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Post-Election Entanglements: Israel, Palestine and Settlements with Gershom Gorenberg

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Edited Transcript of Remarks by Gershom Gorenberg
Transcript No. 310 (20 February 2009)

At a recent Palestine Center briefing entitled “Post-Election Entanglements: Israel, Palestine and Settlements,” Mr. Gershom Gorenberg discussed the history of the “settlement enterprise” and the reasons Israel continues settlement building.  With over 470,000 Israeli settlers living in Occupied Palestinian Territory today, the settlements remain an essential obstacle to peace. Gorenberg also argued that any diplomatic process has to be accompanied by an end to violence and an end to settlement building. Any U.S. involvement has to take these as starting points, even after the Israeli elections indicate a rightward shift, because “time is against both sides.”

To view the video of this briefing online, go to http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/4698.

The Palestine Center
Washington, D.C.
13 February 2009

Gershom Gorenberg:

Thank you so much.  I’d like to thank the Palestine Center for inviting me and all of you for coming.  You’re truly honoring me with your presence.  

There is a story of a Jew who walks into a pub in Belfast.  Immediately, a hand lands on his shoulder from behind, and somebody says, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”  He feels this is his lucky day.  He says, “I’m a Jew.”  And then, the voice from behind him says, “Aye, but are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”  So, in Israel when I say that I wrote a book on the settlements, people ask me, “Are you on the left or on the right?”  And I say, “I’m an objective historian.”  Then I get the question, “Yes, but are you objectively for the left or objectively for the right?”  So, I would say that I did in fact seek, in writing about the history of the settlements, to write an old fashioned history based on the documentary evidence.  I also believe the history has some implications for today, including the events that Will so well summarized--the political flux of today in Israel, in the Palestinian arena and internationally.  I will try to relate to both of those things in the history and the current situation.  

I will also add that I am describing the situation that I’m talking about inevitably and “unembarrassedly” within an Israeli perspective--a particular Israeli perspective that insists on the optimistic assumption that the situation, complex and difficult as it is, is not a zero sum game.  There are win-win possibilities if we only pursue them.  

In the lexicon of Middle East diplomacy, there’s a tremendous irony that the word “settlement” has two meanings.  One meaning is an agreement as in a peace settlement.  And the other is red tiled Israeli houses spreading on West Bank hilltops.  Obviously, these two phenomena do not sit well with each other within the same word or within the same region.  I’d like to give first some historic background on how the settlement enterprise began; how this entanglement, as we’ve labeled it, started out; how it interacts with the election results of Tuesday; and what this might mean for policy going forward.  

In diplomatic accounts, in English, of the Middle East conflict, such as [former U.S. Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger’s memoirs [and] other books on the peace process over the years, the Israeli settlements in occupied territory suddenly appear in the 1970s.  What this tells us is not when they began but when the diplomats began to pay attention.  When you ask Israelis and Palestinians when did settlement in the occupied territory begin--again, this is a trivia game; I’ve played on both sides of the divide--you get several answers.  For instance, a very common answer is that they began in 1977 when a political turnaround happened in Israel.  The Labor government was voted out of power, the hard right under [late Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin and the Likud came to power for the first time, and many people associate that with the beginning of settlements.  Those with better memory will tell you that in 1975 in a village called Sebastia in the northern West Bank near Nablus, there was a confrontation between the radical religious movement Gush Emunim and the first government of [late Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin.  The Rabin government opposed settlement in that area, in the densely populated mountain ridge area of the West Bank.  Thousands of young pro-settler activists gathered in this spot in the field near Sebastia and demanded to create settlement.  The government backed down, and that public confrontation sticks in many people’s mind as the beginning.  Those with a longer memory and greater ability to hold on to trivia will tell you that in 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger led a group of Orthodox nationalists who spent the Passover Seder in a hotel in the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank and then refused to leave, staying on in defiance of Levi Eshkol’s government, then in power.  

