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Is there really “no one to talk to?” Maybe, maybe not…

The premise that there is no viable Palestinian partner is widely shared, conventional wisdom among the Israeli public and center-right pundits. At the same time, to the far-left and other bashers of all things Israeli (including some regular commentators on this humble blog) this premise is just an Israeli pretext for clinging to the status quo.

The truth, as usual, resides in the grey area which not enough people are willing to visit.

The impassioned Gideon Levy offers a brief, bitter explanation of why the notion that “Israel has no partner” is a myth:

Benjamin Netanyahu has already undergone his “historic turnabout,” he’s reportedly ready to discuss, certainly discuss, the ’67 borders, with territory swaps and security arrangements. Even the timetable has already been set – two years, of course it’s two years, it’s always two years, two years more. At the end, Israel’s ultimate triumph will be declared: There’s no partner. Again we’ll hear that the Palestinian president is “a chicken with no feathers” or that the Palestinian leaders are “a gang of terrorists,” and again we’ll hear that there’s no one to talk to.

There is no Palestinian partner, because there is no Israeli partner who is ready to take action. The day that Israel starts acting, together with the Palestinians, the partner will be there. Even Nelson Mandela wasn’t the Mandela we know until he was freed from prison and South Africa was placed in his hands. He too refused to give up armed resistance for decades, but when he was given a true opportunity, he followed a path of peace. The key was in the hands of F.W. de Clerk, not those of Mandela. Israel, too, has that key.

Broadly speaking, he’s on to something, because he shows that nothing is necessarily static, including conflicts that appear to be intractable. For the last 100 years or so, the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East has been characterized by reactions and counter-reactions, by violence and tough talk from one side that produced violence and tough talk from the other. If that cycle were broken, peace might have a fighting chance.

On the other hand, it requires a gigantic leap of faith to presume, as does Levy, that Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders can be compared to Nelson Mandela, and all it will take for them to renounce maximalist claims and armed struggle is for Israel to act as if it really did want meaningful compromise. In the mid-1990s, Hamas terrorism was meant –at least in part–to DISRUPT the peace process and curb Fatah’s power, and every time there seemed to be hope for meaningful compromise they sought to dash it. Have they changed their stripes now? I’ve heard and read hopeful lefties insisting that Hamas has evolved or at least not stayed the same, that there are Hamas “moderates” who can and must be cultivated. They might be right, but their claims are based mostly on wishful thinking and flimsy evidence, e.g., a few Hamas leaders, but certainly not those in every faction, have declared a willingness to live side by side with Israel if it retreats to its 1967 borders.

Even if Levy and his hopeful allies are correct in their assumptions about Hamas, there is the problem of the divided Palestinian polity. Israel needs one partner to talk to. It doesn’t have one. That is a rather predictable assertion, but in this case the conventional wisdom is true.

Nothing is going to be solved unless Hamas goes along with the solution. But every attempt by the Egyptians to unify the Palestinian parties has failed miserably. At present, the Fatah leadership does not want Israel to strengthen Hamas by recognizing it as a legitimate negotiating partner. If I’m not mistaken, whatever it says publicly about relieving Palestinian suffering, Fatah also does not want Israel to take the pressure off of Hamas by ending its boycott of the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, if the Palestinian factions were unified, somehow, the price would be negotiating positions that exacerbate already large differences with the Israelis over Jerusalem, the right of return and other matters.

DeKlerk knew who is opposite number was. He had Mandela and the ANC to contend with, although there were other factions among South African blacks. The Palestinian leadership has always been divided. It used to be factionalism based on rival clans. Now it is based on rival ideologies. If Gideon Levy could solve that one, I’d be completely in his corner. But, alas, he can’t. So I really don’t have a corner to stand in, other than the one that is shared with people who want the parties to do no harm, to stop taking steps that will render it impossible to reach an eventual solution.

18 thoughts on “Is there really “no one to talk to?” Maybe, maybe not…

  1. Dan:

    Glad to see you post again. I’m in the middle of your book–finally–and so far I find it compelling and so a preliminary yasher koach. I do plan on reviewing it over at the TPM Cafe, and I may have some questions for you, although I don’t want to go off-topic on any of your threads too much so I’ll be careful.

    I addressed this partner/no-partner issue with Koshiro recently, and I see three significant points:

    1. I don’t see a viable party on either side of the table at this point in time with authority to make a deal. Both Israelis and Palestinians are constrained, first and foremost, by domestic politics–Abbas by, inter alia, Hamas, and Netanyahu by, inter alia, his base and those to his right.

