There’s a reason why Israelis and Palestinians haven't made true and lasting efforts for peace — their conflict is now the status quo.
Shortly after becoming secretary of state in 2013, John Kerry spoke to the American Jewish Committee and made it clear that the status quo between Israelis and Palestinians was simply “not sustainable.” A year later, at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum, Kerry made his point again. “The status quo between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not sustainable,” he said, “and the alternatives to peace are neither acceptable nor viable.”
Much like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Kerry has issued perennial warnings to the Israelis and Palestinians — though more the former, actually — that if they don’t change their ways, and soon, a variety of disasters will befall them.
When Kerry repeated his message once again late last year in another speech at the Brookings Institution, he noted that the status quo — including “violence, settlement activity, demolitions” — was “imperiling the viability of a two-state solution.”
Some, of course, might argue it already has. Others, including Kerry himself, have predicted even worse disasters are ahead: a third intifada, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, or a permanent one-state reality that would all but guarantee constant violence.
And yet over the course of the past 16 years, we have witnessed one full-blown Palestinian intifada (2000-2004); three bloody wars between Israel and Hamas (2008-2009, 2012, and 2014); an intense eruption of Palestinian lone-wolf stabbings and shootings of Israelis (October 2015-present); and what has become the daily indignities inherent in the relationship between the occupier and the occupied.
It would seem, then, that this unsustainable status quo (and the pain and misery that it carries) to which Kerry constantly refers has proved well … quite sustainable.
Surely Kerry is correct in his analysis that keeping things exactly as they are is unnecessarily costly and potentially disastrous. But his calls for change are falling on deaf ears. Why isn’t anyone listening?
The politically inconvenient truth is that not even a solution-oriented or peripatetic U.S. secretary of state will be able to scare or persuade hard-edged Israeli and Palestinian leaders — through either threats or appeals to their enlightened self-interests — into real and actionable change.
Israelis and Palestinians have their own agendas and their own concerns. Call them excuses, rationales, or self-perpetuating delusions if you will, but these rationales and fears have trumped American arguments to move beyond this conflict “status quo.” And they will likely continue to do so. Here’s why.
Changing the status quo is just too risky
Almost 50 years after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it’s stunningly clear that the fear of dramatically changing the status quo outweighs the risks of managing it.
It’s hard for big powers to appreciate fully the way in which small ones calculate risks and gains, particularly in a conflict that is perceived to be existential in nature. But it shouldn’t be. This isn’t just a real estate deal. It’s a brutal and bloody struggle that stirs up hatreds and passions among those who don’t want it resolved. Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin were murdered for their peacemaking.
At the Camp David summit in July 2000, I heard Yasser Arafat say several times that he wouldn’t give the Americans the chance to walk behind his coffin. Translation: Don’t think I’ll sign a deal that will get me killed. Arafat was happy (ego-wise) to be at the summit, but he also knew that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had been at Camp David, too, in 1978 with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and that despite getting 100 percent of Sinai back and all Israeli settlements there dismantled, the Egyptian leader had been murdered. Arafat didn’t negotiate seriously at Camp David, but he certainly wasn’t going to risk his life and legitimacy by settling for the 92 percent of the West Bank that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered at the summit.
Whether a gloomy Barak (who had, by the 2000 summit’s end, taken to dressing in all black) was thinking about Rabin’s murder at the hands of an Israeli terrorist is unknown. Barak did go further on a deal with the Palestinians than any other Israeli leader had before. But no Israeli leader — certainly not in what was the first serious negotiating session with a Palestinian counterpart — was willing or able to meet Palestinian requirements. And the Israeli leader was surely thinking about his political survival. Barak had arrived at Camp David with a shaky government that collapsed while he was there. Once it was clear there would be no deal, the Camp David dynamic became very much a gotcha game of domestic politics. Who was going to be blamed for the failure of the summit or, to use former Secretary of State James Baker’s notion, on whose doorstep would the dead cat be left? Nobody has ever been assassinated or discredited by their constituents for not making peace and blaming the other side. Barak blamed Arafat for the failure of Camp David and tried to discredit him and Palestinians as negotiating partners. Bill Clinton, who believed Barak had made historic compromises, agreed and criticized Arafat. We left the summit with no agreement and very little prospect of achieving one in the six months that remained in Clinton’s presidency.
