March 30, 2021 | Pairagraph

Securing Peace in the Middle East After Trump

March 30, 2021 | Pairagraph

Securing Peace in the Middle East After Trump

Dennis Ross

Shany and I both agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was existential insofar as it embodied two national movements competing for the same space. Oslo was supposed to turn an existential conflict into a political one because it ended mutual rejection. But recognition did not mean that Palestinians leaders were ready to concede that Israel was the nation-state of the Jewish people. Was this because of actual rejection or was it a tactic?

For a long time, I perceived that in Mahmoud Abbas’ case it was a tactic. The more Israeli leaders emphasized the need for such recognition, the more Abbas and others felt they could get something for it. Because they were the weaker party, they saw value in withholding any such recognition. But even if it started off as only a tactic, it has created a two-fold problem.

First, it has taken on a life of its own and Abbas and others find it difficult to back off and appear to concede without gaining anything in return. Second, it gives Israelis an understandable reason to believe that Palestinians don’t accept their legitimacy—and, of course, they may be right if this is not just a tactic on the part of Abbas and others.

What argues that it may not simply be a tactic is that Palestinian leaders have never prepared their public for necessary compromises. After all, if maintain you are a victim and reject the legitimacy of the other side, how can you justify compromise with it? Israeli governments demonstrated they were prepared to make hard compromises in the past. That appears far less true today, and with settlement activity continuing outside the blocs, the prospect of creating two states for two peoples is looking increasingly difficult to achieve. Indeed, the Israeli “right” rejects that concept and believes that Palestinians will accept autonomy. I doubt that, but so long as Palestinians appear to stick to their slogans that eschew any compromise, they are sure to continue to lose.

And, much like Shany, I believe the Arab states can offer a way out. Their growing acceptance of Israel may frustrate Palestinians because Israel is not being required to end occupation, but it also makes clear that Arab states are no longer willing to wait for the Palestinians and their leaders will need to adjust their behavior.

But Israelis, too, should realize that counting on the Palestinians to lose does not mean Israel wins, especially if the outcome becomes one state for two peoples. Palestinians are not going anywhere and as one senior Arab official said to me: “We don’t have a Palestinian problem, the Israelis do.”

Yes, the Palestinians have to adjust their behavior and the Arab states may help drive that now. But Israel also needs a government that actually has a policy toward the Palestinians that does not end up producing a bi-national outcome. Once again, it is the Arab states, with the US brokering the process, that may offer a pathway for both Palestinians and Israelis alike.

Shany Mor

I’d like to make explicit something which is broadly hinted in Dennis Ross’ last entry. The decline of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a cosmic confrontation frees both the Israelis and the Palestinians to make rational choices about their respective interests. It also forces both sides to make critical decisions that the reality of an existential conflict allowed them to evade.

Ross alludes to the ambiguity of the Palestinian position on mutual recognition as both tactical and principled, but he attaches this to the personality of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The problem goes back further, though. It was Arafat’s behavior, supposedly “recognizing” Israel while failing to follow through on treaty commitments to annul the PLO charter, making clear in rhetoric and action that he had no intention of accepting the presence of a Jewish state in the long term, that brought the Israeli demand to have a fuller and more explicit recognition in any final status agreement.

More broadly, the double approach has characterized the Palestinian interaction with Israel since 1967. A de facto normalization made necessary by circumstance exists in parallel to a political grievance program that views Israel as inherently illegitimate and destined to disappear.

The politics of limitless grievance were buttressed by the total rejection of normalization with Israel in the Arab World and the obsessive anti-Israel hatred of certain (small, but loud) circles in Western intellectual and political life. But rather than functioning as a force multiplier, it locked the Palestinians into a confrontation with Israel on terms where the kinds of compromises which would have led to statehood were rendered impossible.

The collapse of the anti-normalization consensus is one of the more stunning developments in the recent history of the Middle East. Only a severe new outbreak of violence, especially one with emotive religious overtones, could possibly reverse it. Partisans of the Palestinian cause met the normalization agreements of 2020 with disappointment and ahistorical rage. But for Palestinians this is more than disappointment. It’s an opportunity to pursue very real strategic interests unfettered by a totalizing existential conflict.

Israelis too would be well served not to exult at this disappointment and frustration. The diminishing intensity of an existential conflict is an opportunity for Israel too to make some far-reaching decisions about its interests in the territories it still occupies from 1967. Pragmatism from Arab states and the Palestinians means that Israel can no longer hide behind the conflict to avoid making difficult choices of its own.

Israeli leaders have in the past relied on the prospect of some future peace treaty as the thing that will allow them to face down the settlement enterprise in the West Bank with maximal public backing and legitimacy. A life-and-death conflict allowed Israelis to coast on a “temporary” status for half a century. This won’t work anymore. A reconceptualization of the conflict as a glorified border dispute which can be partially resolved or mitigated through staged negotiations and international interventions will be a net gain for both sides.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Dr. Shany Mor is an Adjunct Fellow at FDD. His research focuses on Israel’s relations with Europe. Follow Shany on Twitter @ShMMor. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues. 

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Issues:

Arab Politics Israel Palestinian Politics