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The Art of the Bigger Deal

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‘So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like … I can live with either one,’ Donald Trump said at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister appeared to exult in Trump’s presence, until the president suggested he hold off on building more settlements while Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states worked out a deal – a ‘bigger deal’, rather. The oldest conflict in the modern Middle East – it’s a century since the Balfour declaration – has become a quarrel over real estate.

In spite of Trump’s remarks on settlements – the colour drained from Netanyahu’s face – there was no mystery as to which side he would take as he championed a bigger deal. (In this he was no different from any of his predecessors, merely more explicit.) Trump has always favoured landlords over tenants: the man who kept blacks out of New York City apartments is a natural ally of a man who hopes to keep Arabs out of Palestine. With Jared Kushner as his Middle East consigliere, and David Friedman the US ambassador to Israel, Trump has made no secret of his support for the Israeli right.

Trump’s bigger deal is being talked up as a novel ‘outside-in’ approach. What this means, in practice, is a new form of American-backed encirclement, in which US-friendly Sunni Arab states would be recruited to impose on the Palestinians something the Jewish state, in spite of its firepower, has been unable to achieve: fictional independence, with a flag and security forces in Palestinian uniforms whose job is to protect Israel from other Palestinians who aren’t wearing the uniform.

There’s a view that the Arab states won’t agree to this, out of respect for their Palestinian ‘brothers’. But the fear of Shia Iran outweighs residual solidarity with Palestinians under occupation. Neighbouring Arab states are already interested in peace with Israel, bypassing the Palestinians’ aspirations, and in cutting economic deals with the Israelis, using shell companies that provide them with cover. As an Israeli businessman remarked in an illuminating Bloomberg article on Israeli software firms in Saudi Arabia, the Arab boycott of Israel ‘doesn’t exist’. The Israelis aren’t the only ones who would benefit from Trump’s bigger deal.

Liberal supporters of a two-state solution have deplored Trump’s press conference as another example of his uncouthness, his disregard for a consensus based on decades of international diplomacy and, not least, his rejection of agreed ‘parameters’ for a resolution. Their mourning over the death of the ‘peace process’ ignores the fact that it has been dead for some time. A moribund process for more than twenty years, it has mainly benefited American ‘peace processors’, Israeli settlers and a narrow section of the Palestinian bourgeoisie and nomenklatura. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley, has glossed Trump’s comments: ‘We absolutely support the two-state solution, but we are thinking out of the box as well.’

Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories believe that their situation has deteriorated since Oslo; some fondly remember the period before the first intifada, when they could work and travel inside Israel, or what they call the ‘48 territories’: i.e. the territory they lived in before the creation of Israel. To be able to live, work and move freely in their land has always been a stronger desire among Palestinians than statehood, especially if a minuscule, sovereign Palestine means being walled off from 78 per cent of the territory to which they still feel intimately connected.

As Yezid Sayigh argued in Armed Struggle and the Search for State (1997), the Palestinian national movement was initially driven by a vision of return and restoration, rather than the replacement of Israel’s occupation with a Palestinian state. The notion of statehood emerged gradually, out of a series of strategic defeats. With it came the bureaucratisation of the PLO and its transformation (or calcification) into a state apparatus without a state.

If Israel were officially to abandon its commitment to the ‘peace process’ in favour of the bigger deal – continued control, even annexation, of the West Bank, as Israeli voices to the right of Netanyahu propose – Palestinians may well decide to struggle for their own ‘bigger deal’. That is what frightens defenders of the fading two-state consensus. Here, for example, is the New York Times editorial board:

The likeliest outcome, given the growth rate of the Arab population, is that Israel would be confronted with a miserable choice: to give up being a Jewish state – or to give up being a democratic state by denying full voting rights to Palestinians.