The fact is negotiating political agreements, let alone implementing peace treaties that reshape public attitudes and change the way adversaries think and behave toward one another, isn’t for the faint-hearted. It takes big, bold leaders who are willing to risk separating themselves from their respective tribes at considerable risk. Indeed, one reason that status quo prevails is that these leaders are so rare. And the deals they can do equally so. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty combined strong leaders and issues much less complicated and sensitive than those like Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. That was also why King Hussein and Rabin were able to negotiate an Israel-Jordan treaty. Weaker leaders without that kind of authority and strength and who lack the capacity and motivation to do a deal (see: Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Palestinian Authority president and Israeli prime minister, respectively) cannot be expected to produce those kinds of historic achievements, particularly when the issues they’re negotiating are so explosive.
Managing is easier … and safer
Israelis and Palestinians may not be adept conflict resolvers, but despite their ongoing dysfunctional relationship as occupier and occupied, they actually have found ways to avoid pushing one another past the brink or the proverbial point of no return.
For example, in frustration with dealing with Israel, Abbas has, since 2008, repeatedly threatened to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and turn over the proverbial keys to Netanyahu so he could “be responsible for the Palestinian Authority.” Of course, that’s never happened. Nor have Palestinians or Israelis permanently terminated security cooperation. For its part, Israel has built settlements, walls, and annexed Jerusalem, but it has avoided annexing the West Bank, thereby leaving open the possibility of an agreement — at least theoretically. So while Israelis and Palestinians can’t seem to solve the two-state problem or stop fighting, they can’t stop cooperating either.
Paradoxically, while close proximity drives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it also helps mitigate it. Palestinians have a crippling dependency on Israel for water, electricity, access to the outside world, and a range of goods and services — including employment opportunities. Indeed, unlike during the Second Intifada, Israel recently decided to grant 40,000 additional work permits to Palestinians.
As long as Abbas and the Palestinian Authority want to govern the West Bank — and there’s no indication that desire is going to end — the Palestinians need Israeli help in handling security, particularly in checking Hamas’s influence. Abbas has said many times that security cooperation is in the Palestinians’ interest. And it also frees the Israelis from having to reoccupy large areas of the West Bank. Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj estimates that his security forces have stopped 200 attacks since last October. And Israel’s internal security service — the Shin Bet — and chief of general staff, too, confirm that the problem Israel faces on security would be much worse without the Palestinian Authority.
Analyst Neri Zilber describes the Palestinian Authority as Israel’s secret weapon in its war against terrorism. Abbas is walking a fine line. He doesn’t want his 30,000-man security force to appear to be Israel’s police force. He seems to be succeeding. Since last fall, only three members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces have been implicated in the current violence. In a remarkable admission to Israel’s Channel 2 last in March, Abbas admitted that without security cooperation, a “bloody intifada would break out.”
Washington is a status quo enabler
Much of that security cooperation is funded by the United States and plays a significant role in helping maintain stability and, yes, the status quo. It is a cruel irony that Kerry warns of an unsustainable status quo that Washington plays a big part in sustaining. U.S. technical and financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority helps keep Abbas in power. Indeed, since the Palestinian return to the West Bank in 1994, the United States has been key to the international donor effort on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and the key crisis manager in defusing violence and getting both sides out of bad situations that could have easily escalated to worse ones. I spent much of my life in the 1990s helping keep the Oslo process alive and prevent and preempt big explosions. The United States is in a perverse investment trap: It wants Israelis and Palestinians to grasp the dangers inherent in the status quo. Yet it seems to have no choice but to shelter them from it.
Add to that America’s enduring special ties with Israel (unlikely to wither anytime soon), its willingness to bankroll and arm the Israelis, and its readiness to defend the country from international criticism and pressure, and it’s easier to see how the status quo ambles along without fundamental disruption. And that reality has been reinforced in the past five years by a Middle Eastern meltdown, the rise of the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and the Iranian nuclear deal that have distracted the international community and the United States from seriously focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And there’s little to suggest a change in that focus.
It’s tempting to suggest that if the United States applied real pressure on Israel by threatening to cut its military aid, Israel would have no choice but to be more compliant on the Palestinian issue. There’s, of course, no way to know. No Democratic or Republican administration has ever even hinted at such an approach, let alone tried to implement one. And it’s hard to imagine such a scenario.