    2. These circumstances are indeed static, and stuff does happen to prompt talks that lead to deals. I’ve written this before, and I don’t consider it to be a perfect analogy, but I’ve negotiated dozens of labor contracts in my career, and I know that so often the sentiment is that there’s no way there’s going to be a deal until one emerges.

    3. In light of the second point about things being static, I think it’s the role of the US as honest broker to keep probing for opportunities, on and off the record, to bring the parties together. It’s a critical role, and from what we see on the outside so to speak we haven’t been doing a good job. The whole unilateral freeze boondoggle is perhaps too easy of an example, but that was an absolute and complete disaster if the goal is effective mediation. On the other hand, we don’t really know what’s going on behind closed doors so, who knows, just when we think things are going nowhere we could very well be surprised.

    The bottom line is that is in the interest of both parties to come to an agreement on a two-state solution. The BDS folks, and the doom and gloom alleged lefties whom I think you give too much credit to now and then keep implying that time is running out for Israel, and the folks on the other extreme haven’t taken their heads out of the sand in years. Both extremes, I submit, are mistaken; the deal is necessary but that is what is best best for everybody.

    Now I shall return this evening to your book, where I hope to find out about how we go about facilitating the the kind of consensus that is necessary to promote a smart and even-handed and effective American policy that, in order to be successful, will retain the trust and support of the great swath of the American Jewish community.


  2. Correction to last sentence in second to last paragraph–Should read: “Both extremes, I submit, are mistaken, but in any event, a deal is necessary because that is what is best for everybody.”–or something like that.

  3. Dan, I dump on you a lot here. But I give you credit for this one. It’s complicated, fraught with peril, pitfalls in a milliona different directions. You’ve been in Israel multiple times from what I gather. Anybody who’s been there knows that the people are desperate for a solution. It just doesn’t come easy. And I wish people would understand that.

  4. Dan,
    I’m at present reading the memoir of Garret FitzGerald, the Irish prime minister from 1982-87 and before that the foreign minister from 1973-77. FitzGerald’s big concern was to marginalize the IRA and strengthen the moderate SDLP by working with the British government to give Dublin a greater share in the running of Northern Ireland. This approach eventually resulted in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985. Should the PA eventually collapse or resign en masse because of lack of political momentum, Israel should consider offering Amman an institutionalized consultative role in the administration of the West Bank. Since 1994 Jordan has been in a similar relationship to Israel as Ireland was to Britain in regard to Northern Ireland. Israel could have offered a similar position to Cairo, but without an agreement to stop settlements it would have been doubtful if Egypt would have accepted. Also, the Egyptians knew very little about things on the ground in the West Bank–it was an abstraction to them rather than a real place. Amman’s price for agreeing to assume some of the responsiblity would probably also be a permanent freeze on all settlement activity.

    In the future Jerusalem could attempt to split Hamas as NATO is at present trying to do with the Taliban in Afghanistan but there is little chance of that occuring for years. Jerusalem could negotiate a peace treaty with the PA on the basis that the treaty would not go into effect in Gaza until the PA gained control of the Strip. But Abbas seems unlikely to make the concessions on refugees that would be required for a peace deal and certainly not with the present Israeli government.

    I think that in native-settler conflicts peace is only possible when one side first concedes the basic position of the other side. In South Africa the National Party conceded majority rule in a unitary state. In Northern Ireland Sinn Fein accepted that the majority would determine the constitutional allegiance of the province. In the Middle East both sides are too weak to be able to force their position on the other. Thus the conflict will continue for quite some time.

  5. Gideon Levy is retarded (or as Mr. Fleshler says more politely, “impassioned”), but what Levy said here is moronic even for him. Put aside for a moment his “analysis” of the situation and just look at his analogy: Israel is like white-ruled South Africa. All Israel has to do is what the white rulers did, and (it follows from the analogy) the Jews will end up like whites in South Africa today. That is, Israel will end up like present-day South Africa, which the beautiful souls like Levy are now fleeing in droves.

    Kudos once again to Dan Fleshler for having the guts to look at the situation as it really is. There is no Palestinian who could make a deal with Israel now, even on paper. He’d be denounced as a traitor to his people and an enemy of God. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way over the coming decades. Mr. Fleshler is right that Israel has to help bring about a change if there’s any helpful action Israel could take at all, and if there isn’t, at least try to avoid preventing that change from occurring.

