What To Do After Peace Process Failure

Now that Secretary of State Kerry's attempt to breathe life into the diplomacy known as the Middle East peace process has been widely pronounced—even by those who appropriately salute his efforts—to be a failure, different quarters are chiming in with recommendations for what to do next about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some suggestions are helpful; others would only help to perpetuate the Israeli occupation and lack of an agreement, and may be tacitly intended to do just that.

The New York Times editorial board proposes that the United States, as a last act before ending this phase of its active diplomacy on the problem, post on the international bulletin board its own sense of what the principles of a final settlement ought to look like. This is probably worth doing, and it has the merit of reflecting the fact that the basic lines of a feasible two-state solution have been apparent for some time. Perhaps this would help to clarify who is resisting such a settlement and who is not. This has been tried before, however, most notably with the Clinton parameters, and it was insufficient to push the process over a finish line.

A couple of other limitations and uncertainties, revealed in the most recent diplomacy, would have to be overcome for such a U.S. declaration of principles to help. One concerns whether the Obama administration would be able and willing to backtrack on how, in its recent efforts to get some kind of preliminary agreement, it moved away from the consensus feasible settlement and adopted certain Israeli positions, such as regarding a continued troop presence in the Jordan River valley, that were bound to be unacceptable to any Palestinian leader. The other uncertainty concerns the ability of one of the parties—with the Israeli government demonstrating this skill in virtuoso form—to use mixtures of procedural and substantive issues to put off any agreement even without explicitly rejecting U.S.-promulgated principles. The Netanyahu government has done this with its “Jewish state” demand and, more recently, with its reneging on a commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. The latter tactic resembles the familiar North Korean ploy of selling the same horse twice by making new demands for compensation in return for doing something it was already supposed to do anyway.

A different, but old and familiar, proposal that comes from those most sympathetic to an indefinite Israeli occupation has been voiced anew by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for New East Policy. This notion is that a Palestinian state is not something to be created from above through negotiations but built up from below through a long process of developing Palestinian institutions. The idea is that statehood is not a gift to be given to the Palestinians, but something they must earn by being good administrators. The appropriate role for the United States and other outsiders, according to this formulation, is to provide assistance and tutelage in being good administrators. Thus Diehl says, “The Obama administration could have kept the forward movement going by continuing to promote the construction of Palestinian institutions — including a democratic, corruption-resistant government — and by pushing Israel to turn over more security responsibility and remove impediments to the Palestinian economy.” Similarly, Singh writes that “a greater emphasis should be placed on Palestinian economic growth and reform” and addressing “corruption in the PA.”

This idea is not a prescription at all for reaching a settlement, ending the occupation, and creating a Palestinian state. It instead is a prescription for extending the occupation indefinitely by making it run smoothly. It is a method for making the principal Israeli sub-contractor for the occupation—because that is what the Palestinian Authority has become—do its part of the occupation duties tolerably well. Meanwhile, Israel arrogates for itself the function of judge in determining whether the Palestinians have performed well enough to move to the next stage of this game. There will always be some reason why they are declared not yet ready. Corruption, as mentioned by both Diehl and Singh, will be a perennial favorite issue for this purpose. If necessary, the Israelis can take direct action to make sure the economic and security performance of the Palestinians does not get too good, lest too many people start asking whether they really are ready for a state. The Israelis have done so in the past by trashing Palestinian infrastructure in the West Bank, and of course have done so in a more brutal way with the Gaza Strip in making it as difficult as possible for the Palestinian governing authority there to govern.

Singh states, “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe to be solved.” The obvious, glaring question to be asked in response is, “So when, after 47 years of occupation and more than two decades since the Palestinian Authority was created, will it ever be ripe?” The actual answer, of course, given the framework Singh is trying to impose, is “never.” But the false promise of statehood at the end of the rainbow helps to keep enough Palestinians docilely on the reservation while the occupation continues.

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