Notice here that the ‘choice’ belongs exclusively to Israel. Palestinians, as always, are the objects of a decision, and never the decision-makers. That these options – ceasing to be a Jewish state or denying non-Jews full citizenship rights – are considered equally lamentable is a gift to historians. One day this kind of commentary will be read in much the same way as we now read Times editorials from the 1950s on the ‘Negro Problem’.

Israel made its choice long ago, without much hand-wringing. It is impossible to imagine the Jewish state without bulldozers and settlements, even in the unlikely event of the US government withdrawing its annual $3.8 billion dollars of aid. The real question isn’t the choice that faces Israel, but the choice that faces Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem and the diaspora, as they confront an apartheid regime, and an impending single-state reality, which appears, this week, to have the backing of the White House, and the complicity of America’s Arab allies.

Never in their history have the Palestinians been so alone, without even ritual expressions of solidarity in Arab capitals. Never have they been in such desperate need of new leadership. Israel is betting on the exhaustion, disarray and fragmentation of the Palestinian political class. A breakthrough will probably involve a return to first principles, above all self-determination, which has been slowly eroded since Oslo, when the Palestinian national struggle gave way to ‘security co-operation’ that was supposed to precede independence, the NGO-isation of the West Bank, and futile, interminable discussions about land swaps, and ‘parameters’ for a solution. That was the failed deal. Trump’s bigger deal looks worse, and far more provocative.

Comments on “The Art of the Bigger Deal”

  1. Fred Skolnik says:

    Your writer seems to be coming from a place where Israeli guilt and Arab innocence in everything that pertains to the conflict is taken for granted. The occupation of the West Bank came about because Jordan attacked Israel, specifically and mainly by bombarding Jewish Jerusalem indiscriminately and without provocation on June 5, 1967. You start a war, you lose a war, you get your territory occupied. That is the oldest story in history. The occupation continued because the Arabs declared at Khartoum: “no peace, no recognition, no negotiations” – and for the next 25 years couldn’t even bring themselves to pronounce Israel’s name. The occupation became oppressive because the Arabs engaged in terrorist acts against Israel’s civilian population.

    Since that time the Palestinians have twice had the opportunity to end the conflict and establish a state of their own, in 2000 and in 2008, in negotiations with Barak and Olmert, who made reasonable offers based on an exchange of land. The parameters of a two-state solution are clear to everyone. All the Palestinians have to do is return to the negotiating table, as Netanyahu has invited them to do more than once. Contrary to what your writer asserts, the choice really is theirs, and theirs alone. It is true that Abu Mazen is not strong enough to make peace and Hamas doesn’t want to make peace, but there is no real alternative, because Israel is not going to annex the West Bank, though if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate an end to the conflict it may unilaterally annex the settlement blocs, involving around five percent of West Bank territory. I say this categorically though it is only my opinion, but at least it is based on an intimate understanding of the country and its people.

    • Graucho says:

      “because Israel is not going to annex the West Bank” The process underway in the occupied territories is annexation by stealth. One wishes that the Likud and their fellow travellers would have the decency to stop insulting everyone’s intelligence by pretending otherwise, but they can’t even manage that.

      • Fred Skolnik says:

        There’s no stealth involved. What the extremists want, and declare explicitly, is not going to happen. That’s my view. In any case, the settlement blocs – 75% of the settlements on around 5% of West Bank land, will ultimately end up under Israeli sovereignty. That’s where the process will stop.

        By the way, Liberman once proposed offering the PA Wadi Ara in exchange, which woukd be a real bonus for them, but lo and behild! the vast majority of Israeli Arabs, according to polls, would refuse to live under Palestinian sovereignty. Imagine that! They prefer apartheid Israel to democratic Palestine. Maybe you can explain that too.

        • JamesBaldwin says:

          “Imagine that! They prefer apartheid Israel to democratic Palestine.”

          Israeli Arabs do not live under apartheid. They are citizens of Israel. Israel within the ’48 borders is not an apartheid state.

