Endgame: Conditions for the success and failure of the peace process

What does the possibly-revived peace process John Kerry announced on Friday have going for it?

– “Diplomatic Tsunami” – a catch-phrase that stands for high-level global isolation of Israel as punishment for its policies is the great fear on everyone’s mind in Israel this week. Israel is smarting from a recent spate of symbolic blows highlighting international opprobrium in new and painful ways: Stephen Hawking refusing to attend the President’s conference, and the new EU guidelines are two very significant examples of very mainstream figures increasingly putting actions behind words Israel has come to ignore.

– Palestinian power play. The Palestinian situation is dire (a tired old phrase that makes it no less real). But this time, I am referring not to people, but to the political level. There are concerns of an Arab-Spring style uprising that might not be solely directed at Israel; Fatah is concerned about losing all traces of credibility; Hamas is concerned by the unraveling relationship with Iran, and the increasing detachment from Egypt. Both Fatah and Hamas desperately need to shore up support through large breakthroughs, and the talks might be an opportunity. Hamas has already dropped hints at a more pragmatic, less extreme political positioning.

– The shadow of one state: The Zionist left has tried for some time to scare Israelis into demanding peace by raising the specter of one-state and the demographic takeover by Palestinians, should Israel’s current policies continue. The argument didn’t work well, because mainstream Israelis listen mainly to the right. But now, prominent figures on the right are openly abandoning the long-established two-state paradigm and embracing various forms of annexation-or-apartheid policies, from Reuven Rivlin, to Tzipi Hotovely, to Naftali Bennet and Danny Danon. Two top-rated Friday night television news items recently have explored what one state would really mean, and that maybe Israelis will finally consider the two-state approach with some urgency.

– Truth in numbers: For those who like the numbers game, there about 6 million Jews in Israel, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The West Bank has about 2.6 million people and Gaza roughly 1.7 million (according to July 2013 figures from the CIA World Factbook, for those who don’t trust other sources). Now add to that 1.6 million Arabs in Israel (according to the same Israeli CBS publication). That’s 5.9 million total Arabs/Palestinians. In other words, the Jewish and Palestinian populations between the river and the sea will be roughly equal in size. There can be no talk of inequality – not of rights, representation, immigration policy or resource distribution – in this context. Not that there can be such inequality no matter how small a minority is (and that’s why I personally don’t play the numbers game). It’s just that with equal-sized groups, a lack of equality risks not just apartheid but civil war.

What’s working against the success of the process?

– All sticks, no carrots: The points above are almost entirely push-factors, dire consequences if progress is not made. And maybe that’s what it takes. But the most recent breakthrough (partial, fragile and problematic) toward the resolution of an old and intractable conflict – between Serbia and Kosovo – hints at the opposite. It  was Serbia’s urgent desire to advance towards EU membership that drove the most nationalist government since the fall of Milosevic to effect a concession on Kosovo, their Jerusalem. It is troubling to consider that Israel, the stronger party, has no such carrot: it has entered all the clubs where it needs to be a member. And threats of boycott or shut-out, while grabbing Israelis’ attention, also tend to make them more resilient and defiant in their positions.

– Endgame – a mirage? Nobody in Washington wants to hear this but the truth cannot be avoided: Gaza may not have changed, but this is not the same West Bank of 1993 when Oslo was signed, it is not the same one from 2000 when the Camp David talks failed, and it is not even the same West Bank from the time of Ehud Olmert’s Annapolis offer of 2008. The sheer number of Israeli settlers has “surged” since Netanyahu’s previous term.  Israeli control over Area C has deepened and squeezed out Palestinian life there (remember, this is fully 60 percent of the West Bank). Ariel, a finger in the eye of the potential Palestinian state is increasingly permanent and institutionalized, and with its university and cultural center, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Netanyahu regularly threatens to build in E-1, which would effectively bisect the West Bank, and whenever things look tough, the government resorts to the possibility of building more settlements. I am not sure there’s a Palestinian state to be had.

– Troubled Palestinian leadership. Who is representing the people who must live with the agreement? This problem relates primarily to the Palestinians, since Israelis just keep giving Netanyahu his mandate, freely and fairly. And his rhetorical (if not de facto) support for a two-state solution means that no Israeli can accuse him of a bait-and-switch on the Israeli public. But Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have little-to-zero institutional credibility, since elections have not been held for seven years. Palestinians are commonly heard sneering that the PA is an occupation contractor for Israel, and an intolerably repressive regime. Many have little love for Hamas too. But as the second most important representative, for better or for worse, how genuine can a process be without Hamas somewhere in the picture?

In sum, I am now agnostic on the ‘best’ solution. If the leaders reach an agreement that they truly believe will be an improvement on the status quo, I would sign on the dotted line, because anything is better. And negotiated resolutions are better than unilateral. But the near-parity between facilitating factors and obstacles will make this a very tough course.

Barring a miracle, Kerry’s breakthrough is bad news