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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Of states, settlements and seats

By Elliot Leven, Jan 7, 2012

This op-ed piece was originally going to be a reaction to Yossi Beilin’s plea to Israel and the United States to accept the application of the Palestinian Authority (PA) for non-member-state status at the United Nations General Assembly (GA). Beilin, one of the architects of the 1992 Oslo Accords, essentially argued that PA chief Mahmoud Abbas has shown moderation, and deserved to be rewarded. In Beilin’s view, blocking Abbas’ bid at the GA would “only empower extremists further.”
Beilin’s arguments are now moot, as the GA voted overwhelmingly in favor of Abbas, with Israel, the United States, Canada and a few small nations dissenting. Israel responded by announcing approval of new housing in the West Bank, including in some controversial areas east and south of Jerusalem. The housing will not actually be built for several years. The world, including the United States and Canada, criticized the housing announcement.
Meanwhile, Israeli elections will take place in 2013, and Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is leading in the polls.
In analyzing these events, it is necessary to keep the big picture in mind.  Peace between Israel and Palestine will require painful compromises by both parties. Israel will have to give up most of its West Bank settlements. This will be expensive and will cause internal strife between the Israeli government and many West Bank settlers. There might even be violence. In order for Israel to agree to this compromise for peace, Israel will need a strong leader who is willing to put the nation’s long-term interests ahead of his own short-term political interests. He will have to be brave enough to accept the risk that his fate will be like that of the late Yitzhak Rabin.
Palestine will need to give up its “right of return” (perhaps with minor exceptions). Palestinians who, before 1948, lived in what is now Israel (e.g. in places like Lod and Ramle) and their descendants, will have to accept that they are never going back to their original homes. There might be a small number of individual exceptions. Palestine will also need to give up some small pieces of the West Bank (such the Etzion bloc). It might receive pieces of Israel proper in return. Palestine will also need a strong leader who is willing to take a long-term outlook and to run personal risks.
In the end, the peace treaty might look something like the Geneva Initiative (the unofficial 2003 “peace treaty” hammered out by influential Israeli and Palestinian private citizens). It might include some changes to the Geneva Initiative, based on mutual agreement.
The big question is how to get from here to there. In 1993, Hamas did not control Gaza. Now, Hamas (which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist) controls Gaza, while the PA controls the West Bank. It might be possible for Israel and the PA to sign an interim peace treaty that omits Gaza, but that is not likely. Therefore, the first hurdle that will have to be cleared will be for the West Bank and Gaza both to be controlled by a group that recognizes Israel’s right to exist. It might be years before this happens.
The second obstacle is that Israel will have to elect a leader with the vision and personal courage to make compromises for peace. It is pretty clear that Bibi will not be that leader. 
In the interim, Israel will at least need a leader who paves the way for compromises by making the West Bank settlement situation less of a problem, rather than more of a problem. Again, it is pretty clear that Bibi will not be that leader. His new settlement announcement will certainly strengthen Bibi’s hold on right-wing voters, who vote for whoever appears to be “toughest” on the Palestinian front. Bibi’s housing announcement makes Bibi look “tough”. Unfortunately, if the housing is actually built, at least some of it will make a peace treaty harder to hammer out.
Although the Geneva Initiative is not holy writ, it is a fairly good outline of what peace might eventually look like. A prudent Israeli leader would not build (or threaten to build) any new housing in places that would eventually be part of Palestine under the Geneva Initiative, Again, Bibi is not that prudent leader.
Finally, it is important to understand Israeli voters. Of course, due to Israel’s insane system of pure proportional representation, no party ever wins a majority of seats in the Knesset. Whether any given Knesset supports a right-wing coalition (as today’s does) or a centre-left coalition (as was the case when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords), depends on how afraid Israel’s swing voters are during each election. If they are afraid of threats from outside (whether the threats come from Gaza or Iran or elsewhere), they tend to vote for right-wing parties. If there are no immediate threats and the swing voters feel fairly safe, they might vote for more left-wing parties.
Given the prospect of an Iranian atomic bomb, plus the missile stockpiles in Gaza and southern Lebanon, plus turmoil in Egypt, plus civil war in Syria, Israeli swing voters today will vote for right-wing parties. Bibi is sitting pretty.
In short, the United Nations is irrelevant, just as it was when Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979. There will be no peace between Israel and Palestine in the short-term future. All that we can hope for is that conditions will change over the medium term. That might sound like a cynical view of the Middle East, but it is probably a realistic one.
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