          West Bank Palestinians live under apartheid. They are not citizens of Israel. The Israel-occupied West Bank is an apartheid state, because its Jewish inhabitants have Israeli citizenship, while its Palestinian inhabitants are denied it, and there are separate towns, roads and facilities for each of the two communities, with the superior ones reserved for the Israelis.

          The distinction isn’t complicated to grasp. I suspect you are confusing it on purpose.

          • Fred Skolnik says:

            You can be sure that many of the haters accuse Israel of being an apartheid state within its 1948 borders.

            No, West Bank Palestinians do not live under apartheid. They live under a military occupation with all that entails and of course Israeli civilians have Israeli citizenship and Palestinians do not, just as American civilians had American citizenship during the occupation of Germany and Germans did not. From that point of view, it makes absolutely no difference if the Israeli civilians live in settlements or military bases. The question of the legality of the settlements is an entirely different issue and at this point completely irrelevant since their final dispostion will be determined in the framework of a negotiated agreement.

            I assume you have never been in the West Bank. Superior roads? The separate roads are security roads, which is an answer to terrorist attacks. They certainly aren’t superior to anything. The Arab towns are where they’ve always been and under PA civil adninistration. Jews do live in Hebron but the Palestinians certainly don’t want them there.

    • IPFreely says:

      Your last sentence has a Trumpian ring to it. So what do you suggest for the Palestinians? Simply passively accept that Israel takes over their land?

    • Tom Stevens says:

      Fred Skolnik’s causal linkages make a kind of sense, but his chosen start and end points are telling. One could just as easily say that Jordan attacked Israel because a hostile state had been set up against the wishes and without the say of Arab natives, and that Palestinians resorted to terrorism because rendered impotent and oppressed by Israeli occupation of their land. Both viewpoints have a certain validity – that is how cycles of violence work.

      What is more concerning is that he seems to be coming from a place where any of this justifies the oppression of a people and the denial of their rights. He asks the Palestinians to choose between more of the same or slightly less. That is not how human rights and international law are supposed to operate.

      • stettiner says:

        The Arabs are not native to Judea and Samaria.

        • pdiveris says:

          Show us your evidence for this ludicrous claim. Tell us also what you mean by Arabs, as opposed to whom etc.

      • Fred Skolnik says:

        It’s easy to say just about anything but anything isn’t always true. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was “gifted” by the British to Abdallah ibn Hussein of Hijaz for services rendered. What this has to do with “native” Palestinians I have no idea, and in any case King Hussein the grandson explained very candidly why he attackked Israel in 1967 in his book about the war (p. 60ff). That business about being deceived by Nasser. Remember?

        All occupations are oppressive and all occupations curtail certain rights. In the West Bank this is directly related to acts of terror. There may be a cycle but there is also an initiator of the cycle.

        Having an independent state is not more of the same or slightly less. They are not going to get one if they do not negotiate an end to the conflict.

    • JamesBaldwin says:

      1. Your account of the Six Day War is misleading: you’ve missed out the bit where Israel attacked Egypt and Egypt asked Jordan for help.

      2. Your justification for the occupation is, “You start a war, you lose a war, you get your territory occupied.” But Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, and Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty since 1994.

      3. “Israel is not going to annex the West Bank.” The reason for this is that Israel does not want to give the Palestinians citizenship, and if it formally annexed the territory and denied citizenship to its non-Jewish inhabitants, it would be impossible to deny that the situation constitutes apartheid. So the pretense of temporary occupation continues, while the continuing settlement expansion makes it permanent in practice.

      • Fred Skolnik says:

        Joining a war because someone asked you to does not immunize you from its consequences.

        Israel attacked Egypt because Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran, which was a casus belli and violated the 1956 agreements, not to mention the movement of six divisions (100,000 men) and 1,000 tanks toward Israel’s border and Nasser’s declaration on May 26 that the time had come to destroy Israel. If your neighbor had been threatening to murder your family and burn your house down for 20 years and then marched up to your front door with a gang of armed men, you would have to be crazy not to shoot first. Be a hero with your own children, not mine.

