Dossiers

Israel & Palestine: Can They Start Over? By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley

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Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
—Winston Churchill

There's no success like failure, and ... failure's no success at all.
—Bob Dylan

1.

The idea of Israeli–Palestinian partition, of a two-state solution, has a singular pedigree. It has been proposed for at least eight decades. Jews first accepted it as Palestinians recoiled; by the time Palestinians warmed to the notion in the late 1980s, Israelis had turned their backs. Still, its proponents manage to portray it as fresh, new, and capable of leading to peace. International consensus on a two-state agreement is, today, stronger than ever. Meanwhile, interest among the two parties most directly concerned wanes and prospects for achieving it diminish.

This inability to turn the idea into practice has prompted reactions that roughly divide into two types. The most common is to blame transient conditions or faulty execution. The implication is that there is no need to revisit fundamental assumptions about the goal itself: an essentially territorial deal that would split historic Palestine into two states along the 1967 borders; divide Jerusalem according to demographic criteria; find a solution to the refugee issue through compensation and resettlement outside of Israel; end the historic conflict; and terminate all claims. What are needed are more optimal conditions, smarter implementation, and some luck.

The history of the peace process has been plagued, according to this account, by unfortunate circumstances: leaders too weak to strike a deal when they wished to or too obdurate to sign one when they could; one side ready for compromise when the other was not; divisions on the Palestinian side or dysfunctional governments on the Israeli one. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's historic mission was ended by an assassin's bullet; Ariel Sharon's gradual acceptance of a viable Palestinian state was interrupted by a stroke; his successor's attempt to end the conflict was cut short by scandal.

The US figures as a central culprit. President Bill Clinton was excessively soft, President George W. Bush insufficiently interested. Washington kept Arab countries at arm's length and paid inadequate attention to developments on the ground—Israeli settlement construction and Palestinian security infringements. It focused on interim steps rather than the endgame. Most of all, it did not pressure the parties enough, by which typically is meant that it indulged Israel too much. It's a dispiriting list, but one that at least leaves room for optimism: in the right circumstances and with the right US touch, a successful outcome would be within reach. There is truth to all these explanations, and it is beyond dispute that ideal conditions have been missing for the last sixteen years. It is difficult to imagine a time when they will not be.

Today, people point to Benjamin Netanyahu's complicated mix of right-wing credentials and pragmatic streak to argue that he might be the ideal salesman for a historic compromise. During his first term as prime minister, he agreed to territorial withdrawals and implicitly endorsed the overall outlook of the Oslo accords, contradicting campaign pledges and reversing personal commitments. But none of those steps came remotely close to the kind of conversion that would be required to reach a final agreement.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23456

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