actions are not working in their interest.
Even with our position as a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council and as a major supporter of Israel, our ability to control the actions of the Israeli government is of course limited. This should not keep us from exerting whatever pressure we can. When the Bush Administration realized they would not be able to convince Shamir to change course, they did not give up. Instead they were pragmatic and focused on impressing upon the Israeli public that their leadership was causing a rift with their most important ally (Shlaim 514). The American government must be willing to pursue such avenues of pressure consistently on successive Israeli governments.
Unfortunately the four years of George HW Bush’s leadership on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict was not continued by his successor, President Clinton (Shlaim 529). I do not understand Clinton’s blind support for Israel, I do know that his administration’s policies — especially in the beginning — were a great example of what not to do in terms of getting Israel to become a constructive partner for peace. Not only did the Clinton Administration veto UN Resolutions against flagrantly illegal Israeli settlement building (Shlaim 604), it also apparently ignored suggestions from Israel’s own president to put more pressure on the government (Shlaim 604)!
This brings us to Netanyahu who served as Prime Minister during part of the Clinton Administration, and is currently in his second stint as Prime Minister of Israel. Netanyahu certainly tests the diplomatic abilities of anyone, Palestinian or American as he is definitely not interested in finding common ground or making substantive sacrifices for peace. In 2001 Netanyahu disclosed to a family living in a settlement who had lost a loved one to violence that it is necessary to “beat [the Palestinians] up, not once but repeatedly; beat them up so it hurts badly, until it is unbearable” (Shlaim 627). In the same discussion Netanyahu went on to boast that he can manipulate American public opinion, and that his goal is to stop movement towards peace (Shlaim 627). These words were all being recorded while Netanyahu was unaware (Shlaim 627). Using the words of Netanyahu against him is a smart strategy to give the American president more approval by the public to apply pressure, and can also be used to persuade the Israeli public that their government needs a course correction.
It is hard to doubt that such pressure will have a positive impact especially when we have seen Netanyahu — in my view, the single biggest obstacle to peace today — respond to the minimal pressure that has been applied to him by the Clinton and Obama Administrations. After Netanyahu provoked a widespread uprising and acts of violence by blasting a tunnel under a Palestinian holy site in Jerusalem, President Clinton to his credit intervened more forcefully than had been his pattern earlier in the Administration (Shlaim 598, 601). This intervention headed by Dennis Ross led to the first agreement signed by a Likud Prime Minister and the Palestinians and actually produced a reluctant — and admittedly limited — compromise by Netanyahu (Shlaim 601).
In 2009, shortly after both Obama and Netanyahu had assumed power the “Mitchell Report and the Roadmap stipulated that an end to the Palestinian violence had to accompany a settlement freeze. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu… seized on this, charging that the Obama Administration was unfairly pressuring Israel to make concessions without doing the same to the Palestinians” (Gelvin 259-260). Gelvin suggests that Obama’s policy here was flawed because Netanyahu is not interested in a peace process to begin with (Gelvin 260). He is clearly correct to state that Netanyahu is not a partner for peace, however I think it is wrongheaded on Gelvin’s part to take from this that Obama’s approach is somehow flawed for that. The real flaw I see in Obama’s approach is that he has not maintained this pressure consistently. I would like him to take a lesson for President Bush and Secretary Baker, and apply pressure to the Israeli public and parliament to persuade them that having a Prime Minister as obstinate as Netanyahu is not in their interest.
Netanyahu is by no means immune to criticism from the Israeli public. After the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, his widow, Leah Rabin refused to shake Netanyahu’s hand (Shlaim 568). She did however agree to meet with Arafat (Shlaim 568). Arafat said to her “Yitzhak Rabin was the hero of peace, I have lost a friend. This is a great loss to the cause of peace and to me personally. I am shocked and horrified by this tragic event” (Shlaim 568). The reason she would not meet with Netanyahu — then the Likud leader in the Knesset — was because she believed he had been a part of the violent incitement to her husband’s death (Shlaim 568). On the other hand, she saw Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Arabs as a better partner for peace (Shlaim 568). Ehud Barak pointedly warned that with Netanyahu’s unwillingness to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Israel might end up in the position of “apartheid, or a Bosnia… [or] we might reach both” (Shlaim 605). As Prime Minister, Netanyahu’s own General Security Service and the director of military intelligence concluded that the Palestinian leader could not be expected to meet Israeli demands so long as Israel was not in compliance with the Oslo accords (Shlaim 606). It is incumbent upon us to build on these domestic foundations inside of Israel until Netanyahu’s government feels so much pressure is changes course or falls entirely.
Though the Obama Administration has not prevailed upon Netanyahu to fully engage in the peace process, this does not suggest that doing such would be impossible. Rather, it illustrates the fact that Obama has put only minimal pressure on Netanyahu. Yet, when it has put at least minimal pressure on Netanyahu, we have seen at least minimal steps in the right direction. In March, 2015 Netanyahu stated that he is opposed to a Palestinian state (Dyer 2). President Obama angrily responded that the United States would seek more United Nations involvement in the peace process (Dyer 2). In November, 2015 Netanyahu met with President Obama and insisted that he actually does believe in a two-state solution, seeking to mollify the angry Obama saying “I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace” (Dyer 1).
