It will take nothing short of a miracle for the current US-spearheaded peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, ambitiously aimed at the ‘final status’, to achieve any meaningful outcome. Resolving all the main issues requires major concessions from both sides, and the negotiating parties need the unwavering support of the majority of their respective constituencies, something they don’t have.
American mediators are aware of the problems on both sides. President Obama, who had promised to work towards a “just” peace, realized soon after taking office that he could not force Israel to give major concessions. He used one factor, external to the Israel-Palestine conflict, to convince Netanyahu to join a new round of peace negotiations: the promise of containing the Islamic regime in Iran, whose bellicose President does not miss any or every opportunity he can give Israel to claim that Iran is an ‘existential threat’.
The basic tenets of all the previous peace talks were around a ‘two-state solution’, an idea sharply opposed and criticized by radical proponents of the ‘one-state solution’ on both sides. In all these years, while the advocates of one- and two-state solutions engaged in ramified debates with each other, a third solution which can be called a ‘one and a half-state solution’ was (directly or indirectly) silently and consistently pushed forward by the US and Israel with the implicit consent of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
In the two decades since the beginning of peace negotiations, Israel has become stronger and Palestinians weaker and more divided. In the early years of the 1993 Oslo accord, there were about 110,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank; they have now almost tripled to over 300,000, not to mention about 50,000 added to the Jewish population of East Jerusalem. The failure of the peace talks, along with the disastrous second Intifada, the strengthening of Palestinian religious radical fundamentalists (Hamas and Jihad), as well as the return of the Israeli hawks and neo-cons in the US to power, ended the efforts for a real two-state solution. Sharon built a wall on the arbitrarily drawn borders of Israel and expanded more settlements in the West Bank. He also unilaterally withdrew the settlements from Gaza outside any negotiated deal with the Palestinians. The success of Hamas in the 2006 elections and its eventual takeover of Gaza in 2007 ended the idea of finding a solution acceptable to all Palestinians. Salam Fayyad, a pragmatic and less idealistic Palestinian bureaucrat and a World Bank economist trusted by the Americans, who was earlier parachuted in to become Finance Minister, was appointed Prime Minister.
The strategy seems to be two-pronged: to gain the support or consent of more Palestinians for a partial deal with Israel, and at the same time get prepared to contain and suppress dissent. An integral part of the strategy is to assure Israel of its secure borders in order to convince it to withdraw from much of the West Bank. This also involves the complete isolation of Hamas from the process. Gaza will remain outside the plan in the hopes that one day it will be back under the control of the PA. The implicit perception behind the agreement is that in return for providing security for Israel in the West Bank, the PA with the backing of the section of the Palestinian middle classes who support it, will have a semi-sovereign state in much of the West Bank.
The PA can count on most of its 150,000 or so employees plus other Palestinian salariats working for the private sector as well as NGOs, whose livelihood depends on the PA and its relations with Israel and its funding allies. The NGOs which mushroomed by the thousands after the Oslo accord with the help of European and North American donors, while playing an important role in the expansion of Palestinian civil society, have had an implicit function in class formation. More and more educated Palestinians were attracted to these NGOs with relatively well-paid salaries and secure incomes. In a matter of a few years the city of Ramallah and some other Palestinian cities have been filled with expensive houses and four-star hotels and restaurants to serve this new middle class as well as foreign investors. Rich American Palestinians started building their summer residences and mansions in their villages of origin.
On the security side, it is estimated that over 25,000 (some estimates are as high as 60,000) Palestinian personnel are engaged in border security, intelligence, and police activities, forming in relative terms, one of the largest security and police forces in the world. The top priority has been maintaining law and order, hunting down Hamas supporters inside the West Bank, and taking care of the security of the border with Israel along the wall. The US Security mission (USSC) has been training the Palestinian Security Force (PASF), and the National Security Force (NSF). Battalions of these forces are trained under the direction of an American general in Jordan. Palestinian NSF is now in direct contact with their Israeli counterparts. British and Canadian forces are also engaged in training. In fact, the Canadian Conservative government recently cut its funding of UNRWA, allocating the money instead towards security in the West Bank.
Despite current problems over the lifting of the settlements freeze, reaching some sort of agreement between the present hawkish government of Israel and the PA is possible. Such an agreement may include some land swaps, the removal of some settlements, and creation of a semi-‘state’ for Palestinians. But this state, with its unique features, cannot possibly amount to a fully-fledged sovereign state.
Territorially, apart from Gaza and its maritime borders over which the PA presently has no jurisdiction, the new Palestinian state may not even have much border with Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Israel has lots of agricultural and industrial interests in the very fertile Jordan valley and will try to hold onto as much as it can. The new state will not have a military – although it will have a very strong police force and internal and border security and intelligence services. The new state will have limitations in its foreign relations and decisions related to establishing foreign embassies in the West Bank.
Considering that only a section of Palestinian middle classes support the PA, and given the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the new state, inheriting much discontent and endless unfulfilled promises, will have no other choice but to rule by force and suppression of dissent, hence the creation of yet another dictatorship in the Middle East. Interestingly, to appease the religious zealots, already the draft constitution has declared Islamic Shari’a “the main source of legislation” (Article 4), and has given religious courts authority on “personal status” matters and ruling on the basis Shari’a (Article 101-1). So much for the dreams of an independent, secular and democratic Palestinian state.
Obviously, a one and a half state solution will not resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Real, just peace can only be achieved if a pro-peace Israeli government, with the support of progressive Israelis, is ready to help create a viable Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (with minor land swaps), with Jerusalem being declared an open city and the site of the two states’ capitals, while the rights of the Palestinian refugees are recognised and their status resolved on the basis of international conventions and UN Resolutions. Palestinians, on their part, need to resolve their differences and make peace with Israel, while working towards establishing a secular and democratic Palestinian state. Only then can the basis for a final status and peace be laid.