This date, by the way, April 1968, as the beginning of settlement is one that often occurs in Palestinian chronologies of the occupation.  And the real news addicts, the political equivalent of people remembering baseball batting averages from the thirties, will tell you that in September of 1967 the orthodox kibbutz of Kfar Etzion was established or perhaps reestablished in the hills between Bethlehem and Hebron.  Kfar Etzion had been a kibbutz that was established in 1943.  It fell in 1948 during the war of 1948, a day before the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel.  The children of Kfar Etzion demanded to go back there after the 1967 War, what’s known in Israel as the Six-Day War, and to reestablish this kibbutz.  They were allowed to do so.  What runs through this chronology, each of these descriptions, especially the ones from before 1977, is there is an assumption, a narrative that religious settlers forced themselves on an unwilling or unwitting moderate government.  I will tell you, honestly, that when I wrote the outline for my book that was the narrative I knew and that was the outline that I described to my publisher.  Then, I ran at full force into the facts and the archives and found myself telling a very different story.  

So, I want to go back to June 1967 and describe a little bit of how this developed.  I’m not going to try to explain the whole series of events that led to the war in June 1967.  However, I will state that my understanding of the documentary evidence is that the war was not a planned war.  It certainly was not a planned war in the sense of a long term plan on the Israeli side.  As late as April 1967, Israeli military intelligence was telling the generals and the politicians that no war was likely with the Arab states within the next eight to ten years.  I can’t swear to the fact that the war was not planned on the side of [late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, but my impression or my hypothesis, looking at the evidence, is that nobody was more surprised than Gamal Abdel Nasser when the U.N. agreed to remove its troops from the Sinai.  It seems to me much more likely that Nasser had intended to demonstrate solidarity with Syria by making this demand.  That he expected that the U.N. would say no and that he could go home quietly and say, “Well, I was willing to stand with my fellow Arab brothers but what can you do when the United Nations got me in my way.”  Instead, [late U.N. Secretary General] U Thant surprised him.  The Egyptian army marched to the border.  A military coalition was created.  In June 5, 1967, the Israeli government decided to launch a preemptive strike.  As often happens, war is chaotic.  The defense minister defied the Cabinet in certain cases.  Generals went further than the defense minister told them to.  Sometimes, lieutenants went further than the generals told them to. And at the end of the war, Israel found itself in control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.  This did not fit with [Prussian military theorist Carl] von Clausewitz’s principles in his classic book on war.  War, according to von Clausewitz, is supposed to be policy by other means.  In this case, the war had happened and now the policy had to be written around it.  

What was the purpose of these conquests?  The Cabinet met first on June 19, 1967.  The first consensus that was reached was that there would be no repeat of what had happened after the 1956 Sinai Crisis when Israel had pulled back from the Sinai without a formal peace.  So, a secret offer was made via the United States to Egypt and Syria to return nearly to the international border in return for full formal signed peace agreements and full recognition of Israel.  Was this a very dovish decision?  In fact, the government was offering to give up virtually all of the territory it had captured from Syria in Egypt in return for peace. It can also be read--I think both readings are correct [and] they complement each other--as the government saying, if we’re going to pull back, we’re going to demand a much more solid diplomatic arrangement than what followed in the 1956 War.  We will pull back but only in return for recognition and peace.  In any case, the offer was passed on to Washington, which passed it on to Cairo and Damascus.  And at that point, it was turned down.  It’s an interesting fact that it was turned down then because essentially that formula is what eventually was the basis of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and is really what’s on the table right now in the “on again, off again” negotiations between Israel and Syria.  So, even though it didn’t happen at the time, it remained in the background.  

The biggest question however for the Israeli government was the West Bank.  And the conflict there, very simply, was between the desire to have the land and the fact that a large Palestinian population lived there.  Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, at the time, was known for saying that with the war, Israel got a wonderful dowry.  The problem is with the dowry comes the bride.  There was in fact a proposal for a Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank.  The first documented record of this is that it came from military intelligence before the ceasefire was announced.  There were discussions immediately afterwards.  What’s very interesting is that it was rejected in Israeli policy-making circles because it was seen as a colonial suggestion.  In other words, the presumption was that any Palestinian state established in the wake of the war would be seen as an Israeli protectorate and the age of colonial protectorates had passed.  So, this idea was taken off the table.  