        Hussein joined the war because Nasser told him that Egypt had destroyed 75% of Israel’s air force and invited him to join the festivities.

        Jordan relinquished all claims to the West Bank in 1988.

        Once again, all the Palestinians have to do is return to the negotiating table. That is the only way the occupation is going to end.

        • IPFreely says:

          No pre-conditions, isn’t that what Netanyahu always says? And then tells the Palestinians which pre-conditions they have to accept.

          • Fred Skolnik says:

            Not at all. Israel has positions, not preconditions that the Palestinians have to accept in advance. If the two sides ever sit down, they will both be free to present their positions and that is what will be negotiated.

            • IPFreely says:

              Positions = preconditions that the Palestinians have to agree to. But they can’t have any positions, right?

              • Fred Skolnik says:

                What are you talking about? Of course they have positions. Some of them are even deal breakers, and the same is true for Israel. You seem to have certain fixed ideas that don’t exactly correspond to reality. The Palestinians don’t have to agree to anything before returning to the negotiations. That has been stated explicitly a dozen times.

                • IPFreely says:

                  Except to recognise Israel’s existence and commit to disarmament. That is all.

                  • Fred Skolnik says:

                    Sorry, the Palestinians don’t have to commit to anything before the negotiations start. That is what Israel wants, just as the Palestinians may want millions of refugees to return to Israel. You insist on confusing positions with preconditions for no other reason than to “prove” that Israel is the cukprit, for reasons best known to yourself. If you are going to try to go another round like this, arbitrarily calling everything Israel wants a precondition when it is explicitly not, then it is really pointless to engage you.

                    • IPFreely says:

                      Nothing of the kind. Can we agree that Israel expects that the Palestinians must recognise Israel before any negotiations start?

                    • Fred Skolnik says:

                      You are misconstruing what Israel has explicitly stated. Israel has never required of the Palestinians that they agree to any of its demands as a condition for renewing negotiations. Israel requires that recognition will be part of any agreement. Each side has its requirements, demands and positions. Thus far only Abu Mazen has made one of these a precondition for resuming negotiations, namely that Israel agree beforehabd that it will withdraw to the 1967 borders, to which Israel replied: No, no preconditions on either side.

                    • Fred Skolnik says:

                      But show us something from Netanyahu that says: We will not resume negotiations with the Palestinians unless they agree to this or that beforehand.

                      That, in polite English, means put up or shut up.

  2. stettiner says:

    PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian Arab people, in its founding charter:

    “Article 24: This Organization does not exercise any territorial sovereignty over the West Bank in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, on the Gaza Strip or in the Himmah Area. Its activities will be on the national popular level in the liberational, organizational, political and financial fields.”

  3. Simon Wood says:

    I wish we woolly liberals wrote as robustly as Fred Skolnik.

  4. ‘Here, for example, is the New York Times editorial board: “The likeliest outcome, given the growth rate of the Arab population, is that Israel would be confronted with a miserable choice: to give up being a Jewish state – or to give up being a democratic state by denying full voting rights to Palestinians.”

    Quoted disdainfully as an example of Judaeocentric thinking; but what other kind is effective given the balance of power and the absence of an effective and legitimate Palestinian leadership?

    Ariel Sharon, of all people, architect of the West Bank settlement policy, had got this far in his reasoning, and was urging withdrawal to defensible boundaries in a 2-state solution, shortly before his stroke. The reckless policies of his successors have now put – what? – perhaps half a million Israeli voters on land that would have to be given up in such a deal, making it internally politically impossible.

    Arafat was offered something like such a deal by Ehud Barak at Camp Dvid in 2000, and turned it down. There is now no good solution. The 1967 war itself, origin of the occupation, was a pre-emptive Israeli strike, triggered by Arab (especially Egyptian) military buildup and declarations.

    I grieve for the Palestinians, even more unfortunate in their leaders and friends than in their enemies.

  5. If only Churchill had had no gambling debts, sigh…


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