Five reasons why Barbara Slavin’s cautious optimism is misplaced (Jerry Haber)

The following was originally posted on The Magnes Zionist.

A very good example of what is fundamentally wrong about how Americans view the Israel/Palestinian Conflict is provided by Barbara Slavin here. In a contrarian spirit of being a teeny bit upbeat about the next round in Israeli Arab peace talks (going on for around sixty plus years, but in its present Israeli-Palestinian format, for almost twenty years), she lists five reasons for optimism, before turning to reasons for pessimism. Since I am a pessimist I will focus on her first five reasons. Here they are with my comments.

“1. The outlines of a settlement have been clear for years. Israel would retain large blocs in the West Bank near Jerusalem, share Jerusalem with the Palestinians and get rock-solid security assurances from the United States. Palestinian refugees could return but only to a new Palestinian state.”

Comment: The fact that the outlines of a settlement have been clear “for years” suggests that they are, in fact, unacceptable and unworkable. For example, what matters the most to Palestinians, according to a recent poll, is their having a strong military to provide for their own security — a demand that no Israeli government will even contemplate. (Not even the Geneva Initiative goes there.) And there are many other non-negotiables for both sides. So if the talks focus around these outlines, they are doomed to fail. Of course, I can see that how these outlines would be most acceptable to your garden-variety liberal Zionist. But how will they speak to Palestinians who are concerned with the control of their borders, their land, their resources, their security, and their future? And for that matter, what of those on both sides who reject them – and they may constitute a majority?

“2. Both sides would benefit from a settlement….”

Comment: It is not clear how Israel, or Israel’s government, would benefit significantly from such a settlement. Yes, there would be some diplomatic benefit but the potential costs would be great, and the economy is doing fairly well, as it is. Israelis themselves are in no hurry to leave the West Bank; few really care about the democratic issue when they feel that security is at stake, and fewer believe that a settlement will bring security. They are happy when the world cheers them, but they shrug when the world boos. As for the Palestinians, the proposed outlines would constitute an enormous sacrifice, and needless to say, would be considered a sell-out by many Palestinians in Palestine and abroad. And who will give ironclad guarantees for Palestinian security?

“3. West Bank Palestinians have made progress creating the institutions of a state….”

Comment: Slavin provides no examples. Instead, she says that the PA security forces are doing a good job of keeping down attacks against Israel. So I suppose that by “institutions of a state” she means security forces subcontracted by Israel to the PA. What are the other state institutions or civil society institutions being built? And in light of the ongoing expropriation of land and resources, of what interest will they be? Need we be reminded that the democratic institutions (characterized by postponed elections and jailed legislators) are at a nadir.

“4. The Arab League has endorsed the talks…This contrasts with the hastily arranged Camp David summit of 2000, when Palestinians were pressured to make compromises without the chance to obtain the prior support of Arab allies”

Comment: This is based on a confusion of what the Arab league can and cannot support. Members had no problem with Arafat’s attending the 2000 Camp David summit. What they didn’t endorse then, and what they haven’t endorsed now, are the concessions that were demanded of Arafat and will be demanded of Abbas. It is true that in the meantime, there has been the very important Arab League Initiative. If the US can convince Israel to make compromises so as to accept that initiative, then there may be some hope. But all Israeli governments have so far rejected them. And let’s face it: Egypt and Jordan will be there as US client-states, not as representatives of the Arab league.

“5. The Obama administration is committed to making these talks work.”

Comment: Indeed? In the space of two years, the Obama administration has not wrested a single significant concession from the parties. The so-called settlement freeze has more holes than Swiss cheese. The Obama administration’s flip-flops have made it look remarkably inept. Almost two years into his presidency the administration was barely able to put together an Annapolis II. Mitchell has had no success at all for his efforts, and were it not for the enormous pressure of the US on Abbas, there would be no talks. As for the US’s threat to table its own proposals – if the threat is genuine, which I doubt, then it gives the Palestinians no incentive to make concessions now, since the US’s offer will have to be better than the Israelis.

Slavin’s perspective is woefully lacking in an understanding of the history of the talks, and her inability to even question the dogma of “everybody-knows-what-the-final-settlement-looks-like-It’s-just a-matter-of-knowing-hot-to-get-there” shows how deeply mired she is the conventional thinking that has produced nothing but disaster — especially for those Palestinians who are worse off now than they were before the Oslo Process turned them into Israel’s junior partner in the peace-process dance marathon.

If – that is, when — the talks fail, and frustration and mutual recriminations ensue, what reasons for optimism will Slavin have then? If she can point to one way in which this summit differs from the other summits under Clinton and Bush, maybe I allow myself to pray for a miracle. But she has given, in addition to her reasons to be pessimistic, five reasons for us to be extra pessimistic – not of a positive outcome of the talks, but of the misguided thinking behind them.

Let us be thankful that the expectations are very ,very low.

(h/t to Ali Gharib for pointing me to Slavin’s op-ed.)