In that June 19, 1967 discussion, in the cabinet justice ministry, Yaakov Shimshon Shapira, who was from the then ruling Mapai party, the party of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, said that holding the West Bank with its Arab population--there’s a nomenclature problem, which I should address.  In Israeli records of the time, the word Palestinian isn’t used.  I remember, even in the eighties when I started as a journalist, the arguments on the news desk between the use of the word Arab and the use of the word Palestinian.  So, I get into a little bit of a historian’s anachronism dilemma. When I’m talking of the situation there, in today’s nomenclature and today’s political awareness, we’re talking about the Palestinian population.  When I’m quoting the text, the texts always say Arab.  And there are political reasons for that that I can explain later.  But if I’m going back and forth between the two terms, please understand that historians are people who don’t know where they’re living, whether it’s now or 50 years ago.  So, I’m sort of trading the nomenclature from the two times. In any case, Shapira said that holding the West Bank with its Arab population and not giving them full political rights, including the vote, was impossible “in a time of decolonialization.”  That is to say that doing so would be seen as a colonial act. On the other hand, he said if we give full political rights and the vote to the people living there “we’re done with the Zionist enterprise” because the goal of Zionism was to create a state with a Jewish majority.  And it would no longer be a state with a Jewish majority.  It would become a bi-national state.  So, Shapira was against, basically, the argument for not keeping the West Bank under Israeli control.  

There was also a secret report written that summer; Levi Eshkol appointed several interlocking committees of top security intelligence and diplomatic officials to examine policy options for the future of the West Bank.  The final report delivered late in July 1967 advised him that the government would have to act quickly to decide the future of the West Bank because “internationally the impression is likely to be that we are maintaining a colonial regime.”  So, these are documents from inside of the Israeli government.  These are not criticisms voiced in Paris or Berkeley or for that matter Cairo.  These were the discussions that were going on inside of the Israeli government.  

If this was so clear, what’s happened?  Why wasn’t there a very quick move to arrange a pull out?  Well, in the records and in the psychology of the time, I think there were three reasons that stood in the way of the discussions.  Two of them came up exclusively in discussions and one more that didn’t but that I think was a powerful factor that prevented a decision toward withdrawal.  Essentially, the question was should we make the same offer to Jordan that we made to Syria and Egypt--full withdrawal in return for full peace?  One factor was a security issue.  Before the 1967 war, Israel thought that it had a modus avendi worked out with King Hussein of Jordan.  There was a deep sense of disappointment and even of betrayal that Hussein had joined the war.  Again, I think there was a whole set of complex reasons within intra-Arab politics why Hussein felt that he had no choice but to do that.  But from the Israeli point of view, this was perfidy.  We thought we had everything worked out with Hussein, and he joined.  So now, we have to take much more seriously the fact that Israel has a narrow waist that’s 9 miles, 15 kilometers wide, and there was a desire, particularly among the people who came out of the security establishment, for what they called strategic depth, which the West Bank would provide.   

A second aspect of it was the historical nationalist reason.  Many of the spots within the West Bank--Bethlehem, Hebron, Shiloh, other places like this--were associated in national memory with biblical history.  Every Israeli, secular [or] religious, learns the Bible as the national epic.  And so, here were all these places connected with the national story. It was a very powerful factor.  It was a highly mobilized society politically much more so than today.  That kind of historical factor was very strong.  

A third factor was--one must remember it was only 19 years since 1948.  The great majority of the people who were leaders of Israel in 1967 had grown up and come of age in Mandatory Palestine.  They had mostly come of age in youth movements that encouraged an intense emotional, passionate relationship with the land, with the countryside.  The most explicit expression of this was constant hiking through the countryside, learning the land with your feet.  The land, which was perceived as being the one indivisible land, had been divided as a result of the 1948 war.  Now, it was under Jewish control, and it was very difficult for people emotionally, for these leaders emotionally to think of dividing it again.  It was sort of like, metaphorically speaking, as if you’d been reunited with your high school girlfriend after all these years, and it really was just as nice.  Then, someone comes along and says, “Okay, that’s it.  Time’s up.  You have to divide again.”  And I use the romantic metaphor deliberately because romantic nationalism often has those kinds of overtones.  

