After returning from the Annapolis Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Haaretz (November 28, 2007) that “the State of Israel cannot endure unless a Palestinian state comes into being.” Olmert had made a like pronouncement in December 2003, when he was Deputy Prime Minister to Ariel Sharon. At that time he told Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot: “Israel will soon need to make a strategic recognition . . . We are nearing the point where more and more Palestinians will say: ‘We’re persuaded. We agree with [right-wing politician Avigdor] Lieberman. There isn’t room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote.’ On the day they reach that point,” said Olmert, “we lose everything. . . . I quake to think that leading the fight against us will be liberal Jewish groups that led the fight against apartheid in South Africa.”
On hearing these words, Barnea rubbed his eyes in astonishment. Today, it would appear, the message is no less relevant. In Olmert’s appraisal, if no solution is found to the Palestinian question, Israel will wind up with an apartheid regime; the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories will then demand the right to vote. The democratic West, he knows, will not forever tolerate an ethnocracy that withholds this right from a third or more of its subjects. Such is the Zionist nightmare.
The head understands, but the hands lag behind. Or to vary Abba Eban’s quip: where peace is concerned, Israel has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Apparent exceptions turn out to prove the rule. In the Oslo Accords of 1993, for instance, the Palestinians recognized Israel. But playing its usual zero-sum game, Israel tried to use the Accords as a means to extract concessions. By the end of the 90’s, blockades, settlement expansion, economic manipulation and political intransigence had wiped out Palestinian trust. The result became apparent at Camp David in July 2000: Yasser Arafat knew he did not have a mandate to sign.
Or consider the Sharon-Bush vision of June 2003, articulated in their letters of April 2004. Haunted by the Zionist nightmare, Sharon saw the need for a Palestinian State, but he could not bring himself to allow a real one. The vision announced by Bush amounted to a state without substance. It would be fractured territorially, it would lack military capability, and it would have no control over borders or air space. The economically weak Palestine was to remain dependent on Israel, whose needs it would have to serve. In this way, Israel and the US vitiated the concept of a Palestinian state, encountering no international opposition.
Then came the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005. Israel insisted on unilateralism. “There is no partner,” was Sharon’s mantra, although Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) of Fatah was president. Sharon (and Olmert, his deputy) bypassed him. This turned out to be a major error. If disengagement had come about through negotiations with Abbas, he could have taken at least partial credit for Israel’s withdrawal. In the event, Hamas took it all.
A few months later (January 2006) the Palestinians overwhelmingly elected a Hamas government (although Abbas was still president). The two years since the Hamas landslide have been difficult ones for them. Hamas has refused to accept the West’s conditions that it recognize Israel and accept the Oslo Accords. As a result, the US and Europe have backed a political and economic blockade against it, seeking to destabilize its rule. In June 2007, in Gaza, matters came to a head. Hamas took the Strip in a military coup.
This event has immensely complicated the chances for peace. If Israel were to reach a separate agreement with Abbas in the West Bank, there would still be rockets from Gaza. Also, what guarantees that Hamas won’t take over the West Bank too? The notion of “two states for two peoples” has faded farther away than ever. For example, in building the separation barrier as it did — carving off pieces of the West Bank to protect its settlement blocs — Israel may have been nursing the idea that the barrier would one day mark the border. The Hamas victory has foiled that too: a wall does not stop rockets.
Such were the realities behind the Annapolis Conference. At first it was meant to set forth principles for peace. According to first-hand sources on both sides, these were already formulated in the year 2000 at Camp David and Sharm al-Sheikh. At that time, however, trust between the sides was lacking, and regional conditions were unfavorable. Today an agreement is impeded by the internal Palestinian situation.
No discussion of principles or prior understandings can occur as long as the Territories are divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, it is feared, will lead to a Hamas takeover there too. For this reason, Israel has clung to the Road Map as a life preserver. It obligates the PA to eliminate the terrorist infrastructure as a precondition for Israel’s withdrawal. This implies the renewal of Fatah control over Gaza. Israel is not about to begin a civil war with its settlers as long as it lacks a secure and stable partner on the other side.
And so we come full circle: given the might of the Israeli Occupation, the power of Hamas, and Fatah’s lack of credibility, what chance has the Fatah leadership — no matter how moderate it may be—to govern its people and wage peace?
The most significant new factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the enormous decline in the status of the PA after Fatah lost Gaza to Hamas. It is an axiom among all the mainstream Israeli parties that the State no longer has an interest in direct occupation. Yet the facts on the ground keep Israel from handing the reins to Abbas.
Theoretically, the daily rocket attacks from Gaza might stop if Israel were to reconquer the Strip. Yet such a step could hurtle the region into a tailspin, undermine what remains of Abbas’s rule in the West Bank, and force Israel to reconquer the cities there too. The notorious Civil Administration would then return, and Israel would have full, direct responsibility for the feeding, education and employment of 4 million Palestinians. Added to the 1.4 million Arabs living as citizens within its borders, the number of Arabs under Israel’s rule would then almost equal the number of Jews (5.7 million).
The nominal PA rule over the cities of the West Bank, along with the Hamas domination of Gaza, enables Israel to maintain an indirect occupation while avoiding responsibility. But if Israel were to retake Gaza and then (following a PA collapse) the West Bank, that would bring on the Zionist nightmare.
We may regard Annapolis, then, as a desperate attempt to strengthen Abbas, prevent the PA’s collapse and save the Jewish State. At the subsequent Paris Conference, the developed nations pledged $7.5 billion toward the building of Palestine. The West has recognized that this latest effort may be the last chance for a two-state solution.
What exactly is the nature of the Jewish state that is thus endangered? It has become clear in recent years that Israel’s drive to separate the two peoples is not meant as penance for its crimes of forty years. The desire for separation results rather from the evaporation of the Zionist ethos. This ethos once embraced all Jewish citizens of the state, but it has shriveled to embrace the successful alone. From a nation for all its Jews, Israel has become a nation for all its rich. The classes that have lost strength in recent years, such as workers who could not make the transition to high-tech, or those displaced by foreign labor, or single mothers, have become a burden on the state (that is, on the rich), just as the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are a burden. Israel seeks a model for separating from the Palestinians, while it employs a neoliberal model to separate from its own poor. Recently, for instance, the Olmert government faced the longest and most militant teachers’ strike in the country’s history.
Criticism of the government is concentrated on two levels. The first is political, focusing on its inability to bring the peace that alone can secure the continuation of the Jewish State. The second level is that of class conflict. The same Jewish State, which once symbolized job security and a homeland for most of its citizens, is breaking up before their eyes. It has detached itself from the workers and the poor. In a nation that lacks both physical and economic security, we cannot expect solidarity.
On the analysis given here, Israel is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Perhaps it still has time to save the two-state solution — and itself — by doing what it should have done long ago: through bilateral agreement, it should have dismantled the settlements and withdrawn to the lines of 1967. But the likelihood of such a conversion is now near zero, because a new element has entered the picture: Hamas, which might do in the West Bank what it has done in Gaza.
Israel is also damned, on the other hand, if it does not withdraw to the lines of 1967, for it will then have to face the ever stronger forces pushing for a single democratic state. The time has come for hard decisions: either help build an independent Palestine or face a one-state solution.