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

Saturday, August 20, 2011

APN: Those in Glass Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones

As a past major donor to Americans for Peace Now, I regularly receive solicitations from them. I sympathize with the Israeli Peace Now/Shalom Akshav and think that it does very valuable work particularly when it comes to settlement monitoring, a task that is desperately needed. I also am a big fan of Yossi Alpher's weekly column "Hard Questions, Tough Answers." This week I received in the mail from APN solicitation and two pamphlets. One of these was entitled Indefensible: Misrepresenting the borders issue to undermine Israeli-Palestinian Peace. While I agree with the general tenure of the pamphlet and its conclusions I have a major problem with one statement in it. "They are also trying to eras the fact that Israel long ago agreed with the U.S. an the entire world that the 1967 lines are the basis of negotiations, when it accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 (of 1967), which requires Israel to withdraw from 'territories occupied in the recent conflict.'"  This is a gross misrepresentation of Israel's position at the time and of the historical record.

The resolution was authored by the then British ambassador to the UN in consultation with American, Israeli, and Arab ambassadors. As Henry Kissinger makes clear in the first volume of his memoirs, The White House Years, 242 had something for everyone. It called for the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force" in the preamble--which was the key clause for the Arabs, The Israelis have traditionally ignored this claiming that it is not part of the operational text of the resolution. For Israel it spoke of "secure and recognized borders," which the 1949 armistice lines never were in the Middle East. And for both sides it calls for withdrawal from "territories occupied in the recent conflict." Note that it does not call for withdrawal from "all of the territories occupied in the recent conflict" or even "the territories occupied in the recent conflict." This choice of words was very deliberate, although it was muddied by the mistranslation in French that does include the definite article. But the English translation has always been the authoritative one.

Israel could literally claim in 1974 that it had fulfilled this requirement by withdrawing from the east bank of the Suez Canal (not to mention the west bank occupied in October 1973) as part of the January 1974 Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement and in June 1974 from Quneitra and surrounding villages on the Golan Heights as part of the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement. It had withdrawn from territories occupied in June 1967. Since then it has gone on to withdraw from all of the Sinai--by far the largest territory captured in June 1967 as well as from Gaza and from major portions of the West Bank.

The Israeli interpretation under the Labor government stated very clearly at the time was that this meant some withdrawal on all fronts. Later the Likud modified this to mean withdrawal on some fronts. The American interpretation was withdrawal with minor mutually-agreed border modifications on all fronts. The Arab interpretation was that Israel should withdraw and the Arabs were not required to do anything to make the borders secure and recognized. It was this latter attitude that was responsible for facilitating Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan. Only because President Sadat of Egypt modified his attitude did Israeli withdrawals take place from Sinai and from the Golan.

Those who do not believe me can take a look at the maps on the inside covers of Michael Breecher's The Foreign Policy System of Israel where he illustrates the territorial plans or ambitions of the Alignment (Labor), Mapam, and the Likud. It was partially because different borders were envisaged by different factions within the Labor Party (Ahdut Ha'Avoda and Rafi were much more hawkish than Mapai), not to mention other parties that the resolution was so vague. In fact the Resolution was authored several months before Ahdut Ha'Avoda, Mapai and Rafi merged to form the Labor Party in the summer of 1968.

While I agree that Israel should withdraw from the vast majority of the West Bank (95% plus) and all of Gaza, I do not think that APN should be in the business of distorting the historical record. Resolution 242 was deliberately worded so that it would partially appeal to all sides, while remaining ambiguous and cloudy in its overall interpretation. This is what allowed Henry Kissinger to use it as the basis of his shuttle diplomacy following the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Arab Spring or Revolution? A Reply