So, there were many discussions and no decisions.  In fact, when Eshkol came to the United States at the beginning of 1968 to meet with [late U.S. President] Lyndon Johnson at the Johnson Ranch in Texas, he was asked several times by Johnson and his staff what kind of Israel do you want, which was really a question about the future of the territories.  A reliable source says that Eshkol’s answer was my government has decided not to decide.  I don’t think that’s the only time that governments have decided that.  But it’s a particularly striking example because in many ways that decision not to decide has defined Israeli politics and perhaps regional politics ever since.  I want to stress that I don’t think that that’s the only factor.  I’m telling the story from within Israeli sources.  The inevitable danger of doing so is that it leaves in the background the unlit sides of the stage, the very, very important factors of what was going on in Arab politics at the time. But I’ve been given a half an hour to speak, and that’s too little time even for the Israeli side.  I want to stress that in doing that I’m desperately trying to avoid the mistake of acting like the whole story is on one side of the political thing for good or for bad.  There’s only so much I can talk about at once.  If I could do both at the same time, like simultaneously, I would do that. But that’s really difficult.  I haven’t learned how to do that.  

Very often when no decision is made what happens is certain political cultural factors come out.  It is possible to have policy without a decision.  That, I think, is the most important point to make here.  In the secret National Security Council history of the 1967 crisis, written at the end of 1968 just as the American administrations were about to change, the person who wrote the history, Harold Saunders, who was then head of the Mideast desk at the National Security Council, refers to two decisions that were made by the Security Council when the crisis began in May of 1967 and puts the word decision in quotes.  And he explains that there was never actually any discussion of those decisions.  They were just assumed as policy.  And so, he says these are very important decisions, but you won’t find any record of those decisions in the record.  I think this happens very often.  When things aren’t decided, other factors come in and particularly cultural assumptions, historical, political assumptions drive what becomes policy.  

In this particular case, one of the policies that developed was the policy of settling in the territories.  So, you have two things which I think you have to keep in mind at the same time.  There was no strategic decision taken. There was a specific decision not to take a strategic decision on the future of the West Bank following the 1967 war, and policy was pursued, which led to deeper and deeper Israeli entanglement and making it more and more difficult to pull out, which was the settlement policy.  This was based on the fact that in pre-independence time, settlements served a variety of functions in Zionist politics and development.  It had become a value in and of itself to settle the land.  It had to do not only with expanding the territory under Jewish control but with a whole conception of returning to the soil.  Again, in romantic nationalist movements, the idea of the peasantry returning to the soil is very strong.  It’s very interesting actually.  There’s a history of Palestinian national development by Yezid Sayigh which talks about the fact that after 1967, as the Palestinian organizations grew, there was a romanticization of the farmer, of the peasant.  Well, in early Zionist history, the exact same thing was going on. The Jew working the land was the ideal.  Sort of imagine [late Chinese President] Mao [Zedong] sending the intellectuals to the countryside but without doing it by force as a voluntary thing.  So, settling the land was something very important.  It was also seen as a way of establishing what the future borders will be.  And very soon after the war, that process of settlement began.  

In fact, in July of 1967, five weeks after the end of the war, a young left wing secular kibbutznik jumped out of a jeep at an abandoned Syrian army base in the Golan Heights and became the first Israeli settler in occupied territory.  He was joined in the weeks after that by other young kibbutzniks.  They wanted to ensure that the Golan would stay in Israeli hands.  They also wanted to relive the past that they’d missed--the pre-state glory days of establishing kibbutzim on new land. It was as if they were going back to Woodstock as it were, in Israeli terms.  They could do what their parents had done and that they’d always been told what the great people do and that they had missed.  There’s an interesting description in Paul Berman’s book, I think it’s called Two Utopias, of how the student demonstrations of 1968 were driven by people whose parents had been communists and particularly resistance fighters during World War II and wanted to relive their parents’ heroism.  In the Israeli context, many of these people who were involved in this first settlement activity in the Golan were doing exactly that.  They were trying to do it the way it had been done before.  

In September of 1967, the leaders of eight Arab states met in Khartoum in order to discuss their political response to the 1967 War.  Again, by the way, there’s another nomenclature problem.  In Israeli chronicles, this is the Six-Day War.  In Arab chronicles, this is the June 1967 War.  I almost feel like I have to keep switching back and forth because the moment you use one term or the other you have established a position and I’m trying to remain ambiguous and ambivalent and keep you guessing.  So at the Khartoum conference, the Arab leaders passed a resolution, the Khartoum Resolution.  The operative line said, “The Arab heads of states have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level in order to reach withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands,” meaning the Arab lands occupied since June 5th.  On the Arab side, the Khartoum Resolution was seen as a victory of the moderates; political and diplomatic means would be used rather than military means. The aim was to return the land occupied in June of 1967 and not to try to take all of Israel.  In fact, in American diplomatic correspondence from Arab capitals from September and October of 1967, there are references to Arab leaders talking of the moderate sprit of Khartoum.  However, the same resolution also stated that there would be no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no formal peace with Israel.  