One might ask Kerry that if things are as bad as he describes them, why he and the administration haven’t adopted a remedy more in keeping with the severity of the disease. Though I think the answer is already pretty stunningly clear: Like its predecessors, this administration lacks both the will and the capacity to take on America’s close Israeli ally on the peace process’s most crucial sticking points — settlements, forcing Israel to change its position on borders or Jerusalem, among others. And even if those within the Obama administration could summon up the necessary courage, they know in the end it still wouldn’t be sufficient.
I worked on this issue in various capacities under four administrations — from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush — and none of them seriously believed that American pressure or a U.S. peace plan could move the two sides closer to resolving their conflict, let alone delivering a deal without the willing participation of the parties themselves.
After 50 years of violence, terrorism, and conflict, one might reason that Israelis and, particularly, Palestinians have experienced more than enough suffering to compel a resolution. And one could argue that because the suffering (on both sides) has spanned generations, it has only stiffened the resolve to resist and fight on. After 50 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinians are not about to abandon their national narrative. And unlike a traditional colonial situation where the occupying power could leave and sail home (see: the British in India, France in Algeria or Vietnam), Israel isn’t going anywhere and will remain a permanent part of the neighborhood — whether the West Bank situation is resolved or not.
Since neither surrender nor victory is a realistic option, both sides have no choice but to operate in the status quo — shifting between conflict and accommodation. In that vein, the Palestinian Authority works pragmatically with Israel on issues like security and water. And, as a February poll by the Awrad research firm reveals, only 42 percent of the Palestinians surveyed supported a third intifada — a drop from the survey conducted just a few months earlier that saw 63 percent support. Overall, the findings saw that there is now little desire for the kind of mass uprising of the First Intifada or for the kinds of suicide attacks that were carried out in Israel during the second. Indeed, it’s been seven months since the outbreak of the so-called “intifada of knives,” but those attacks didn’t lead to surging demonstrations or more shows of violence, signaling, possibly, that there is clearly an appetite for broader engagement on the part of the Palestinian public. Indeed, the status quo is further reinforced by a Palestinian national movement that is divided and dysfunctional and lacks anything resembling the unity, will, or capacity to articulate a coherent national strategy to create a Palestinian state through force, diplomacy, or a combination of the two.
As for the Israelis, a combination of factors reinforces the inertia of a seemingly unchangeable status quo. Prime Minister Netanyahu, now an apparent constant in Israeli governance, has no interest in negotiating an endgame deal with the Palestinians. The continuation of Palestinian violence, a still hostile Hamas government in Gaza, a Middle East in meltdown, an Arab world distracted by Iran and the Islamic State, and Israel’s growing closeness with Egypt all create very little chance that there will be an intense focus on negotiations to create a Palestinian state. Even with the surge of lone-wolf attacks (now abating somewhat), the normalcy and vitality of life in Israel proper results in zero pressure on the government to do anything about the Palestinian issue. Indeed, Israel, according to the global happiness index, ranked the 11th-happiest country in the world in 2015 — a stunning fact, particularly when you look at the preceding 10. The very real danger that the continuing occupation will erode Israel’s character as a Jewish democratic state, increase its international isolation, and strain relations with its friends, including the United States, is present but simply not felt immediately or severely enough to overcome the risks of taking bold steps to end that occupation.
Is there anything left to do?
Perhaps the most compelling reason that the status quo continues is that no way has been found of fundamentally altering it to the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
This may seem tautological. But it makes an important point. Fifty years on, many different options have been tried: quality of life and the Jordanian option in the 1980s; the Oslo interim accords of the 1990s; the Camp David endgame efforts (2000); the Annapolis negotiations (2007-2008); Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza (2005); the Kerry peace effort (2013-2014). None has worked. And the cumulative impact of these failures has begun to seriously undermine the notion that there is in fact a solution that’s workable and acceptable to both sides.
But no matter. The same proximity that creates conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will also guarantee that they will continue to look for these kinds of solutions. Whether they find them is another matter. Indeed, even as I write this column, Israelis and Palestinians are coming off yet another seemingly hopeful but apparently failed effort to negotiate Israel’s turning over of more control to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank.
And I’m certain that before the year is out there are three things you will be able to take to the bank. John Kerry will again be talking about the unsustainable status quo and the dangers it presents. The Obama administration will have launched some effort to leave its mark on the peace process, and the unsustainable sustainable status quo and the headaches it portends will still be around to plague the U.S. president lucky enough to sit in the White House next year.