The International Crisis Group’s new report on the Middle East peace process was published the same day that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz announced their new unity coalition. The updated Israeli government may have already shown signs that it will be more flexible in dealing with the Palestinians, but consult the ICG’s report—somewhat self-explanatorily titled “The Emperor Has No Clothes”—and you’ll come to believe it’s just one more non-event on a dead-end road. The report proposes a complete revamping of the peace process, in which it re-focuses on each side’s core issues: security and Jewish statehood for Israel; Jerusalem, Israel’s Arab minority, and refugees for the Palestinians. It also suggests playing to the Israeli right, calling out the Palestinian leadership for being unclear about what it truly wants, and throwing out the Quartet in favor of something more effective.
Last week, I spoke to ICG’s Robert Blecher, the lead author, about the report, and alternatives such as unilateral withdrawal and BDS. I asked him about the national-unity coalition, and he replied, “It gives Netanyahu a little bit more maneuver room within the paradigm we’re saying ultimately won’t work.” The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Try to sum up the report’s central argument.
The peace process as it has been conceived since 1993 [when the Oslo Accords were signed] cannot produce a durable agreement. There is a desperate need to change the nature of the process in the hope of being able to achieve one. Some problems don’t have solutions, and I think that there is a possibility that this is going to drag on for many more generations. But before we reach that conclusion, I think there are things that can be done.
Why can’t the current path produce a “durable agreement”?
The Israelis have the disincentive of advantage. They’re in a very strong position, and it’s risky and scary and politically dangerous for an Israeli government to move on these issues. On the Palestinian side, there’s the disincentives of disadvantage: they’re so weak and so divided that it’s difficult to imagine what kind of process would yield a result they would consider fair. And then you have the international community, which barely deserves the name: you have a body that is acting in the name of the international community, giving it the legitimacy the name confers, but is essentially laundering U.S. positions. We all know the U.S. is a strategic ally of Israel, and especially in this period, which is called silly season in Washington for a reason, the nature of the balance of power is such that I do not see the possibility of a successful negotiation at all. So you need to begin to change the incentive structure.
On the Israeli side you need to give people a way to imagine that it could work in their interests—that means the national and religious right, the settler community. For the right, language is really important. And security is a regional issue, not a bilateral issue. They’re not completely absent from the process, but they’re being shoehorned in.
On the Palestinian side, if we’re talking about changing the balance, they have to come up with a strategy that makes the status quo a little less comfortable for Israel and the U.S.
So, for example, Prime Minister Fayyad’s state-building had an adverse effect on the peace process (if not on actual Palestinian civil society)?
There are some people who think that the Palestinian Authority itself is an obstacle because it creates a deluxe occupation for the Israelis, because they have somebody doing the day-to-day management while the international community kicks in the money. Other people say that we struggled long and hard and even if we recognize the fact that by running this thing we are relieving our adversary of a certain dilemma, that doesn’t mean getting rid of it is good. My own position is that both of those are probably shortsighted. I can imagine why you would want to change the function of the P.A., but who’s going to switch the light off and close the door?
It is catastrophic for a national movement not to be a national movement. Popular resistance is completely hostage to the division between the West Bank and Gaza.
So you’re saying unity between the Palestinian moderates and extremists is essential.
I’m not a fan of the moderate-extremist division. On which issues are people extremists and are they aren’t? When you get to the official positions of the movements, it becomes rather tricky to make distinctions. [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal and the official position has talked about ‘67 borders. There are relatively few things that Fatah has said that Hamas has not said. On refugees, Fatah’s official position is right of return to the hilt. Fatah as a movement has never recognized Israel and certainly not the Jewish state of Israel.
I don’t know if Israel will be able to make peace with a Palestinian national movement that includes Hamas. But what I am 100 percent certain of is that it will not be able to make peace with a national movement that does not include Hamas. They are a very solid part of the Palestinian political spectrum. To freeze them out, you’re declaring defeat at the beginning.
One alternative to a negotiated two-state solution, some say, is unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank settlements. Why do you reject that?
In terms of achieving a lasting solution, it’s not going to get you one. From the position of Israel, I can understand how that could be an attractive option—if you leave the army deployed; the understanding would be that once there is a negotiated agreement, then the army withdraws. But if you look at what happened in Gaza, they don’t want that to happen again, with rockets on the center of Israel instead of the south.
Furthermore, it will not satisfy minimum Palestinian demands. They will continue to see the settlements that remain in place; they will see that Jerusalem is more firmly under Israel’s control; all the final-status issues, with an exception of a portion of the territorial issue, are going to remain. And it will become deeper and deeper. I am not a technological determinist—one of those people who say at a certain point a two-state solution will become impossible because of the number of settlers or acres, because I think what is done through political will can be reversed through political will. But having said that, if you’re talking about a long-term situation, and Israel is continuing to do what it does in Jerusalem and the parts of the West Bank it wants to hold onto, people are going to say, ‘This is not working.’
What can the United States do to facilitate this? What about American Jews? How do you feel about boycotts and the like?
I think BDS is a tactic, not a strategy, and it’s difficult for me to see where it gets Palestinians absent an effective leadership. And I’d say the same thing about other kinds of international involvement as well. If the U.S. suddenly shifted position, it’s not going to bring Israel with it immediately. For me, I’m very focused on the local dimension of the politics.
Does the new national-unity coalition alter the calculus?
It gives Netanyahu a little bit more maneuver room within the paradigm we’re saying ultimately won’t work. I don’t think the problem is with any Israeli coalition.
When Netanyahu comes up with this stuff, I do not think he is inventing issues in order to block progress. He is speaking for a substantial percentage of the Israeli electorate. When he says that the fundamental problem is the lack of acceptance of the Jewish state in the region, that is a mainstream perception there. And on the other side, when it comes to the refugees, for a lot of Palestinians, what is primary for them is the refugee issue. If the two-state solution could accommodate a reasonable solution for the refugees, then fine. If it won’t, then they’re like, ‘Forget it.’