Within Israel, that’s the part of the resolution that echoed most strongly, and it was seen as a complete rejection of peace efforts.  At that point, Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, decided to approve the first settlement in the West Bank at Kfar Etzion.  Before doing so, he consulted with the legal counsel of the foreign ministry whose name was Theodor Meron.  This is a name worth remembering if you haven’t heard it before.  I’ll explain in a moment.  Meron wrote back a memo, which I found in Eshkol’s office files.  It had been classified until very recently.  And he wrote, “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”  Again, that was an internal Israeli memo.  Just to explain the background, Meron was 37-years-old at the time.  He was a Holocaust survivor.  He had come to Mandatory Palestine in 1947.  By ten years after that, he had completed his degree in international law at Harvard and his post doc at Cambridge--rather amazing considering the fact that he never went to school during the war as he was in a Nazi labor camp.  In 1977, he left the Israeli Foreign Service to return to academia at New York University where he laid the theoretical groundwork for what became the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which he eventually became the president of and now serves on the appeals court of.  So, you have somebody who, at least, later on became an internationally recognized figure in the field of international humanitarian law.  That was his memo.  

There was one loophole, intended or not, in the Meron Memo.  It pointed out correctly, in terms of the Geneva Convention, that it is permissible for the occupying power to establish temporary military bases in occupied territory.  Eshkol announced that Kfar Etzion would be established as a Nahal outpost.  Nahal remains a branch of the Israeli army in which the soldiers alternate between direct military duties and maintaining paramilitary agricultural outposts.  So, officially, according to the announcement, Kfar Etzion was a temporary military base. It was recognition and effort to get around Meron’s ruling.  You had a situation where the prime minister himself was now acting like one of those young pre-state activists.  

I will stress here one of the most difficult things for a successful political revolution, and I think that the establishment of the state in terms of Israeli history was a successful political revolution, is it requires the leaders to move from being revolutionaries to being bureaucrats.  And this is disappointing.  You’ve worked all your life to get someplace and now you have to follow rules.  You have to go to meetings.  You have to wear a suit. Well, they didn’t wear suits in Israel but, ok, you have to wear a white shirt.   And the romantic days of your youth are appealing to you.  Post-1967, there was a feeling which swept through large parts of the bureaucracy that the glory days are back.  Ironically, the result of this was in fact in some ways returning the pre-1948 situation of a conflict between two ethnic communities under the rule of a single country rather than the division of the land that had happened messily and complicatedly in 1948.  There was opposition to this policy.  It was ineffectual.  For instance, in 1972, there was a debate in the Labor party on the future of the occupied territories.  Again, [late Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir asked that no decision be made at the end of this discussion.  The finance minister, Pinchas Sapir, a major figure in the Labor party, said that keeping the territories without giving the residents equal rights would put Israel in a class with “countries whose names I don’t even want to say in the same breath.”  But no decision was made again.  By the time the Likud came to power in 1977, there were nearly 80 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai.  The Likud built on the foundation that had already been built.   

What was the United States policy toward all of this?  I think it can be summed up in two phrases--the U.S. was unequivocally opposed to settlement and undeniably distracted from dealing with it.  After the Six-Day War, the U.S. became essentially Israel’s sole patron.  Before the war, it had insisted on the territorial integrity of all Middle East states.  It continued to insist that afterwards it saw the proper solution as the return of the West Bank to Jordanian control.  But the war had shown that the 1956 arrangement had been a failure, that one of those un-discussed decisions that the founders talked about was that an Israeli withdrawal would have to be accompanied by full peace.  There was also a sense of great relief on the part of the American administration that Israel had gotten out of this war without  the  need for American forces to help it.  And a secret memo written by [former U.S. National Security Advisor] McGeorge Bundy, who had been called back to the White House to deal with the crisis, to President Johnson laid out the contradictions in American Middle East policy, particularly the need to maintain connections both with Israel and moderate Arab states.  But he noted that in order for the United States to avoid defending Israel directly, it had to make sure that Israel had the means to defend itself.  And therefore, it would be very difficult to use arms deliveries as a means of putting pressure on Israel to withdraw.  