Beirut editor Rami Khouri published this piece in the Toronto Globe & Mail this week on the Arab Spring. The article is full of typical Arab attitude about Western condescension towards the Arabs. Supposedly the term Arab Spring is implying that the Arab movement against Arab authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is doomed to failure. Khouri castigates Western journalists and opinion makers for not using the term thawra (plural thawrat) meaning revolution for the various movements. But Khouri knows very well that this is the term used by those very same authoritarian and totalitarian regimes for the coups d'etat that put them into power in the first place. In Arab usage, copying the Soviets, a revolution is termed to be a military putsch followed by a banning of political parties, an arrest of political opponents, and the creation of a new class of nomenklatura or those with influence. On the other hand the term spring was applied by historians both to the failed popular revolts in Europe ("springtime of nations") and to the reform movement in Czechoslovakia in the spring and summer of 1968 ("Prague spring"). It has almost always been a positive reference by Western historians.

Had Western journalists applied the term revolutions to these popular movements, Khouri and his ilk would likely have castigated them for tarring them with the vocabulary used by Arab autocrats. Instead of posing and simpering Khouri should spend his time analyzing why the Prague Spring and the 1848 revolutions failed and passing this information along to his Arab readers. He then might analyze why the revolutions in Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 were successful. Just as mature people take their fate in their own hands and make what they can of their lives, mature nations must act under the circumstances that they find themselves in instead of continually blaming outsiders.

As George Friedman has pointed out, so far the only successes of the Arab Spring, Tunisia and Egypt, are well short of revolutions. In both cases the militaries stepped in and removed the presidents. In Egypt it was the military regime that had placed Mubarak in charge in the first place. The military has ruled Egypt since 1952. The military decided that the octogenarian leader was more of a liability than an asset and removed him. He was also partially toppled by American pressure. 

The Arabs are now confronted by two Arab regimes, the products of the Libyan and  Syrian thawrat, that are fighting back instead of going quietly into the night. Both of these were Soviet clients during the Cold War. It was NATO that took it upon itself to neutralize Kaddafi's military advantage by grounding his air force. It is now up to the Libyan opposition to either succeed or fail. In Syria the West has acted through economic sanctions aimed against the leadership of the regime. The success or failure of the revolution or intifada--a name that until now has been reserved for Palestinian revolts against the Israeli occupation--in Syria is now up to the Syrian people. Maybe that is what Khouri is worried about.

For a much more nuanced take see James Traub's piece in Foreign Policy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Arab Spring Hits Israel

The Arab Spring has hit its first non-Arab society--Israel. For a month now there have been tent camps in Tel Aviv of protesters demonstrating against Israel's housing shortage. Because much of new housing construction by the government has been beyond the green line (the 1949 armistice line) in the West Bank and Gaza, there has been a housing shortage in Israel. Then add to this the fact that many wealthy Jews from abroad maintain second homes or apartments in Israel that they use only for a few weeks or months out of the summer, and there is a serious problem for ordinary Israelis. So far the demonstrations, which reached a peak of 300,000 in Tel Aviv last Saturday and have spread to major cities throughout the country and include Arabs in Haifa, have ignored the "Arab question." They are thus deemed to be non-political. In modern Hebrew the term politics is often interchangeable with "high politics" meaning issues of war and peace, diplomacy, etc.

Here is an analysis by American Jewish political scientist Michael Walzer on the movement. There is a definite connection between the settlement enterprise in the territories and the lack of housing within Israel. But if the movement's leadership and that of the parties of the left are smart they will avoid going beyond the immediate demands. Meretz has drastically shrunk since 2000 because it was focused solely on the Arab question in general and the Palestinian question/peace process in particular. There is a big opportunity for center-left parties to rebuild their base by expanding their issue focus. By developing a critique of the laissez-faire capitalism that Benjamin Netanyahu has imported from America, and attacking the special privileges that have been granted to settlers and ultra-Orthodox groups (housing subsidies, draft exemptions) they can build up a following among ordinary Israelis. They can then latter use that to convert these new supporters into supporters of the peace process over time. But they must not rush. This is like a courtship with a psychologically-damaged woman--it must be taken slowly. If it is rushed there will be no marriage and no birth to a successful peace.