Old Habits Die Hard

Menachem Klein

Old habits die hard. George W. Bush administration is almost 8 years old, an

 age that in human life expectancy may equal to 80 years. Facing the termination of his presidency G. W. Bush is hesitant to make serious changes in his Israeli – Palestinian strategy, although his previous achievements fall much shorter then his expectations.  The Road Map that the outgoing President initiated in 2003 is a process oriented document. It serves him as a tool to manage the Israeli – Palestinian confrontation and show the difference between him and his predecessor's policy of trying to resolve the 120 years old conflict. However, Hamas victory in 2006 parliamentary elections and its taking over Gaza Strip forcefully in 2007 proved the American and Israeli mismanagements. Annapolis meeting aimed to overcome these unexpected outcomes by inaugurating just another process. The joint statement of Annapolis fixed a time table of one year and issued list of subjects that the sides will negotiate over. However, Israel and the Palestinian Authority did not discuss any of those subjects in their first negotiation meeting, 12 December. The meeting ended when the Palestinian demanded Israel to reverse its recent decision to expend settlements in Jerusalem. The USA expressed its dissatisfaction with the Israeli decision, but its envoy General Jones declared that he will not function as an arbitrator. The January 2008 President's visit in Jerusalem and Ramallah brought the sides to resume their talks yet it's unclear how far they moved beyond agenda settings. Neither Israel nor the USA formed professional administration unites to support the talks and develop the know-how needed to move form conflict containment to conflict resolution.       

The Israeli – Palestinian peace process is over 16 years old and still keeps most of its structural characteristics. Oslo agreements were interim agreements that did not mature to achieve their peace end. Although the second Intifada terminated Oslo agreements their structure remain in force. Documents such as Mitchell and Tenet report of 2000 or the Road Map introduced longer process with more interim steps then Oslo accords subscribed. Lacking a clear end goal the process leaves the impression that it is a process for the sake of process. With all its deficiencies in preparation and management, Camp David summit of 2000 stands as exceptional attempt, almost heroic, to swim against the stream and reach a final status agreement. The policy of integrating the Road Map into Annapolis process and the Israeli will to negotiate with Abbas on the establishment of a Palestinian state with provisional borders may add new processes on the top of old ones.

Israeli policy of expending borders beyond its 1949 lines is over 40 years old. It began in June 1967 with the annexation of East Jerusalem and continues till these days. The Intifadas of 1987 and 2000 forced Israel to withdraw from populated Palestinian areas but the old strategy of redrawing borders and reconstructing the Palestinian environment is still implemented in the rest of the West Bank. In mid-December Ha'aretz published on Israeli plans to build five new settlements in the outskirts of Jerusalem.   Moreover, in Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem Israel continue to mange an experiment in national engineering. The almost total closer of Gaza Strip was aimed to bring the Palestinians who live there to revolt against their Hamas government [Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post 9 July 2007 page A 15 in http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/08/AR2007070800924.html?sub=AR], an act that they did not take nor show any sign that they consider to take. Hamas operation of blowing up part of the border wall with Egypt gave Gaza Strip the oxygen it needed and changed the power balance between all players. The ineffectiveness of the closure and the Egyptian interests were ignored by Israel. Hence Hamas operation came as a strategic surprise for Israel.  While in Gaza Strip Israel tried to manipulate a regime change, in East Jerusalem it tries to contain the Palestinians, divide and control. Israel wants to them to remain passive, not to revolt. Israel builds a Wall to disconnect the city from its natural hinterland, builds big settlements in empty lands around the Arab parts of the city and spreads enclaves of settlers inside Palestinian neighborhoods in order to prevent Palestinian integration and keep them passive.

In the West Bank business is as usual as well. The donor countries conference of 18 December decided to allocate in the next three years 7.48 billion dollars to the Palestinian Government of the West Bank. The political goal of strengthening Abbas government is clear, but without letting off Israeli occupation this huge sum will go to a barrel without bottom. An absurd division of labor takes place there since the 2000 Intifada. The Israeli army acts, the Palestinians react [or the other way around] and the donor countries write checks [Scott Lasensky, "Chequebook Diplomacy: the US, the Oslo process and the role of Foreign Aid, in Michael Keating, Ann Le More and Robert Lowe, eds. Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground – the Case of Palestine, London: the Chatham House 2005, pp. 41-58]. According to the World Bank report prepared for Paris conference [in http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWESTBANKGAZA/Resources/294264-1166525851073/ParisconferencepaperDec17.pdf]

"In addition to PA reforms, the defining factors for the West Bank and Gaza economy remain settlement growth, and movement and access restrictions related to Israeli security concerns, which have fragmented the economy into disconnected cantons. In the West Bank, the number of checkpoints increased from 376 in August 2005 to 541 in July 2007. There are currently 149 settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and roughly 100 “illegal outposts” that lack Israeli government approval. The Settlement population has risen to approximately 450,000, 63% more than during the Oslo Accord period in 1993. Some 38% of the West Bank has been confiscated for current or future settlements, outposts, closed military areas, municipal boundaries, and settlement regional jurisdiction. Palestinians without special permits are restricted from important agricultural areas in the Jordan valley, and producers are cutoff from the East Jerusalem market." [p.9]