At the same time, the United States did not want a situation where Israel was very weak, and remember this was all going on during Vietnam.  In fact, when I asked Saunders again about why the U.S. didn’t deal more with the Middle East issue at the time, he said, “You have to remember we had another problem on the other side of the globe.”  That’s an understatement, obviously, about Vietnam, but it’s true. As one Israeli strategic expert, Shlomo Brom, said to me in another context, “You have to remember that attention is also a limited resource.” And this is true of super powers as much as it is of individuals.  The United States in 1967 through 1973 was simply fixated on Vietnam; there was no room for anything else on the agenda.  By the time the U.S. entered the process of Middle East negotiation after the 1973 War, the settlements were already a presence.

I would mention one more thing about this.  This is a really important point.  Every time there has been a slow-motioned diplomatic initiative since 1967, it has led to an increased case of settlement building.  Many of the settlements can be seen as monuments to failed diplomatic initiatives because of what happens.  Two dynamics take place at the moment a diplomatic initiative begins.  One is that the government itself wants to mark those areas which it is not going to give up, mark the distinction on the countryside of what areas are available for negotiations and which are not.  And the second is that opponents of giving up any land are going to speed up their efforts to settle in the territory as well.  For instance, the first settlement was established in the Gaza Strip in late 1970, secretly.  It was in response to the Rogers Initiative in the summer of 1970, which brought a ceasefire between Israel and Egypt.  There was a belief, incorrectly, that the Rogers Initiative would lead to a full scale negotiating process.  Key figures in the government wanted to make sure that Gaza did not return to Egyptian rule.  So, they started the process of settling in Gaza; that has gone on right through the Annapolis process.  The lesson of that, I think, is that the settlement issue cannot be left until the end of the process.  The desire of diplomats meeting in rooms to talk about the issues and only deal with the facts on the ground afterwards inevitably means that the facts on the ground are more difficult to deal with afterwards.

What is the situation today?   In the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1993 when the Oslo Accords were signed, there were 116,000 Israeli settlers; this does not include East Jerusalem.  The reason I’m breaking down the figures this way is, quite simply, that is how I get the figures.  They come in separate batches, and I’m trying to use the official figures because, in this case, I think they’re the closest to being accurate.  By 2000, when the process collapsed, there were 198,000 settlers living in the territories.  When [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert was elected in 2006, there were 253,000.  Today, there are over 290,000 Israelis living in the West Bank next to 2.2 million Palestinians by the best estimates.  That is in addition to approximately 180,000 Israelis living in annexed East Jerusalem and 16,000 or more in the Golan Heights.  So, the numbers keep rising.  This is a quagmire.  I describe it as a quagmire because it is much more difficult to get out than it is to get in.  I don’t think in Washington I have to say more about what a quagmire is at this point and time.  

Why is it so hard to get out?  Well, I think there are several reasons that contribute to the sense of impasse in Israel today.  One is that there is a deep, deep fear of internal conflict.  In the summer of 2000 during the Camp David negotiations, it happened that I had a day of reserve duty, and I had to take a bus through the West Bank.  And in front of a number of settlements, there were signs that said, “We won’t leave here alive.” Now, the [word] alive could be just seen as a word of emphasis like by your life, we won’t leave here.  But it also means we won’t leave here alive.  And there is a significant and justified fear on the part of the Israeli leadership that an attempt to evacuate settlements could lead to civil conflict, perhaps including firearms.  Civil war is terrifying.  It’s much scarier than external wars because it involves fighting members of your own society.  In some ways, the Israeli leadership is in fact afraid of its own extreme wing.  