With sustained United States pressure I have no doubt that the peace process can move forward. It is not simply a matter of successive American presidents having the will to act, they must also have the ability to apply the sorts of pressure I have discussed. In order for the American president to have such an ability, they will have to be able to control the narrative so that pressure on Israel is framed as encouraging Israel to seek peace out of consideration for its own interests. An undoubted stumbling block to this is AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Though AIPAC espouses an interest in a two-state solution, calling for a Jewish Israel to live next to a demilitarized Palestine (AIPAC.org) — I have no idea why we would expect one party to be demilitarized and not the other — it is blindly pro-Israel and very adept at influencing congress.
I am confident that as negative as AIPAC’s influence on American foreign policy may be, it is not an unmovable obstacle to our having a constructive role in the peace process. AIPAC was around during the George HW Bush Administration, Secretary Baker even spoke to them. This did not keep the first Bush Administration from being relatively fair to the two parties. Max Fisher points out that in 2013 AIPAC was a vehement ally of President Obama’s in building support for American airstrikes against Syria (Fisher). At the same time, the relatively cash-strapped and unorganized Invisible Children NGO was attempting to rally support for action against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda (Fisher). Given the pull of AIPAC, and the relative obscurity of Invisible Children, you would expect the former project to succeed and the latter to have a very poor chance, if any, of succeeding (Fisher). Yet, AIPAC was unable to deliver congressional approval to President Obama and Obama ended up calling off the airstrikes against Syria (Fisher). On the other hand, Obama ended up sending troops to Uganda to assist in the hunt for the warlord Kony (Fisher).
This failure on the part of AIPAC does not mean it is impotent. Fisher attributes some of the failure of the Administration and AIPAC to sway congress to Iraq-war fatigue and the fact that engagement with Syria would be a much more serious undertaking than our involvement in Uganda (Fisher). Also, Invisible Children was able to push a much clearer narrative as to why we should act in Uganda. Given the complexities of the civil war in Syria, such a case is not so unambiguous (Fisher). This anecdote does however suggest that AIPAC is not invincible either. To thwart the influence of AIPAC a president who is serious about the peace process must help the Palestinians to better master civil disobedience and good governance, along with supporting the census, while at the same time applying consistent pressure to the Israeli government. This will be tough given the natural inclination of the American public to be sympathetic towards Israel and the power of AIPAC. The president must strive to create a narrative in which the United States is helping Israel help itself by making the difficult but necessary decisions for peace.
Ultimately those who support the idea of Israel as a Jewish state must be convinced that the notion of helping Israel help itself is more than just rhetoric. As Israel gobbles up more and more Palestinian territory in contravention of international law, the dream of a Palestinian state is certainly becoming uncertain. So is the project of a Jewish state. As Uri Savir puts it “those who claim Netanyahu has no foreign policy or does not achieve his strategic goals are wrong. The strategies, the diplomacy and the rhetoric all serve one central purpose: to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel is shaping a new reality, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River — a binational apartheid state in the making” (Savir 2). In such a circumstance, Israel will either have to give up its democratic label, or grant Palestinian Arabs the right to vote in Israel, jeopardizing the Jewish character of Israel. Edward Said points out that it is wrong and unrealistic to expect the millions of Palestinian refugees living outside of the disputed territories to want to return (Said). At the same time, you cannot expect them all to assimilate into other nations and forget about repatriation, especially when they have not been compensated (Said). Israel currently is in a position of simply refusing those Palestinians repatriation. However, once the millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories get the right to vote in the context of a one-state solution, it is quite easy to imagine that such a government representing all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine will be much more amenable to the notion of taking back large numbers of refugees, further blotting out the Jewish character of the state of Israel. The Israeli Labor leader Herzog warns that without the two-state solution Jerusalem will be run by “an Arab mayor” (Sterman Newman).
Israel’s recognition of the PLO came after many decades of the Palestinian Arabs refusing to work with Israel. It also came at a very steep price for Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians. Whatever progress it has led to has been tentative and mixed, as Edward Said so eloquently points out. It is in my mind proof of principle however, along with the relatively even handed approach of the George HW Bush Administration. We must thoroughly understand what led to this recognition and what has been most effective in winning sympathy for the Palestinian cause in Washington if we are to have any hope of a meaningful peace between Israel and the Palestinians while a two-state solution is still possible. Given the nature of the settlements and the pace at which new ones are being built, the dream of a Palestinian state may be taking its last breaths. I hope to see this subjugated people overcome all the odds and find the oxygen it so desperately needs before those final breaths expire. I wish it for the Palestinian people and also for the Israeli people. If the Israelis forego their own immediate interests — or recognize their broader long-term interests — and obvious military superiority to give the Palestinians the dignity of a viable state, then I think they will be going a long way towards being a light unto nations.
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