Is There Any Hope Left For Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Akiva Eldar ponders why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest in history, proposing to resolve it instead of “managing” it.

al-monitor A Palestinian stone-thrower uses a sling to throw back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during clashes outside Ofer prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Feb. 12, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.

Topics covered

violence, settlements, security, peace, palestinian, israeli settlements, israel

Feb 12, 2013

On Saturday night, upon hearing the former (and maybe the future) Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman declaring on Israel's Channel 2 “Meet the Press” program that there is no chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians on the issue of permanent borders, and all that’s left is to “manage the crisis,” I was reminded of a little girl from Gaza who an hour earlier was sitting next to me, watching a circus show near kibbutz Yakum.

Wearing a white medical mask, she was sitting amid other Palestinian children who are coping with serious illnesses day in, day out. They were brought there for a day of fun. Sitting next to a bunch of Israeli children of roughly the same age, they all enjoyed watching the funny antics. For a moment, however brief, it seemed that there was hope.

When I heard Liberman casually dismiss any hope of ending the conflict, I thought of those children as well as of Yuval Rott who was strutting in the hall like a peacock. Yuval, whose brother was killed in a terrorist attack, is the driving force behind “The Road to Recovery” — an Israeli volunteer-based organization helping Palestinian children obtain treatment in Israeli hospitals. I looked at the flyer in Hebrew and Arabic that had been handed to me at the end of the show by Salamatecom (Get Well) volunteers. It said that the organization was founded in order to give hope to the sick and their families, put a smile on their faces, and make their wishes come true. 

Compassion and hope have no boundaries, as we all know. However, without clear boundaries — or at least a persistent attempt to reach them — there's no hope. People who are carved up by cultural, religious and social borders need a political border. No interim agreement can be managed between the occupiers and the occupied without providing a diplomatic horizon.

Has the two-state solution based on partitioning the land stopped being realistic as Avigdor Liberman claims it to be? Is there really no choice but to embrace the philosophy of the Israeli right (and of Hamas) that we must settle for managing the crisis, leaving the problem to future generations? And besides, what has made this conflict one of the longest in modern history? Why, for example, has it been going on longer than the conflict in Ireland, which seemed to be endless?

In his new book, “A Border Between You and Us: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and the Ways to Resolve It,” (Yedioth Publishing House), Shaul Arieli wonders why “our” conflict is going nowhere while other conflicts around the globe have been resolved? Col. (res.) Arieli, who was the commander of the IDF's Gaza Division, as well as Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s deputy aide-de-camp and the chief of his peace administration, relates how in parlor meetings, lectures and seminars he had with tens of thousands of people from all across the political gamut, he heard the same statements, arguments and justifications; for example: “At Camp David, Barak gave Arafat everything and in return we got the second intifada”; “How can we evict 500,000 Israelis living in the territories?” “We returned Gaza back to them, and Hamas turned it into a nest of terror,” and the list goes on and on.

Typical statements that have helped cement the conflict over the years are heard from the Palestinian side as well: “The Zionists live in our homes;” “Abu Mazen gave them half of east Jerusalem, the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, and they would still not sign an agreement;” “We gave up 78% of Palestine and they still want the rest.”

Such statements are a reflection of how blind and deaf we’ve become to the views, concepts and national narrative of the other side. This is conducive to heightened bafflement on both sides. Arieli argues that trying — at this stage — to contend with the conflicting narratives and use them as a framework for discussions a priori condemn the negotiations on a permanent status agreement. Instead, he proposes some practical solutions to the “core” issues, such as self-determination, security, Jerusalem and refugees. The problem, he maintains, stems from the zero sum game that so many on both sides abide by. This approach, which sees any concession made by one side as a pure gain for the other, is most saliently noticeable in the issue of the borders. Instead of fleecing the most out of the other, Arieli suggests adopting an approach that sees an agreement that will create a stable, positive reality; a common essential interest. 

In order to reach an agreement on the issue of the borders, the sides must chiefly reach an understanding on a territorial reference line. The Palestinian approach, which is widely accepted by the international community, including the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference which adopted the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative — maintains that UN resolution 242 and the 1967 borders are the starting point for the two-state solution. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was the first person — and the last one for the time being — to agree that the implementation of Resolution 242 be based on demarcating the border based on the 1967 lines with adjustments that both sides agree on.

He was also the first leader to propose territorial compensation to the Palestinians in areas inside Israel. The main bone of contention between him and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was the Ariel-Kedumim bloc, which is located some 20 kilometers [ east of the Green Line. 9% of the settlers live in that area, which makes up 1.2% of the West Bank. In September 2008, at the end of the talks with Abbas, which had started a year earlier in the wake of the Annapolis summit, Olmert proposed to transfer to Palestine an Israeli area equivalent to 5.8% of the West Bank in order to compensate for an Israeli annexation of 6.5% of the West Bank (about 380 square kilometers), where 85-87% of Israelis living across the Green Line reside. Opening a ground corridor between Gaza and the West Bank would have compensated the Palestinians for the remainder. Abbas proposed only a 2% land swap, which would have allowed Israel to keep 70-75% of the Israelis living across the Green Line under its sovereignty, without Ma'ale Adumim and the Ariel-Kedumim bloc.

Netanyahu's government espoused the old approach to the effect that the areas Israel had seized in the 1967 war are not occupied territories since no other state had sovereignty over them. According to that approach, the Palestinians do not have privileged rights in the areas across the Green Line and the settlements are strictly legal (see the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). 

The "blocs" Netanyahu seeks to leave under Israeli civilian and/or military rule include the Jordan Valley and area E1 between Ma'ale Adumim and Jerusalem, which alone encircle more than a third of the West Bank. Netanyahu denounces what he calls "Olmert's far-reaching concessions," rejecting the possibility of territorial compensation to the Palestinians in return for "the blocs." He has not even taken the trouble to reply to the documents the Palestinians presented to the Quartet last year in connection with the issues of borders and security. This is reinforced by what former Shin Bet director, Yuval Diskin, said in a documented meeting last April in the city of Kfar Sava: "I was there until a year ago. … This government has no interest in resolving anything with the Palestinians, and I say this with certainty."

As Arieli writes, "a solution in the spirit of the partition of the land of Israel or the partition of Palestine will not please those on either side who insist on the double-or-nothing approach. However, it can satisfy the many who are willing to separate wishful thinking from reality and come to terms with a compromise between the two peoples." Netanyahu and Liberman use the narrative to scuttle peace and perpetuate the "process." Arieli demands that the leaders put aside the historic-self-righteous discourse and focus on finding concrete solutions to practical issues. 

Arieli quotes Victor Hugo who said that "nothing can stop an idea whose time has come." In a few months' time, we will be marking the 20th anniversary of the Oslo accord. Is it not high time that the idea of peace was implemented?   

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic. 

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