The Buzz

"A Palestinian State Cannot be Created by Israel..."

Paul Pillar’s conspiratorial take on the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process assigns responsibility to a familiar nemesis: Benjamin Netanyahu. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has made it clear that he supports a two state solution in the context of a genuine peace agreement. The Palestinian cause has come undone not just because recent violence threatens to incite another intifada, but also because the same insuperable obstacles have plagued the peace effort since Oslo. Israel has the right to expect any Palestinian national government would actively prevent citizens from waging war on their own. It is hard to find many Arab governments today that could pass this test - certainly not the PLO. Sadly, there is no tangible prospect of Palestinian statehood because no peace treaty could encompass or control the dynamics capable of destroying such an accord. Nor is there foreseeable peace for Israel in the Middle East, only the judicious management of emerging threats and the unhappy prospect of sustained border wars.

Any agreement on established Palestinian borders will not resolve the fundamental issue of self-determination. The West Bank and Gaza have been occupied by the IDF on multiple occasions, generally in response to neighboring Arab states using the territory to attack Israel. Mr. Pillar unreasonably dismisses the strategic importance of the Jordan River Valley in this regard. Meanwhile the PLO remains hostage to broader Arab objectives; and hobbled by disunity, extremism and diaspora. Mahmoud Abbas diminished his political independence by reuniting with Hamas, and by seeking the Arab League’s sanction to parley with Netanyahu in 2009. Palestinians will only realize their legitimate aspirations when they are prepared to divorce their interests from the hostile pan-Arab agenda – and neighboring states support them in doing so.

This inherent tension will not be easily overcome. Moderate Arabs must face down their radical wing to achieve rapprochement with Israel. The latest accord between Fatah and Hamas notwithstanding, the Palestinian claim is delegitimized by the recourse to violence still enshrined in Hamas official policy. Meanwhile, the era of strongmen capable of inspiring (or enforcing) peace with Israel is dying on the Arab street. The rudderless populism of the Awakening gives little clue to its final destination, except it is unlikely to be charitable towards Israel.

At Georgetown recently President Bill Clinton labeled Yasser Arafat as a key impediment to peace during his administration. On the other side, critics of Israel (including President Obama and Mr. Pillar) single out Israeli troops and settlements in the West Bank. Yet peace remains unattainable, even when both issues are addressed. Mahmoud Abbas matched Mr. Arafat in his inability to conclude an agreement with Ehud Olmert in 2008. Meanwhile, conditions in Gaza only deteriorated following the unilateral Israeli withdrawal of troops and settlements in 2005, and subsequent election of Hamas. A five-fold increase in rocket attacks on Israel culminated in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09.

Ultimately, it is unlikely a Palestinian state would have succeeded even if Mr. Arafat had signed on, or Mr. Abbas, or even Mr. Netanyahu. No leader has proven capable of marshaling the Palestinian movement to reach a pragmatic settlement with Israel. No fledgling Palestinian state could survive the dynamics of today’s Middle East: sectarian violence, extremism, eroding national sovereignty and the absence of any credible arbiter or external authority willing to intervene.

Despite this morning's airstrikes in Gaza, Mr. Netanyahu understands that Israel is incapable of imposing the peace it craves. But look around the neighborhood. Security on the Egyptian border is in question as the government descends into tyranny. With Syria engulfed in civil war, established norms in the Golan Heights offer scant comfort. Iran’s nuclear program remains unresolved. Violent stalemate presents gathering dangers in Gaza and the West Bank. Existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan could easily become casualties of the Arab Awakening. These are unpropitious times for peace, and strategic outcomes are uncertain. For now, Mr. Netanyahu is justified in projecting strength rather than seeking accommodation.

It is fair for Mr. Pillar to criticize contemporary Israeli leadership for a lack of strategy and deficit of inspiration. However a Palestinian state cannot be created by Israel, the UN, or distant countries treating it as a foregone conclusion. Nor would another intifada advance the cause – tragedy would fall most heavily on the Palestinians. Rather, peaceful Palestinian statehood will require an extraordinary confluence of visionary, popular leaders on all sides: willing to make painful sacrifices, and capable of dominating competing factions. Leadership of this caliber is in short supply in the Middle East, where violence continues to overtake opportunity.

Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and served with the Australian Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. He recently travelled to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with members of the Knesset and PLO.