Second of all, the aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 is perceived within Israel as we gave it back and they keep the town key.  I think this is a flawed analysis.  It leaves out the mistake of a unilateral withdrawal, which was intended on the part of the [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon government, at the time, to avoid negotiations with [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas’ government.  Ehud Olmert, who was then vice premier, said explicitly that he wanted to avoid an agreement along the lines of the unofficial Geneva Initiative in 2003.  But by leaving unilaterally, the effect within Palestinian politics was very much that it legitimized Hamas rather than Fateh.  The opinion polls immediately after the withdrawal in the West Bank and Gaza Strip showed that the majority of the Palestinian public perceived that Israel had left because of the armed action of Hamas rather than because of the diplomatic process.  This is certainly not the only factor but one significant factor behind Hamas’ success in winning a plurality in the 2006 legislative elections.  

Despite the fact that the analysis is flawed, I think that you have to understand what the narrative is on the Israeli side as a diplomatic fact.  That is to say what people believe is also part of the political constellation.  In the academic seminar room, you can explore all the reasons why the situation is more complicated than that.  In the political arena, the reigning narrative is one of the most significant political facts that it is important where borders are, where people are--it moves people.  And the reigning narrative within the Israeli political context is the breakdown of negotiations in 2000 [which] showed that there was no Palestinian partner.  And the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 showed that if you pull out, you will get rockets fired at you from there.  So, if we pull out of the West Bank, it means that there will be rockets fired from Bethlehem against Jerusalem and from other areas of the West Bank against Tel Aviv.  And I think that the prevailing political mood in Israel vis-a-vis the peace process could be summed up as “no we can’t” to put it in American terms.  In this respect, by the way, it shows the strange symbiotic Siamese/the conjoined twins phenomena of Israeli and Palestinian politics.  Nothing affects Israeli politics more than what’s going on in the Palestinian side.  Nothing affects Palestinian politics more than what’s going on in the Israeli side, whether either side is willing to admit that or not.  And so, I would say that as far as I can tell as an Israeli, one who spends a lot of time talking to Palestinians, if you want to sum up the Palestinian political mood at the moment vis-a-vis a peace process, it is in fact “no we can’t.”

How does this leave us in terms of the Israeli election? I am going to sum this up really quickly. The Likud’s position is basically to continue with things as they are--settlements without annexation.  [Israel’s Likud Chairman Benjamin] Netanyahu promised [Quartet Middle East Envoy] Tony Blair that there would be no new settlements.  This is a total irrelevancy.  The government has not officially established new settlements since the nineties.  The problem is the growth of the existing settlements.  The discussion of natural growth, which people like Netanyahu often use, is also a red herring because the growth of the settlements is in part due to government incentives, financial incentives. In fact those incentives, in my analysis, even affect the age at which people in the settler community marry and start having kids for the very simple reason that a young couple knows they can buy a house at a much lower price.  If you can buy a house in the settlement of Shiloh for the price of renting a studio in Jerusalem, a student couple is more likely to get married and start raising a family because it is affordable.  I know this sounds strange, but even in very ideological communities, economic factors have an effect.  I think they have a strong effect.  

The Labor side of the position--Labor has become more and more irrelevant I think because it has never done the historical accounting that settlements as such has been the problem and not settlements in this area or that area. The Oslo agreement was in some ways, on both sides of the divide, an attempt to put off difficult decisions until later. On the Israeli side, it was certainly an attempt to put off decisions about the settlements until later.  [Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister] Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party could be re-described, in my totally partisan way, as recovering rightists.   Ehud Olmert recognized in 2003 that the alternative to giving up Israeli rule over the Palestinian population was the one-state alternative, which he did not want to go there.  He warned that if Israel did not pull out of the West Bank, he said, “We are approaching a point where more and more Palestinians will say ‘There is no place for two states between the Jordan and the sea [and] all we want is the right to vote’ and that would lead to international pressure for the one-state arrangement.”  Nonetheless, Olmert proved to be a very weak leader, a poor negotiator and disappointment with his inability to fulfill any of his campaign promises--one reason that the right did so well in the recent elections.  

I would note that there are a lot of other reasons.   As corruption affected, for instance, the Palestinian elections, so it has affected the Israeli elections.  The final force and perhaps the most dangerous force in the recent elections, the one to which most attention needs to be paid, is Avigdor Lieberman, head of the “Israel is Our Home” party, Yisrael Beiteinu.  Lieberman is a classic European rightist.  His appeal is to members of Israeli society who themselves feel marginalized, and his response to them is to say you belong and we can prove that you belong because these other people, in this case Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, do not belong; they are the fifth column.  By looking at them as the fifth column, you can feel more that you belong yourself.  His particular appeal is to immigrants from the former Soviet Union and to other people who feel marginalized in Israeli society.  Again, I think that if you will look around Europe, this is a classic tactic of European radical right.  

