The End of Land for Peace!
Prime Minister Netanyahu has demonstrated through his actions-or more specifically, his inactions-that he rejects the notion of land for peace. This has been clearly illustrated through his reluctant rhetorical acceptance of a two-state solution, rife with caveats, and his refusal to halt settlement construction in the West Bank for even an additional two months in exchange for a doubling of the United States' aid package. Thus, it has become increasingly clear that the framework of Israel's successful peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan based on "land for peace" no longer holds true. This represents nothing less than a fundamental change in Israel's peace posturing in relation to the Syrians and especially the Palestinians. As such, today the prospect for successful bilateral negotiations is not only incredibly remote, but creates an extremely dangerous situation.
In forming a government with Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has prioritized Israel's security and demographic threat not dissimilarly to previous Israeli governments-but with the exception of one critical provision. Today, there are approximately 5.8 million Jews living in 'historic Palestine,' the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There are a total of 5.3 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel proper. The birthrate of Israeli Jews is 1.7 children per family, while among the Palestinians in the West Bank it is 2.1, and in Gaza, 3.3. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics recently estimated that the Palestinian Arabs will constitute a majority in historic Palestine by as early as 2014. A recent study by the Taub Center for Israeli Studies at NYU showed that nearly 50 percent of students in Israel's schools today are either Arab or religious Jews.
Faced with this demographic dilemma, Ariel Sharon responded by unilaterally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, thereby shedding responsibility for the over 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza while strengthening Israel's Jewish majority (if only extending it for a number of years). Netanyahu's apparent plan-together with his partner, Lieberman-is also to unilaterally redraw Israel's borders. However, the key difference in strategy is that whereas Sharon withdrew to the 1967 border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu intends to pay no heed to the 1967 "Green Line" in redrawing the border to distinguish Israel from the Palestinians in the West Bank. Netanyahu's refusal to halt settlement construction beyond the three major settlement blocs, widely considered to be included in Israel as part of any agreement with the Palestinians, indicates that unlike his predecessors who sought less than 10 percent of the West Bank as part of a land swap agreement with the Palestinians, he has his eyes set on much more. This conduct is consistent with Lieberman's controversial proposal to "transfer" Israeli Palestinian citizens such as those living in the triangle of Arab villages in the Galilee to the Palestinian Authority's control-against their wishes-in exchange for the areas of expanded Jewish settlement in the West Bank. The Netanyahu government's strategy is therefore twofold: first, to enlarge the area of Israeli control in the West Bank while relinquishing Palestinian majority areas; and second, to demand recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for any agreement. The two tactics combined offer a distorted view of Netanyahu's plan for 'peace' in which he remains unconcerned about the fate of an independent Palestinian state, so long as Israel maintains its false sense of security and a solid Jewish majority. Netanyahu's refusal to stop settlement growth and Lieberman's success in advancing the loyalty oath requirement of Israeli citizens indicates that this strategy is already well into motion.
Confronted with this bleak prospect, the Palestinians now feel compelled to turn to the international community. In doing so, they are seeking two critical points: First, a clear statement that continued Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank serves as a roadblock to achieving a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Second, that a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, and United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, is the only viable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both of which enjoy global consensus support. The two points will be framed by the Palestinians in the exact language that the United States has used for many years, making it exceedingly difficult for the White House to oppose them. After all, how could the White House reject a boilerplate statement of support for a two-state solution? Or that settlement construction is unproductive? Support from the United States would send a significant message, but even without the U.S., the support of the vast majority of the countries constituting the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) would provide the Palestinians with significant leverage to further pressure Israel in its continued opposition to peacemaking. It is important to recall that UNGA Resolution 194, regularly cited as the international community's perspective on the issue of Palestinian refugees is a non-binding measure-but the influence of that resolution, nevertheless, remains central in any future negotiations to settle the Palestinian refugee problem.
Even so, the Palestinian Authority's campaign to win support in the international arena will be undercut so long as groups like Hamas continue to oppose it. As long as Hamas and other rejectionist groups stand against the Palestinian Authority's international effort to mobilize opposition to settlements, and support for two-states, Israel will have justification to maintain an argument that it has no true partner for peace. It will continue to utilize this excuse in waging a public campaign pointing blame at Palestinian rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state-not Israeli intransigence-that keeps the peace process suspended.
Therein lies the fundamental mistake that the Palestinians and Arab states, have-and continue-to make: not sufficiently accepting that Israel indeed faces legitimate security threats from extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which absolutely must be mitigated if Israel is to ever accept an agreed end to conflict. The 1967 borders are now a source of pride for Palestinians and the Arab world, made more so by the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the historic Arab Peace Initiative (API) offering full normalization between Israel and the Arab states in exchange for the territories captured by Israel in 1967, including an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on a two-state solution based on these lines. But without receiving an endorsement of the Initiative from Hamas and Hezbollah, and even though Israel itself did not embrace the API, Israel's excuse that it remains threatened, that it has no partner, and that the offer is not comprehensive, cannot be dismissed. An endorsement of the API by Hamas and Hezbollah would exponentially catapult the impact of the Palestinian Authority's efforts to pressure Israel to remove its excuses for inaction.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is making mistakes of his own. First, his continued insistence that he is willing to negotiate face-to-face with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas until "white smoke" appears, as he recently told reporters, is simply not credible. With his support of settlements and emphasis on new demands, no one believes that he will negotiate in good faith without evidence indicating that his words are genuine, and not merely designed to skirt increasing international pressure. Words alone will not bring Israel out of isolation, only actions can accomplish this now. Second, Netanyahu must also understand that no current or future Palestinian leadership-or that of the Arab World-would ever accept anything less than a negotiated agreement based on the 1967 borders. This is why Israel has been misguided in its continued ambivalence to the Arab Peace Initiative. With every passing day, the State of Israel loses an opportunity to lock in the Arab world to a promise of recognition, normalization, and above all, guaranteeing its national security upon the successful conclusion of peace talks.
A recent poll by the International Peace Institute shows that Israelis remain aloof to the API plan, with just 36 percent preferring the Arab Peace Initiative to the status quo. As long as Israel's leadership promotes the fallacy that Israel can maintain its security and Jewish majority without an agreement based on the 1967 line-and continues to reject the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative-it is effectively forfeiting the opportunity to make peace and subjecting the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians to continued destruction and death.
*A version of this article was previously published in the Jerusalem Post on 1/14/11, and can be accessed at: http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=203459