What is amazing about the preoccupation with Israel and Palestine is the certainty with which respectable individuals preach about a problem whose complexity has been pondered for decades, and where fluidity is more prominent than stability.
Even more amazing is the focus of urging change on the one element that is stable, while failing to take account of the instability elsewhere that may run over in several directions with no end in sight.
A prominent recent example of misplaced certainty is an op-ed piece by Roger Cohen in the New York Times. Cohen has a long record of blaming Israel for the problems of the Middle East. He has called for an end to Israeli settlement in the West Bank, and expressed shame for the operation in Gaza that he described as a disastrous case of Israel slaying Palestinian children.
Now he is lamenting that President Obama must do more to honor an election pledge for "new thinking, outreach to the Muslim world, and relentless focus on Israel-Palestine. . . . The conflict gnaws at U.S. security, eats away at whatever remote possibility of a two-state solution is left, clouds Israel's future, scatters Palestinians and devours every attempt to bridge the West and Islam."
Cohen realizes that problems among Palestinians contribute their share of the frustrations, but he asserts that President Obama must work harder "to ask such tough questions in public and demand of Israel that it work in practice to share the land rather than divide and rule it."
If the two-state solution does not work, Cohen is certain that "there will be one state between the river and the sea."
The one-state solution is a common threat, typically made by the Israeli left and overseas critics who claim that they are friends of Israel, and want to reign it in before it is lost. As Cohen writes of the one state he sees as possible, "very soon there will be more Palestinian Arabs in it than Jews. What then will become of the Zionist dream? http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/opinion/12iht-edcohen.html?emc=eta1
The one-state threat illustrates the weakness in many criticisms of Israel. It is more a fantasy than anything that can be extrapolated from realities.
Who would make Israel absorb into itself land and people that do not succeed in achieving statehood. The process would not reflect any natural law of politics that I recognize.
If something must be done with the West Bank, why not urge its absorption into Jordan rather than into Israel? And if something must be done with Gaza, why not Egypt?
The answers to these questions are similar to the answer of Palestine's absorption into Israel. Israel does not want it any more than Jordan or Egypt want the portions that outsiders would assign to them.
Israel has ample power to say no and to police what it defines as its borders. Its rejection of American demands to make concessions prior to negotiations is only the most recent instance of rebuffing what the elected leadership decided was not in Israel's best interest.
Israel is the stable element in what had been the British Mandate until 1948, with a history of resisting diplomatic initiatives meant to down-size it, and numerous efforts at violence over the course of 60 years. Israeli settlements have been on the Golan Heights and the West Bank for 40 years, suggesting that they have enough stability to be worked around rather than wished away by anyone thinking seriously of a diplomatic breakthrough.
The instability among Palestinians indicates that pressure on Israel cannot be predicted to produce anything that will appeal to moving cultural and political phenomena that are going who knows in what directions.
Recent revelations of corruption may reverberate, despite the claims of Palestinian political elites that they are nothing but Israeli fabrications.
The latest Economist describes heavy handed efforts of Fatah to impose its control on the mosques of the West Bank, as well as declining support for Hamas in Gaza. The newspaper shows no confidence for knowing who will emerge on top.
The West Bank has shown several years of impressive economic growth, attributed to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a professional economist (PhD University of Texas-Austin) who returned to Palestine after a career in the U.S. Federal Reserve and World Bank.
Among the unanswered questions:
Will Fayyad survive whatever happens at the summit of Palestinian politics, in the context of corruption, unresolved conflicts between the political and religious leaders, militants affiliated with Fatah and Hamas, and the long delayed national elections?
Will the chronic outmigration of Palestinians continue? Over the years this has nearly emptied the West Bank and Gaza of Christians, and has led numerous Muslims with means to seek their future elsewhere. http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article5910.shtml
While some blame Israel for this migration, others link it to the frustrations created by Palestinian rejectionism, violence, and on-again, off-again promises of national success. Israeli optimists see the migration it as relieving pressure from high birth rates for a one-state solution, and reducing the prospects that Jews will lose their large majority in Israel.
Politics is not permanent. However, the current Israeli government is well entrenched. Left of center parties did poorly in the 2009 election, and show no signs of recovering in recent polls. Labor is in danger of splitting against its party leader who joined the Likud-led government as Minister of Defense. Knesset members of the centrist Kadima opposition party may also be splitting into right and left factions. In that context, Prime Minister Netanyahu gains further assurance, even if the right wing of Kadima does not formally join his government.
In all of this, it appears that power holders like Barack Obama and commentators like Roger Cohen should rethink where they apply what pressure they possess, or look elsewhere for a region where their activism would be appropriate.
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at February 12, 2010 01:42 AM
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem