It’s easier to leave Palestinians in limbo waiting for a “peace process” that goes nowhere
ROGER COHEN, The New York Times, October 28, 2016
One of the largest Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Maale Adumim, rising in the distance over the Palestinian village of Zaim (Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times)
TEL AVIV — There is agreement on very little in the fractious Holy Land, but on one issue there is near unanimity these days: A two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more distant than ever, so unimaginable that it appears little more than an illusion sustained by lazy thinking, interest in the status quo or plain exhaustion.
From Tel Aviv to Ramallah in the West Bank, from the largely Arab city of Nazareth to Jerusalem, I found virtually nobody on either side prepared to offer anything but a negative assessment of the two-state idea. Diagnoses ranged from moribund to clinically dead. Next year it will be a half-century since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began. More than 370,000 settlers now live there, excluding in East Jerusalem, up from about 249,000 in 2005. The incorporation of all the biblical Land of Israel has advanced too far, for too long, to be reversed now.
Greater Israel is what Israelis know; the smaller Israel west of the Green Line that emerged from the 1947-49 war of independence is a fading memory. The right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with its contempt for Palestinians and dissenting voices in general, prefers things that way, as the steady expansion of settlements demonstrates. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, has lost the legitimacy, the cohesion and the will to do much about it. The cancellation of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza that had been set for this month was another sign of paralyzing Palestinian infighting.
“Two states are not achievable in the foreseeable future,” the former Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, told me. “It has become a process about a process, and not real.”
The Obama administration has reached a point of acute exasperation. The Israeli announcement this month of a new West Bank settlement was the final straw, coming just weeks after the United States concluded a $38 billion, 10-year military aid deal. Israel’s explanation that the settlement was a “satellite” of another did not wash; its actions were viewed as egregious. Seldom has Moshe Dayan’s old dictum — “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice” — been more vividly illustrated. Yet it’s uncertain if the United States is prepared to calibrate its ironclad support in order to pressure Israel into change.
Within Israel, where Netanyahu has now amassed more than a decade in power, the political and cultural drift is toward ever more assertive and intolerant nationalism. Criticism is increasingly equated with treason. Groups like B’Tselem, which focuses on allegations of human rights violations against Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories, are under withering attack. The Messianic religious Zionism that holds all the West Bank to be Israel’s by biblical decree is ascendant. The left is in feeble disarray.
It is sobering to note that Netanyahu probably represents the more moderate wing of his government. The most credible challenge to him may eventually come from his own spot on the political spectrum, the center-right, in the form of the telegenic Yair Lapid, who told me that Netanyahu “won’t merit even a page in Israeli history books.” Lapid believes he can conjure up some two-state magic, but he began his first political campaign in the large settlement of Ariel, and the notion that he can reverse the settler movement seems far-fetched.
I drove down to Ramallah, through a clogged checkpoint, always a startling transition from the efficient developed-world hum of Israel to the dust and haphazardness of the West Bank. On the way, I stopped to see Walid Batrawi, the director of BBC Media Action, a charity that mentors journalists and promotes an independent press. He was despondent, describing a “lack of confidence and faith in anything.” Palestinian statehood was “more distant than ever.” Abbas was distracted, he suggested, embroiled in the conflicts of his Fatah party, worried about Hamas, providing no direction. “Something has been lost,” he said. “A special feeling of patriotism, of belonging, is vanishing.”
In Ramallah, I heard similar sentiments, talk of a more individualistic Palestinian society, with less sense of community, where people were focused on taking care of themselves and doing the best they could with the current situation. Two states had become a bad joke. Young people had more faith in nonviolent resistance leading eventually to equal rights within a single state than in yet another aborted international peace initiative or aborted uprising.
Palestinians — whether in Israel proper, where the 1.5 million Arab citizens make up about 17 percent of a population of 8.5 million, or in the West Bank, where they number about 2.6 million — are tired of the humiliations, big and small, that Israel dishes out. How, they wonder, can anything resembling a state ever be fashioned from their countless little self-administering enclaves on the West Bank broken up by Israeli settlements?
In a sense, then, Israel has won. David Ben-Gurion was right when he observed in 1949 that, “When the matter is dragged out — it brings us benefits.” Policy since then has been pretty consistent: Create facts on the ground; break the Arabs’ will through force; push for as much of the biblical Land of Israel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as possible.