As part of our Middle East delegation 2011 travellog, Young Fabian Partnerships Officer Nick Maxwell argues that Israel needs to realise that a change in strategy towards Palestine is in its own best interest.
The status of bi-lateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is somewhere between tired and comatose.
Part of the explanation is that Israeli moderates and enthusiasm for negotiations amongst the Israeli public have both been severely weakened. Following the Israeli Gaza pullout, a consensus view has hardened that withdrawing from occupied territory only increases attacks on Israel. Further, the stagnation has resulted from a belief that the Palestinian leadership has shown that it is not prepared, or not able, to accept even the most generous final offer from Israel. The failure of the Palestinians to respond positively to the 10 month settlement freeze imposed by the current government, at some political cost, reinforced the point.
Lack of confidence in negotiations, coupled with the fact that current security measures seem to be working for Israel (the wall is credited with bringing suicide attacks down by over 90%), has produced an atmosphere where maintaining the status quo can be seen as the best available and entirely acceptable option.
From the Palestinian point of view, a public consensus has also hardened against negotiations, or at least bi-lateral negotiations with Israel. The process of negotiations are felt to have achieved very little, but a worsening Palestinian position. Most critically, every year since the Oslo accords, more settlements have been built in the West Bank. In 1991, 90,000 settlers were in the West Bank, in 2011 there were almost 600,000. This is in direct contravention of the Oslo Accords and to international law governing behaviour in occupied territories.
Israeli hawks draw strength from terrorist attacks, but they also feed off a deep insecurity within the Jewish psyche. The ‘security first’ mentality is hardly surprising. Jewish history is littered with persecution, a minority under threat almost where-ever they settled – culminating in the Holocaust. The day after an Israeli state was declared, it was attacked from all sides by its neighbours.
The story of Israel is one of defiance and survival in the face of existential threats.
However, these are different times and we are entering a critical period. Over the long term, the response to security threats must always include more than containment – particularly when the containment strategy fuels a sense of injustice in the region and the wider world. Israel needs to grow out of a culture of fear and insecurity, and do it quickly.
The status quo should not be acceptable and is not sustainable. The Palestinians remain an occupied people – disenfranchised and disempowered, festering in high unemployment rates and the indignity of externally enforced obstructions to their daily lives. This has real and long-term security implications for Israel.
With the Palestinian Statehood bid and the Arab Spring, Israel seems to stand on a cliff-edge with only a limited period to orient itself towards a safer and more secure future. This future requires a rejection of the status quo and a strategic shift toward encouraging positive conditions in the Palestinian territories, rather than simply containing negative conditions. In particular, it is important to appreciate three points about Israeli interest:
1) It is not in Israel’s interest to have a failed state on its doorsteps. Over 20% of Palestinian youth are unemployed. State services are generally weak. It is in Israel’s own interest to be doing all it can to promote economic growth and development in the Palestinian Authority (PA) area. Practically, Israel should at least start by stopping the brinkmanship over its threats to suspend payments (of the territory’s own tax yield) to the PA.
2) It is not in Israel’s interest to be hostile to the Arab Spring. Several senior Israelis, including Mark Regev Spokesperson to the Israeli Prime Minister, have voiced concern about the democratisation of the Arab world. It is not sustainable to oppose the cause of freedom and democracy in the Arab world. While it is true that, particularly in Egypt, relations are likely to deteriorate in the short term, a more effective response to the Arab Spring (than wishing it away) will be to demonstrate Israeli commitment to peace and withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Security and stability in the region will be best served by a dynamic and active hearts and minds exercise across the region, starting with tangible progress for the Palestinians in the bid for statehood.
3) It is not in Israel’s interest for Fateh to fail in its bid for Palestinian statehood. In the words of a prominent Israeli negotiator we met, the current Fateh leadership is “as good as it gets”. The current leadership is committed to peaceful avenues, rather than violence; it respects international law; and is engaged in cross-Arab peace initiatives. But Fateh has a desperate need to show progress, in the peaceful strategy, for the Palestinian people. It has thrown all its political weight and credibility behind the UN bid for Statehood, which comes to a head this month. In its own interests, Israel should do everything it can to encourage the success of this diplomatic route, rather than risk its failure and risk a rejection of diplomacy (bi-lateral or multilateral) and play into Hamas’ hands.
During our meetings, I have heard personal stories, on both sides, of people whose children have been threatened, maimed and killed. The common response is one of resolve to be vigilant against the threat and make the perpetrator pay, never betraying their memory. The more inspirational responses are from people who have taken the same experience and promised to dedicate themselves to finding peace, promising never to betray their memory by encouraging more of the same violence and hatred.
Overall, a security focused consensus and a satisfaction with the status quo in current Israeli politics must be challenged. There is a pressing need to do better, in Israel’s own cold hard interests. There is a need to articulate a new vision of strategic advantage for Israel which sets out ambition and an active intent to improve relations with the Palestinians, and with the region.
Hearts and minds have been the missing components of Israeli military success since 1948.
It will take political leadership, and political creativity, but at this critical juncture when the moderates in the West Bank are threatened, as the Arab Spring starts to present new foreign policy implications, and when the alternative is only the promise of generation after generation of more fear and hatred – is there really a choice?
Nick Maxwell is Partnerships Officer of the Young Fabians and a delegate on the Young Fabian Middle East Trip 2011.