Paul Pillar

The Road to Nowhere in the Peace Process

Probably the country owes some gratitude to Dennis Ross for working so long on a “peace process” that has yet to yield a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The experience must be frustrating for someone who has been involved in such endless diplomacy—assuming, that is, that his goal is indeed to obtain an agreement and not just to keep a lid on the situation while the Israeli occupation continues ad infinitum. But Ross's article in the Sunday Washington Post, under the title “How to break a Middle East stalemate,” illustrates the very sort of thinking that has sustained the stalemate.

Ross's recommendation is basically for the Israelis to make their occupation of the West Bank a little less pervasive and less heavy-handed and to give the Palestinians there somewhat more economic leeway than they have now. He suggests, for example, letting the Palestinians quarry rock in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank in which Palestinians do not have even nominal civil or security responsibilities and where their economic activity is, as Ross correctly describes it, “extremely limited.” He also suggests letting the Palestinians open a few more police stations in the jointly managed Area B and “gradually [ending]” Israeli incursions into the smallest portion of the West Bank, the Area A in which Palestinians ostensibly have some manner of control.

Such steps are fine as far as they go, and Ross is correct that Israel could take them without endangering its security. But the measures aren't going to break any stalemate. As the rest of Ross's article makes clear, what he is recommending is essentially an extension of the longstanding Israeli strategy of differential treatment of Palestinian territories in an effort to bolster support for the “good” Palestinians led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and to reduce support for the “bad” Palestinians of Hamas. Making daily life a little more tolerable in the Fatah-controlled West Bank has been one half of that strategy; making life miserable in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip (through blockade and destructive invasion) has been the other half. Ross refers to the prospect of another round of all-Palestinian elections and the need as he sees it to tilt circumstances as much as possible in favor of the good Palestinians.

West Bank Palestinians no doubt would appreciate even the most modest lightening of the heavy hand of occupation, but they have experienced too much disappointing history to believe that what Ross is recommending is part of something that is, as he puts it, “producing a process that will, in time, end the occupation.” To the contrary, most Palestinians will correctly see it more as an alternative to ending the occupation by keeping the West Bank natives from getting too restless and making indefinite occupation manageable. The whole idea of giving Palestinians more autonomy was instituted with the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. That was supposed to be a way station leading to Palestinian statehood in only a few years. Why should Palestinians, nearly two decades later and with an Israeli government that seems more determined than its predecessors to cling to the occupied territories, have any hope that a smidgeon more autonomy today will have any different result?

In the game being played, the West Bank Palestinians are supposed to earn statehood by showing that they can build and run effective institutions. But of course it is up to Israel to determine when they have shown enough, and somehow the required level of achievement never seems to be attained. Meanwhile the Israelis from time to time make it hard for even the good Palestinians, not just the bad ones over in Gaza, to govern. Periodically autonomy gets reduced and the heavy hand of occupation gets heavier. Palestinians know that even if Israel takes Ross's recommended steps Israel can quickly and easily reverse them—and probably will reverse them, most likely after some security-related incident.

Ross's piece seems oblivious to the power of nationalism and the yearning for statehood, which are hardly unique to the Palestinians. This is not the only important circumstance relevant to his subject to which he seems oblivious. In arguing for a stacking of the Palestinian election deck in favor of Fatah and against Hamas, he characterizes Hamas by simply saying that it “rejects nonviolence and peace with Israel”—saying nothing about the strong indications that there is far more willingness by Hamas to be part of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. In any event, Ross implicitly rejects categorically any effort, which need not endanger Israel's security at all, to find out if there is such willingness.

Another big and relevant circumstance, of course, is the Arab Spring. Ross mentions it, but only as a kind of inconvenient stimulus for those inconvenient Palestinian elections that we need to make sure Hamas doesn't win. Never does he acknowledge that the vigorous striving for popular sovereignty by their Arab brethren will make the Palestinians even less likely to be satisfied with modest adjustments to continued occupation while they still lack their own state.