Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Can Israel's Right make peace?

Three recent developments have put the future of the two-state solution paradigm in doubt. These are: 1) the recent unrest in Egypt and throughout the Arab world; the leaks in Al Jazeera of the negotiating positions in the 2008 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; and 3) the split within the Israeli Labor Party.  The full ramifications of what is happening in Egypt will probably not be clear for several months. We can, however, look already at a worst case scenario there and look at what the effects of the other two developments are.

The two-state solution was historically envisaged as a deal between a Labor-led coalition in Israel and the Fatah party/PLO. The Rabin government of 1992-95 consisted of three parties: the Israel Labor Party, Meretz, and Shas. Arab parties were not included in the coalition but pledged to support with their votes in the Knesset any peace deal. In the February 2009 Israeli election Labor had 13 seats compared to 42 in 1992; Meretz had three seats compared to 12 in 1992 and Shas has stayed about the same with a normal range of eight to 13 seats. Shas, an ethnic-religious party of Middle Eastern Jews, incidentally, prefers joining right-wing coalitions.

Some have thought that Kadima, a splinter party from the Likud in late 2005, might replace Labor as Washington's Israeli peace partner. But the revelations of the 2008 Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were recently leaked by an unknown source--probably within the PA--to Al Jazeera, disprove that conjecture. Israel was unwilling to make the major concessions necessary to match Palestinian concessions on borders and refugees. Kadima is nearly split evenly between centrist leader and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and hawkish former Likud Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Although it has lasted longer than similar centrist experiments in the past (Dash, the Center Party), its long-term existence is by no means assured.

Recently former Labor leader Ehud Barak announced that he was leaving Labor with four other members of the Knesset to form a new party, Atzmaut (independence). This leaves Labor with eight seats. Assuming that Kadima keeps its present total of 28 seats in the next election--it lost one from 2006--and the eight Labor MKs are reelected along with the three Meretz MKs, the Center-Left will still be nearly 20 seats short of a majority in the Knesset. Thus, for the foreseeable future an Israeli peace coalition will rely on the votes of the Likud. Is there anything to the argument that "only Nixon could go to China" or "only De Gaulle could make peace in Algeria?"

Although Benyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu paid lip service in the summer of 2009 to a two-state solution, he comes from a very distinguished Revisionist family. His father, Benzion, is still alive at 100 and a major ideological influence on Bibi. Bibi is also the author of an ideological tract, A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations, which argues that Israel needs to retain the West Bank for security purposes. His five years as prime minister (1996-99, 2009-11) indicate that his highest concern is maintaining the cohesion of his coalition while appeasing Washington.

There are four possible precedents for a Likud leader making peace with either Syria or the Palestinians. I argue that none of them applies to either the Syrian front of the West Bank. First, the first Likud government of Menahem Begin made peace with Egypt in 1979. If a new Egyptian regime either renounces the peace treaty or significantly downgrades it by permanently withdrawing its ambassador to Tel Aviv, this will disappear as a useful precedent. Also the Sinai was never sacred territory ideologically in Revisionism. And it was never annexed by Israel as the Likud annexed the Golan Heights in 1981.

Second, a conservative and nationalist National Party government made peace with the black majority in South Africa in the 1990s. But this was after trade sanctions had been in place by the U.S. Congress and European Union since 1986. President F.W. de Klerk feared that trade sanctions would be significantly strengthened over time and combine with internal guerrilla warfare and unrest to ruin South Africa's economy over decades if peace were not reached. Until the United States implements trade sanctions against Israel over its occupation of the West Bank this example will be discounted by Israeli leaders.

Third, Democratic Unionist Party leader the Rev. Ian Paisley made peace with Sinn Fein in 2007. But this was after the Good Friday Agreement had been in place for nine years and the rival Ulster Unionists had done all the risk taking. This would only be applicable if the Labor Party had actually signed a peace treaty with the Palestinians in the 1990s rather than merely a framework for peace. And Britain had threatened to enact significant economic penalties against Northern Ireland if the parties failed to reach peace. There was significant popular pressure for the DUP to modify its positions as a result. And a major disarmament move by the Irish Republican Army in September 2005, five years after it was supposed to have disarmed, made Paisley's task much easier.

Fourth, the dominant Fianna Fail party in the Republic of Ireland initiated the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s. As part of the Good Friday Agreement it amended Ireland's constitution to end the territorial claim to Northern Ireland that it had initiated in 1937. Fianna Fail has several traits in common with the Likud: paramilitary origins, a "princes" phenomenon of dynastic succession, populism, irredentism, and corruption. But Dublin was giving up only a claim--not actual possession--and it had not invested much money in the North. Jerusalem has invested hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in the settlements. Britain was also never a conventional military threat to Ireland as Jordan and Iraq were to Israel from the West Bank in 1948 and 1967.

And in both the cases of Northern Ireland and Ireland coalition governments consisted of two or three parties rather than the four to six that are typical in Israel. In the case of Fianna Fail its coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, were a positive influence promoting the peace process. Twenty years of the "peace process" in the Middle East have demonstrated that the combination of the Palestine question and Israel's party system is a "toxic combination" in the words of former Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher.

Washington should start seriously looking for a response to the death of the two-state solution.

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