A long diplomatic hiatus in efforts to resolve the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict will end when direct talks are convened in Washington on 2 September 2010. The Barack Obama administration’s commitment to progress is highlighted by the president’s role in opening the discussions, and in its invitation to Egyptian and Jordanian leaders to attend the gathering. But the obstacles are formidable, with the White House’s ambition of a resolution of outstanding issues taking only a year looking very optimistic.
A list of the four most substantive and difficult matters that will have be engaged is enough to illustrate this:
• the settlements that now stretch right across the West Bank, and which have been greatly expanded since the Oslo peace process started in the early 1990s
• the final boundaries for an independent Palestine, including the status of Gaza and the physical link between the strip and the West Bank
• the status of Jerusalem - seen by both parties to the dispute as its capital (see Mariano Aguirre, "Israel-Palestine: a frontline report", 26 March 2010)
• the rights of the Palestinian diaspora, both refugees and their descendants living in the region and those in other parts of the world, including the question of a return to land and homes lost in 1948.
The Palestinians face enormous problems, of which even the enduring political division between the Fatah and Hamas movements is but one. Their national predicament is such that many Palestinians find it near-impossible to envisage a viable state as a realistic possibility; a significant minority now embraces the idea of a unitary state covering the whole of historic Palestine. This “one-state solution” is anathema to almost all Israelis, not least as demographic trends would mean that Israeli Jews would become a minority in such a state within a few decades.
More generally, Israel’s overriding preoccupation with security reinforces its view of a region of enemies where any measure of political progress is seen in terms of the new vulnerabilities it may entail. Thus, for example, it views Hamas as exclusively a terrorist entity with which no negotiation is possible.
The reward of failure
At the outset of the talks, the Israelis will seek - as a precondition for any negotiations - the immediate and complete acceptance of the state of Israel, with all the security guarantees it requires (see Akiva Eldar, "With a victory like this...", Ha'aretz, 23 August 2010). Any decision by Israel to halt the freeze on new settlement-construction, and to restart further large-scale building projects, could wreck negotiations before they are underway. This alone means that it will be fortunate if the two sides are still talking in October, let alone in mid-2011.
Moreover, many in the Israeli government are confident that Israel is negotiating from such a position of strength that it need not make any serious concessions. They are bolstered here by a domestic rightward shift over the past generation, in part because of the influx of migrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s (see Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present", 23 February 2009).
The calculation here is that the talks will (sooner or later) fail, leaving Israel to return to its tried-and-tested stance of enforcing security through overwhelming conventional military power, backed up by nuclear forces. In addition, behind its own iron fist it can rely on the backing of the world's sole superpower.
Israel is supported in this outlook by influential networks in Washington, among them the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and other lobby-groups. Aipac itself may not enjoy such unstinting loyalty as before - and liberal Jewish initiatives such as J Street offer a more nuanced view of what it means to be “pro-Israel” - but it has been successful in forging links with evangelical Christians who espouse an apocalyptic vision of Israel’s role in God's plan (see “Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage”, 2 February 2005).
This balance of forces, with Israel “impregnable in its own insecurity” and the Palestinians weak and divided, looks a recipe for diplomatic failure. Yet three factors are in play which should in principle give the Israelis pause - and should certainly be of deep concern to any thoughtful Israeli politician with a longer-term perspective on his or her state's situation.
The costs of failure
The first factor is that asymmetric military systems in the region - especially the extraordinary levels of mass production of short- and medium-range missiles in Iran, Syria and elsewhere - are becoming ever more difficult for Israel to counteract. Hizbollah, in Lebanon, has tens of thousands of missiles that can reach across much of Israel (see Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, “The Hizbollah project: last war, next war”, 13 August 2009); and Iran, whether or not it has serious nuclear ambitions, is developing robust solid-fuel medium-range missiles (see "An asymmetrical drone war", 19 August 2010).
The second is that some senior figures in the American military are beginning to express in public a view they may previously have voiced only in private: that in relation to US interests in the middle east, Israel is part of the problem rather than a means to a solution. The argument here is that the Palestinians’ enduring predicament, for which Israel bears a great responsibility, acts as a potent radicalising force across the region - with deleterious effects both on the US’s strategic position and on the security of its forces (see "America and Israel: a historic choice", 18 March 2010).
The exceptionally close relationship between the Israeli and the American military makes such a shift of focus too important to ignore. The United States, after all, meets over 20% of the Israeli defence budget, and US forces make extensive use of Israeli equipment and training facilities. A number of columns in this series has explored this theme: (see, for example, “After Saddam, no respite” [19 December 2003]; "Between Fallujah and Palestine" [21 April 2004]; "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" [7 January 2009]; and “A tale of two towns” [21 June 2007]). In these circumstances, indications of diminishing support for Israel in leading US military circles should be of huge concern to serious Israeli politicians.
The third factor is more long-term; it too relates most immediately to the United States, but it also affects western European public opinion. In June 1967, Israel vanquished three Arab armies in the six-day war and in the process occupied great swathes of territory. This historic victory consolidated support in the west (particularly the US) for what was perceived as “brave little Israel”, and in time was also seen by those adhering to a politically influential Christian-Zionist worldview as the fulfilment of a religious destiny.
Almost two generations on, both the region’s geopolitics and its demography have changed. The war of 1967 is a living memory only for those in middle age or above; far more important and pressing on the minds of people observing the region from outside is Israel’s widespread destruction in the Gaza war of 2008-09, the relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and other human-rights infringements great or small. The Israeli government may present these issues in a very different light - but its message is less persuasive than ever. In many circles, even those previously sympathetic to Israel, a profound reversal of roles has occurred in the region’s “David vs Goliath” combat - with the result that Israel, now seen as an overweening bully, is losing its moral legitimacy.
Some in Israel’s national community - journalists, academics, NGO workers among them - recognise this, and are doing their best to alert their compatriots to the dangers of the situation (see Thomas Keenan & Eyal Weizman, "Israel: the third strategic threat", 7 June 2010). But most Israelis, starting with the Binyamin Netanyahu administration, do not. As a whole, the Israeli state seems not to understand - and may simply be unable to see - that its posture is unsustainable (see “Israel’s security trap”, 5 August 2010).
Time really is running out for Israel; but most probably, only outside actors can enable the country to recognise this (see “After Gaza: Israel’s last chance”, 17 January 2009). In this respect, the Barack Obama administration may be different enough from its predecessors as to ensure some serious diplomatic progress. If as a result the Washington talks on 2 September 2010 become truly serious in the coming months, Obama’s presidency could yet be responsible for a historic achievement that would help save Israel from itself.