JERUSALEM — There’s an old Arab aphorism: “A man with a plan takes action; a man with two plans gets confused.” Apply that to the Israelis and to the Palestinians, and the nonsensical sequence of recent events in the Middle East starts to fall into a comprehensible pattern.
It’s not a pleasant pattern, because it leads to war.
First, before we get to the fireworks, let’s recap some of the nonsense.
The Palestinians refused to talk to the Israelis from December 2008, when a relatively centrist Israeli government made a peace offer the Palestinians rejected. Since then, small economic reforms and big U.S. security aid have made life in the West Bank fairly free of violence. Better, for sure, than life in Gaza, which is still a mess more than a year after the Hamas-Israel war there.
Israelis elected a center-right parliament early last year, and Benjamin Netanyahu formed a rightist cabinet. He refused to halt building in Israel’s West Bank settlements, as President Barack Obama demanded. Even when forced by Washington to put a transparently fake freeze on construction he declined to include East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians wouldn’t restart direct peace talks until there was a freeze on the Israeli neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. So the Americans eventually persuaded them to have indirect talks. Without much enthusiasm, the Palestinians agreed.
Why no enthusiasm? Leading Palestinians, including chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, had already started to talk about a new failed round of talks leading quite simply to a “one-state solution.” That means, no division of the land, just a single state in what’s now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. One adult, one vote. Soon enough, of course, that means no Jewish majority and the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Israel largely escaped the financial crisis of the last two years and its citizens spend little time fretting about the Palestinians. In Tel Aviv, the discovery of old bones by workers building an underground emergency room for a hospital led last month to an attempt by ultra-religious politicians to block the construction, and protests by locals who cried out against religious coercion.
No such mass protests against continued building in the settlements. That proceeds, even to the extent that during the last month announcements of new construction in East Jerusalem have caused a major crisis in relations with Washington. In one case, the planned building of a mere 20 apartments in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem forced Obama to take time out of his undoubtedly busy day to discuss it with Netanyahu.
There’s more nonsense, but let this much suffice for now.
Back to the Arab aphorism. Who has a plan, and who’s confused?
It’s clear that most Israelis and most Palestinians are living in denial — a kind of confusion, because it takes the illusion of current calm for a sustainable and welcome period of peace.
Israelis know the settlements can’t go alongside a two-state solution, but they don’t choose one or the other.
Palestinians know that the way to stop the settlements eating up the hilltops around their towns is to strike a deal now and rule their own state, but they won’t do it so long as life is relatively good and the international pressure is all on Israel. Leaders of Fatah and Hamas have called for a “third intifada” several times in the last four months — not for renewed talks, only for renewed violence. But a mere handful of kids came out to throw rocks and Molotov cocktails.
With no sense of urgency on either side, Western diplomats shake their heads and try to nudge the two nations to the negotiating table. It’s time to realize that neither side wants talks.
While most Israelis live in denial, a sizeable minority pushes for more building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They’re not building so that they can later give up that land and see all the money they’ve pumped into their real estate wasted. The purpose is to make the West Bank inseparable from Israel. To kill the two-state solution.
In that scenario, either the Palestinians agree to be second-class inhabitants of the area, or they leave.
On the Palestinian side, negotiations seem unlikely to lead to the satisfaction of every single demand. So the one-state solution starts to look good to them, too. However, second-class citizenship isn’t an option, and neither is leaving.
That’s the collision course Western diplomats refuse to countenance. When envoys talk about getting the “peace process on track,” it sounds good. But that process has been trucking along since the early 1990s. Peace has been getting further away. The “process” allows for a sense of activity, while all the time events — settlement construction, terror attacks — make it harder to draw lines on a map and make the populations secure.
It’s time to figure out a new diplomatic strategy to deal with the Israelis and Palestinians. One that’s based on the assumption that, in the longterm, they’re expecting war.