President Obama created a firestorm when, in his Middle East policy speech, he called on Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement based on Israel’s pre-1967 War borders “with mutually agreed land swaps”. The response from Israeli prime minister Netanyahu was immediate and strong in opposition. The response from many American supporters of Israel, including Jews and right wing Republicans in particular, was equally negative. I was concerned not so much by what the President said, as by the reaction which could lead to a drop in support by Jews for Obama, and a diminution of Jewish financial support for the Democrats in general.
With all this in mind, I was privileged this morning to attend a panel presentation by journalist/author Peter Beinart and former AIPAC official Steven Rosen. Beinart was extremely impressive, in command of a wide array of facts, and able to use those facts to support his, to some controversial, opinions. As to Obama’s speech, he said it was in fact a mainstream speech, and not the controversial statement which the media states it to be. He cited in some detail points made previously by American leaders, including especially Bill Clinton, which made suggestions even more stark than the current President. He ran through some of PM Netanyahu’s historic statements showing him to be non-supportive of the entire concept of Palestinian statehood. He criticized the Netanyahu government roundly, asserting that one can do this without compromising his support for Israel itself.
Rosen, to no one’s surprise, took the opposite position, that Obama’s speech was harmful to the peace process (and that the specific nuances of Obama’s words are not as important as the speech’s psychological effect), and that you don’t badmouth the Israeli prime minister and call yourself a friend of Israel. It is Rosen’s contention that the President’s speech has set the peace process back and given Israel bashers a little more ammunition.
Once you get beyond this overall difference of approach, the real problems crop up. How is it possible to achieve peace? The biggest issues are (1) borders, (2) Jerusalem, and (3) the Palestinians’ right of return.
Everyone realizes that the 1967 borders won’t work (there are now almost 500,000 Jewish residents of the West Bank), and that land swaps will be needed. These land exchanges will not necessarily be acre for acre, and would presumably be designed to allow Israel to incorporate most or many of its major settlements, but any such land swap would be difficult for the Palestinian negotiators to sell internally, particularly since it will impact on the territory needed to create a viable Palestinian state. And of course it means that the Israelis need to give up some territory that has always been part of the country. That won’t be easy, either.
Jerusalem is a tougher issue. The Palestinians expect Jerusalem to be their capital and within the Israeli camp, there are many who do not want to give up any of the city, which was divided before 1967. Beinart made an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of previously: the Jerusalem of today is not the Jerusalem of the past. It is much larger, both by virtue of Jewish and Arab construction, but largely Israeli, so that what is now thought of as Jerusalem would not have been thought so 40 years ago.
The Palestinians claim that the right of return is essential to an agreement, something that the Israelis, for obvious reasons, cannot permit. Beinart pointed out that Clinton had suggested a modification here, with about 15,000 Palestinians allowed in. Even this now seems off the table.
And one more thing. Hamas. The charter and the language of Hamas takes the clear and emphatic position that the State of Israel should not exist. In trying to reconcile the governments of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians are bringing Hamas into future negotiations. There does not seem to be any way that Israel can negotiate with Hamas at this time.
So the prospects for peace at this time seem as remote as ever. And the longer the stalemate lasts, increased settlement activity makes it more and more difficult to reach accommodation on the ground, and increased psychological tensions make it even harder (as if that is possible) to trust negotiations or agreements.
So who is correct, Beinart or Rosen? All my sympathies are with Beinart. But his goals appear to be impossible without a total about face on the Israeli government side, and perhaps a change in the political positions of the Israeli voting population. As far as Rosen goes, his approach has been the approach in use for decades, and where has it taken us?
My position? I think that territorial expansion has to stop and that Hamas has to amend its charter. I think Jerusalem has to be divided with joint control over the Old City. I think (as does Obama, although this did not get much press) that a Palestinian state needs to be demilitarized but that international forces should police, rather than Israeli forces (understanding that the precedent of UN forces in Lebanon insuring that Hezbollah does not arm the south of Lebanon has not been successful). I think there should be no blockade of Gaza other than for arms, and that within Israel there needs to an affirmative action program favoring Arabs.
It will be interesting to see what happens. Two years ago or so, I heard a speech by Israeli journalist and author Tom Segev. His position was, as I recall, that the time was not upon us to move the peace process forward and might not be for some time. His conclusion was that, to avoid war, the two sides needed to be able to live with the tension and not expect too much to happen. This still may be right, but is clearly not a solution. And to be sure — one day a solution (good or bad) will be upon us.