The unfortunate result of the elections is two-fold.  One is that failures of the previous government pushed the electorate rightward whereas the center-left bloc had 70 out of 120 Knesset seats in the previous Knesset.  It now has 55; that is to say the right has 65.  So even though Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won the most seats, which traditionally would make it the party that was candidate to form the government, on the other hand, Netanyahu can claim that we have 65 of 120 seats in the Knesset and I will form the next government.  What is truly dangerous about the situation as of the last news stories I was able to read before coming here to speak--I would love to have it turnaround over the weekend--rather than Livni and Netanyahu joining forces in order to leave Lieberman out, they are bidding for his support.  As the king maker who can give his support to either party, he is allowing them to bid for his support, which is a dangerous situation.  I cannot make a prediction, but I think it’s most like that Netanyahu will end up forming the next government.  I can’t tell you what the shape of that government will be.  I can say that without significant change in the environment, the decision not to decide will continue and that will mean a further entanglement.  This is a very dangerous situation.   It means the longer things are “stalemated,” the worse they get.   

Time is working against both sides.  There is no such thing as somebody who believes that a peace agreement is a win-win situation and a lack of a peace agreement is a lose-lose situation.  Managing the conflict, keeping things as they are inevitably means letting things get worse.  The diplomatic alternative that is very often voiced in op-eds and in learned articles about the Middle East is that this is beyond solution so we should only manage the conflict; [this] is in my view a mistake.  In my view, it ignores the fact that on both sides, things continue to degenerate.  It is giving aspirin for cancer.  The alternative suggested at times of a one-state solution, I think, is an illusion.  In its most successful form, a one-state solution would look like Belgium where competing political interests of the two nationalities would prevent the formation of any stable government.  It would be more likely, given the bitter history of the past 60 years, to look like Bosnia in the early nineties. The two-state solution remains the best alternative.  It will not happen unless there is a change in the environment. A change in the environment, in my mind, would include the following essential steps.  

One would be a restoration of a single Palestinian government.  This is necessary not only on the Palestinian side, but the Israeli public is aware of the fact, obviously, of the Palestinian division.  Negotiating with Abbas looks like a game as long as he doesn’t represent all Palestinians.  What is the point of negotiating with Abbas when he cannot deliver Gaza?  So, a goal of any outside diplomatic initiative, most particularly an American initiative, must be restoring Palestinian unity.  The second change in the environment, which I’ve just implied is essential, is a dramatic reemergence of a United States involvement in the diplomatic process after eight years in which this was not the case.  When the U.S. is pressing a peace process, it brings political changes in the region.  In 1974 when the United States finally entered the negotiating process after the 1973 War, that is the point at which the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] decided to embrace a diplomatic alternative.  It suddenly became very important for the PLO to get a seat at the table, which it had not sought beforehand, because diplomacy was where things were happening.  In 1977 when [former U.S.] President [Jimmy] Carter got deeply involved in the peace process, his involvement is what pressed [late Egyptian] President [Anwar] Sadat of Egypt to make his historic trip to Jerusalem and thereby convinced Israel that it was worth taking the step of making peace and giving up the Sinai.  The 1991-1992 pressures of the first [former U.S. President George H.W.] Bush administration were a significant factor as far as I can see in the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 in Israel.   

Again and again, the involvement of the United States changes the dynamics in the region and changes people’s perceptions of whether peace is possible.  And those perceptions of the public are essential for allowing politicians to negotiate and make peace.  Finally, if I haven’t implied this strongly enough already, I will say it explicitly.  Any diplomatic process has to be accompanied not only by an end of violence but by an end of continuing settlement building.  I think both demands are essential.  You will not get Israeli trust in a diplomatic process unless violence stops, but you will not get Palestinian trust in a diplomatic process unless settlement building stops.  Therefore, any U.S. involvement has to take that as a starting line.  

Thank you very much for your attention.  

Gershom Gorenberg is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books).

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker's views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.

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