Political will is obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace

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One of the cardinal lessons of international conflict resolution is that two fighting is worth more than negotiating. John Kerry faced this truth as he struggled to broker something more meaningful in Gaza than a few hours or days of so-called peace. Unfortunately for him, both Israeli and Hamas leaderships came to believe that peacemaking on their terms would yield few gains, whereas fighting might achieve gains that had been unachievable before. As Jimmy Carter said in his 1979 speech to the Knesset, “The people support a settlement. Political leaders are the obstacles to peace.”

Reports from Israel point to an increasing conviction among its leaders that now is the time to eliminate Hamas once and for all. The tunnels have to be entirely wiped out and the rockets silenced. Hamas’ leadership has to be discredited. Gaza has to have a permanent Israeli military presence. For Hamas, continued fighting justifies its existence and establishes its legitimacy as a negotiating partner. Fighting is also the only way, apparently, Hamas leaders see to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza, open border crossings with Egypt, and thus free Gazans from the economic squeeze that has dramatically reduced their quality of life.

For both sides, and especially for the innocent people who are paying the highest costs for more fighting, this war is particularly anguishing because it was avoidable, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group recently argued in his July 17, 2014 New York Times editorial. Thrall pointed a finger at Israel, with U.S. support, for obstructing the reconciliation agreement reached by the PLO and Hamas last April, which might have laid the groundwork for a new peace accord with Israel. Hamas was in a weakened condition then, and agreed to put the Palestinian Authority in the driver’s seat in Gaza as it is in the West Bank. A few generous acts by Israel and the U.S. at that time might have produced entirely different reactions when the kidnappings and murders occurred earlier this month.

In his July 27, 2014 New York Times editorial, David Grossman, Israeli author of The Yellow Wind and other outstanding books on Israeli-Palestinian differences, suggested it may finally be dawning on Israelis of diverse political persuasions that there are no winners in war, and that Israel must negotiate with Hamas. He wrote in the name of a common humanity as well as a deep conviction that Israel’s leadership has failed its people by rejecting a peace that has long been within reach. But nobody in Tel Aviv is listening. Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe that war is the answer— that somehow, contrary to all the historical evidence about resistance movements, the civilian and military survivors of Israel’s attacks will accept their fate and allow the occupying power to do what it wants. Netanyahu and his supporters will be proven wrong, but before that happens, the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike will continue.

And what of the U.S. role? The Israeli air attacks have been met with, “understanding,” by the President, the Secretary of State and other high US officials. Yes, they have expressed “concern” about the “heartbreaking” toll on the Palestinians these attacks have caused— over 1,888 dead and 9,000 wounded last I looked. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians. Public and Congressional opinion in the U.S. seems to support the official view that Hamas is to blame for this latest round of conflict, so Obama is just where he wants to be— on politically safe terrain.

Kerry said the U.S. goal in Gaza was “an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.” But the Israelis were never really interested in Kerry’s cease-fire efforts, minimal though they were, until they had achieved their military objectives.

As was reported by the Associated Press on Saturday, August 2, 2014 Netanyahu upbraided the U.S. ambassador to Israel by saying the Obama administration should never “second guess me again” on dealing with Hamas.

You have to hand it to Netanyahu; he knows how to manipulate the Israel-U.S. relationship to his advantage. He knows how rarely Washington follows up its “concern” about Israeli military and political actions with any withdrawal or reduction of support. Thus, he lets the U.S. leadership fret (or pretend to fret) for awhile and engage in endless shuttle diplomacy, while he goes about his business. Already, Washington has announced a resumption of $225 million in aid to Israel for its antimissile system, and you can bet more will be forthcoming.

The U.S. approach to a Middle East peace, like Israel’s and Hamas’ approaches, is one-sided and doesn’t effectively address the core obstacles that have bedeviled diplomacy for decades. A just peace would mean Israeli-Palestinian sharing of authority over Jerusalem, with assured access to all religions; mutual recognition by Israel and the new Palestinian state of each other’s sovereignty and right to exist; compensation to Palestinian refugees; and a land-for-peace formula that would swap arable land annexed by Israel for an equal amount of land Israelis have settled, allowing for creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. Jimmy Carter’s Geneva Initiative and Tikkun magazine’s Geneva Accord are among the sources that demonstrate that a just peace can be constructed if only the various parties have the will to do so.

What is lacking to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not so much a fair and viable plan as the political will to carry it out.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.