  6. Here is an article from Rami Khouri, a commentator for the Daily Star in Beirut, who basically makes the same claim from the Arab side.

    Israel’s conditions make talks with the Palestinians futile
    By Rami G. Khouri
    Commentary by
    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    The contrast is startling between the slow pace of attempts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas and the relentless Israeli drive on many fronts to dominate and effectively destroy the concept of a distinct and sovereign Palestinian people in the historic land of Palestine. Israeli actions in recent weeks clarify the futility of trying to negotiate peace with an Israeli state that wages war on the idea that Palestinians have national rights in the same land that Israel claims as its exclusive patrimony.

    Recent Israeli actions include driving Palestinians out of their homes in East Jerusalem and replacing them with Zionist settlers; assassinating a Hamas leader in Dubai; attacking targets in the Gaza Strip while maintaining the siege there; continuing to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank; and, most recently last week, declaring two sites in occupied Hebron and Bethlehem as part of Israel’s eternal national heritage.

    The two sites are the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, that is thought to be the burial place of Abraham and that Israelis call the Cave of the Patriarchs, and the shrine in Bethlehem called Rachel’s Tomb. The Israeli declaration does not change anything on the ground for the moment, because the Israeli Army is in full control of the sites. Its significance is in the signal it sends to Palestinians that if the Arab-Israeli conflict is ever resolved through negotiations, this will only happen according to rules dictated by Israel that give priority to Israeli-Zionist claims.

    The Israeli decision prompted young Palestinians to clash with Israeli troops in Hebron. On Monday, the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said the declaration “shows there is no genuine partner for peace, but an occupying power intent on consolidating Palestinian lands.”

    The Israeli move is so provocative that it even sparked some life in the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert H. Serry. He declared: “These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism, but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well. I urge Israel not to take any steps on the ground which undermine trust or could prejudice negotiations.”

    The startling aspect of all this is that it occurs while both sides look toward the United States to continue efforts to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian talks. There is no possible way that the US or anyone else could realistically reconcile the two parallel dynamics that are under way – engaging in negotiations that seek to achieve the legitimate and equal rights of both parties, and a process of Zionist colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that has been going on for a century or so.

    No wonder the chief Palestinian negotiator described the Israeli decision to keep control of archaeological and tourist sites as “part of the continuing Israeli settlement enterprise.”

    The Palestinians view Israeli actions in this light, as part of a long process of evicting the Palestinians from their ancestral lands and making room for Zionist Jews to come from abroad and reclaim what they consider to be their ancestral land. Valiant attempts to negotiate a resolution to the conflict have failed, and will continue to fail if the negotiating process largely reflects the same imbalance on the ground that is manifested in the unilateral Israeli actions that we have recently witnessed on a continuous basis.

    That imbalance sees Israel maintain the status quo through its superior military power, its ability to control the movement of people in and out of Palestinian areas, and its reliance on unilateral actions that respect only Israel’s own priorities, rather than the dictates of peacemaking through negotiations that affirm the validity of parallel Israeli and Palestinian national narratives.

    The futility of negotiating peace under these conditions is obvious to any but the most politically blind. The two most important players dealing with the Palestinians – Israel and the United States – remain unwilling to come to terms with the single most important issue for the Arabs, which is the continuing ethnic cleansing and refugee status of the Palestinians; and they refuse to deal seriously with pivotal actors like Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

    Such distortions in the negotiating context are depressing enough for anyone who seeks a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; they are infinitely more troubling when we realize that they are coupled with continued Israeli predatory and unilateral moves on the ground, and an apparent American penchant for acquiescence rather than transformation in dealing with this situation.

    Rami G. Khouri is published regularly by THE DAILY STAR.

  7. Forgive me but I do not understand why Israel needs partners(in the short term). Israel can stop building settlements,she can withdraw settlers from Hebron and elsewhere,she can stop building the wall on Palestinian lands(if they insist, build on the Israeli side of 67 green line). Israel can do much on her own,in fact she can make it very clear that they really do want peace and that Israel understand any peace will require a two state solution i.e a viable Palestinian state not one fractured into five areas.
    But she chooses not to,its that simple period

  8. Dirk,
    If you are going to anthromorphize a country, you should understand that Israel is a male name–so the correct pronoun would be he not she.

