Jul 24th 2010

Israel Needs a Palestinian State

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Israel's national security and self-preservation as a democracy, if not its very existence, depend on its ability and willingness to come to terms with the reality of coexistence with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution. Unfortunately, instead of seeking to promote the creation of a Palestinian state, the current Israeli government has sought to impede it. Although Prime Minister Netanyahu's endorsement of the two-state solution at Bar Ilan University last summer offered a good start, it fell far short of the kind of vision needed to achieve a sustainable, lasting agreement. What he and his government have proposed amounts to an autonomous Palestinian entity, lacking territorial contiguity, with ultimate security responsibility remaining in Israel's hands.

Today, few Israelis view the establishment of a Palestinian state as a national security imperative, and a growing number have resigned themselves to supporting the idea of conflict management rather than conflict resolution. They simply do not believe that the Palestinians will ever accept Israel as an independent state. This particular view gained tremendous currency following the eruption of the second Intifada in September 2000 in which more than 1000 Israelis were killed, many by indiscriminate suicide bombers. The Intifada prompted then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to re-occupy much of the territories from which Israel had withdrawn as part of the Oslo Accords, and fuelled Israelis' disillusionment with the peace process. This skepticism was reinforced after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Instead of using the Gaza withdrawal as an opportunity to build the foundation for a future state, the territory was used as a staging-ground for rocket attacks into Southern Israel, ultimately leading to Israel's Operation Cast Lead. These events, coupled with growing fears of Palestinian militancy following Hamas' takeover of Gaza, have moved the political pendulum in Israel to the right of center, even as the concept of a two-state solution has moved more and more into the mainstream.

As Israelis have become disillusioned with the peace process, Israel has strengthened its formidable military power and economic development, creating the false impression that it can sustain the status-quo indefinitely. Meanwhile, the settlement movement has gained significant political power, enabling it to exert immense influence on successive Israeli governments. The settlers' commitment to territorial expansion that is driven by a belief in their divine right to settle the West Bank, coupled with widely held deep skepticism about the Palestinians' intentions that is fueled by legitimate security concerns, have led the Israeli public to seemingly become immune to the plight of the Palestinian people.

Against this backdrop, the right-of-center government led by Netanyahu appears to be committed to disfranchise Palestinians, suppress opposition, undermine democratic values and forsake the moral tenants on which the state of Israel was created. In this regard, the passing of two abominable measures in the Israeli Knesset speak volumes about how far this government will go to advance the right-wing "Greater Israel" agenda, however perilous this prospect may be. The first bill requires every individual seeking Israeli citizenship to declare his loyalty to a "Jewish democratic state," specifically designed to discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The second bill would punish any Israeli calling for a boycott of any Israeli individual or institution, whether in Israel or in the territories, with a fine of NIS 30,000 plus any proven damages. In addition to such legislative efforts, the government has continued to demolish Palestinian houses, force eviction, seize land and deliberately disrupt communal life. Indeed, there is no internationally orchestrated campaign to delegitimize Israel as many Israelis claim. By its own actions and policies Israel itself is doing a very good job at that. Rather than address Palestinian national aspirations for statehood in the context of a secure and independent Israel, the current government erroneously views maintenance of the occupation and expansion of settlements as synonymous with Israel's long-term national security.

The Palestinians have joined Israel in choosing a convoluted course of action that has undermined their aspirations for statehood. The Palestinians' intense and often violent factionalism has prevented them from adopting a unified purpose and an effective strategy vis-a-vie the Israeli occupation. In addition to the political rivalry for power, the dispute between the two main factions--Fatah and Hamas--which intensified following Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip, is a battle of ideas over whether a militant or nonmilitant strategy would have greater effect on Israeli policy. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank, although skeptical about the prospect of an agreement, still opts for a non-violent strategy having concluded that violence provides justification for Israel to maintain the occupation. However, its inability to make significant progress at the negotiating table has served to further Hamas' contention that Israel is not interested in peace and that only a militant strategy will force Israel to change course. Although Hamas has suspended violence following the conclusion of the Gaza war in January 2009, the Netanyahu government has made no effort to explore a possible rapprochement with a group that it dismisses as an irredeemable terrorist organization that must be eliminated. The building and expansion of settlements in the West Bank--even as Israel has declared a moratorium on such construction--has further strengthened the hand of those who argue that Israel has no intention of allowing Palestinians to establish a state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza.

While the two sides remain in a deadlock, Palestinians recognize that the status quo with Israel cannot be sustained, and that the international community is on their side. It is with this recognition that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has begun to build the infrastructure for a future Palestinian state with the goal of ultimately declaring statehood with or without Israeli cooperation. In so doing, he and President Mahmoud Abbas have disavowed the use of violence, thereby evoking tremendous international support and pressure on Israel to ease

the condition of occupation. In many ways this has created an historic point of departure in Israeli-Palestinian relations by offering the Israelis what they have always wanted--a non violent approach to reach a lasting solution. The Palestinians are thus demonstrating that, contrary to Israeli claims, there is indeed a Palestinian partner ready and able to negotiate an end to the conflict. That being said, their ability to negotiate is constrained by time, and it is unclear whether the current Israeli government will be willing to offer the minimum that Palestinians can accept. The Palestinian public, like that in Israel, is disillusioned with failed peacemaking efforts. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah cannot afford to enter into negotiations unless they can demonstrate to the Palestinian people that such talks have a real chance to succeed. Meanwhile, the more time that passes, the more the cases for a non-violent approach and for continued peacemaking efforts are undermined. As such, it is no wonder that the Palestinian leadership is increasingly looking to the option of a unilateral declaration of statehood, supported by the international community.

The current deadlock does not change the reality that Israelis and Palestinians must coexist in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Coexistence is not optional-In one form or another, and regardless of any political and territorial configurations, Israelis and Palestinians are stuck with one another. The welfare and wellbeing of both nations are interdependent. Now they must make that fateful choice: Do they want to live in hatred and debilitating hostility, leaving a shameful legacy to the next generation, or do they want to live in amity and peace, and become a model of prosperous, neighboring democracies?

Should Israel forfeit this historic opportunity to negotiate a conflict ending with an agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, the Palestinians will have the right and the obligation to move with full speed to coalesce international support for a declaration of statehood, with or without Israel's consent. To avoid this scenario, the Israeli government must recognize that the national security of the State of Israel is dependent on the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state, and work accordingly to achieve this objective and market it as such to the Israeli public.

I maintain that Israel and the Palestinians' long-term security and prosperity are interdependent, and that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state is central to this equation.

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