  9. Tom said…”If you are going to anthromorphize a country, you should understand that Israel is a male name–so the correct pronoun would be he not she”..

    yeah I agree fatherland is definitly more fitting 😉

  10. “If you are going to anthromorphize a country, you should understand that”
    … countries are referred to as “she” in the English language, no matter what gender their names would be assigned to if they were personal names?

    As far as the lame old “Oh, if we only had a partner for peace” goes:

    Hint: You, my dear Israeli apologists, are not Hobbes in this little analogy. Dirk has it right: If Israel were yearning for peace and only waiting for a partner, it would act differently than it does.

  11. Koshiro and Dirk,

    I am not an Israei apologist and neither are most (although not all) of the commentators here. Of course Israel should act differently. I think most Israelis do have a “yearning for peace” but don’t want to pay the price –e.g., fixing their dysfunctional political system, standing up to settlers, acknowledging the Nakba in some way, among others. But that evades the question of the extremely problemmatic negotiating partner. And the lack of a viable partner feeds into the impulse to refrain from making the tough decisions necessary for a viable partner to emerge, to take control in the territories. So it’s yet another vicious cycle.

  12. Dirk:

    You write:

    “yeah I agree fatherland is definitly more fitting”

    Dan is nicer than I am, and this is his website and I respect him immeasurably even though I don’t always agree with him. Let me just say this–if anyone has helped right-wing American Jews or Israelis by what he or she has written on this blog it is you who has done that. When the Dans of the world are seen–perhaps unfairly–tolerating this kind of an ugly innuendo, the most radical settler has cause to rejoice.

  13. Yes, they normally are. I realize that. But if you use personification with countries, they are usually female. It’s somewhat poetic and old-fashioned, but I am sure you have come across this usage of language at some point, haven’t you?

  14. “But that evades the question of the extremely problemmatic negotiating partner.”
    No, quite the contrary. By constantly nagging – falsely, IMNSHO – about the lack of a negotiating partner, you just obfuscate Israel’s actions, which have by now almost made sure that negotiations are pointless and alienated everybody who might be a “partner”. If Israel were actually searching for a “partner”, it would act in a way to stimulate the appearance of one – which it doesn’t.

    If Israel were interested in coming to terms with the Palestinians, it would scratch its expansionist policies. If Israel were interested in finding a partner among Palestinians, it would refrain from humiliations, condescension and demonstration of power. (Just read Netanyahu’s famed Bar-Ilan speech: It just drips with a condescending, belittling attitude.) If you are the stronger party, which Israel obviously is, it’s not helpful to constantly rub this fact into the weaker party’s face – if you are actually interested in a bona fide agreement with said weaker party.

    But Israel* quite clearly is not interested ins such an agreement. Its actions speak louder than your words. Judging by its actions, Israel does not desire an agreement with the Palestinians but their subjugation. And it does not search for a political partner but for exchangeable lackeys.

    *For those really not able to figure this out themselves: By “Israel” I mean the Israeli state in its official function. Not something as ridiculous as “every single Israeli” nor something as nebulous as “public opinion”.

  15. But Koshiro, you conflate the issue of whether there is or isn’t a negotiating partner with the issue of whether the current right-wing government of the State of Israel is willing to negotiate. Netanyahu and his people are not willing to negotiate with Hamas, but he has at least publicly stated that he is willing to commence negotiations with the PA. You might not believe his good intentions, and I might not disagree with you, but Mr. Abbas might wish to test this and call his bluff.

  16. “But Koshiro, you conflate the issue of whether there is or isn’t a negotiating partner with the issue of whether the current right-wing government of the State of Israel is willing to negotiate.”
    Uhm… yes? Of course?
    The idea that no matter what Israel does, a “partner” will or won’t spontaneously appear at some point is nonsense. Israel’s actions have an effect on Palestinian politics. It’s funny how people are acutely aware of the various coalition considerations Israeli leaders have to take into account but somehow seem to assume that Palestinians are one monolithic bloc who will just go along with anything their boss says.

    Belittling the Palestinian people in University speeches, expanding settlements in East Jerusalemn, planting trees in occupied territory, quasi-annexing holy sites, etc. etc… all of this prevents Palestinian politicians from becoming the “partner” Israel allegedly seeks. And it sends a very clear message to prospective moderates on the Palestinian side: Cooperate with us, strengthen security, arrest Hamas members – and we will kick you in the nuts in response.

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