"Successfully reaching the donor countries goals will lead to modest growth, averaging 5% per year, which– given current demographics and distribution of income- will barely affect poverty levels of the West Bank… Achieving 5% growth rates will depend critically on the commitment of the international community to fill the total fiscal gap over the next three years, as well as on the revival in the private sector as a result of concrete steps by Israel on settlement growth, and movement and access restrictions. Even with full funding but no relaxation in the closure regime, growth will be slightly negative, at around -2% per year". [p.4]

Israel's legitimate security concerns are more then a goal that Israel achieves by defense operations. Security is an infrastructure that overrides many Israeli methods, peacemaking included. The defense establishment has always taken a lead over the foreign ministry in formulating Israeli foreign policy. Israel tends to solve diplomatic problems by military means, and prefers the political defeat of a rival to compromise. Military officers held key political and negotiating positions in politics and in the negotiating teams, and also imposed styles and patterns of thinking. The military accepts the formal superiority of the political leadership. But when the politicians go beyond what the military sees as its red line, the army applies pressure to the political leadership through directing the public discourse to its side. An aggressive military culture has created a subculture of groupthink that views the country’s foreign relations through rifle sights, and uses worst-case scenarios as the basis for diplomacy. The Arabs, and most of all the Palestinians, are permanently suspects, and no third-party guarantees should be fully trusted. Israel must secure itself against every threat and may not take any significant risks. It must play tough in negotiations, and give preference to short-term goals over long-term ones. Israel’s diplomats use ideas and proposals the way its army uses exploratory fire—to probe, expose, and exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. It uses divide-and-rule tactics to dominate the opposing negotiating team. Palestinian weakness is an opportunity to be exploited, and a fact to be perpetuated in the agreement. On the other hand, each Israeli concession is perceived as a sign of weakness and capitulation, rather than as a consensus-building act and a means of creating mutual gain. It is the Israelis who table proposals first, thus setting the agenda. Their red lines, and the low price they are ready to pay, become the starting points. The asymmetric relations of the Oslo period were thus reproduced in Camp David 2000, instead of being replaced by an exchange between equals and joint decision making. Israel’s attitude put the Palestinians on the defensive, so at Camp David they adopted a strategy of survival in the face of Israel and the U.S., and in the face of their own public opinion at home [Tamara Cofman Wittes, ed. How Israelis and Palestinians Negotiate: A Cross Cultural Analysis of the Oslo Peace Process, Washington D.C.: US Institute of Peace Press 2005].

While Israel wishes to achieve security by gaining maximum control and dominance, the Palestinians want to build their independent state through a rights-based discourse. Despite their lack of a state establishment and improper political function, the Palestinian expectations are high. The PLO hoped to bridge the gap between its high expectations and its limited ability via the international legitimacy of United Nations decisions, and through international mediation that would achieve the best possible agreement for the Palestinians. Basing negotiations and discourse on their rights and international legitimacy, the Palestinians hoped to create equality with the stronger Israeli side. The Palestinians base their position on the international legitimacy of UN Security Council Resolution 242, along with their consent to a solution involving a Palestinian state in the 1967 territories, comprising only some 23 percent of the area of Mandatory Palestine. Unlike Israel, the Palestinian leadership sought to begin the talks from these principles, and not from the details. This point was important substantively, but all the more so in light of the structural constraints of Palestinian working procedures. The PLO’s room for maneuver on final status issues is limited as is its ability to put negotiation pressure on Israel. Therefore the Palestinians create frequent crises and often threaten to walk out of talks. Each issue becomes a matter of principle, with symbolic, and not just practical, importance. When it negotiates with Israel, the Palestinian side is extremely sensitive to any formulation that infringed on its sovereignty or that implied that the permanent status agreement might perpetuate aspects of occupation [ibid].

Indeed the old habits mentioned above die hard, but there is a need to ease their way out.  One year that Annapolis declaration scheduled for achieving peace treaty between Israel and Palestine is too short time for an overall change. However it can be the appropriate time frame for concluding the framework of the comprehensive peace treaty. In order to succeed and avoid repeating the Oslo mistakes its worth considering to take the following steps. The Israeli leader will agree to base the final status agreement on 1967 lines and a land swap of 1:1 for those few settlements that will be annexed to Israel; will accept Palestinian sovereignty on all Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. Simultaneously the Palestinian leader will agree not to exercise the return of 1948 refugees to Israel, at least not with great numbers. Each leader must agree to make these concessions before the opening the talks. If any of them is unable to do it its better not to have talks at all and prevent adding more disappointment and frustration to previous ones. In order to help the leaders to take these decisions each will commit at the eve of the discussion he concludes is subjected to referendum of elections. The two peoples' vote is need in order to institutionalize the debate, reduce the power of opposition group, as well as to empower the current weak leaders. Once the principal agreement is ratified and the leaders delegated to move ahead the two sides will manage their negotiation in two tracks simultaneously. One track has to look forward and conclude the comprehensive peace treaty, while the second track has to look back and see how the sides can reach get there from their current engagement.  

Due to the asymmetry between the sides, these decisions are harder to Israel to take then to the Palestinians. Empires neither envision their dissolvent nor are ready to reallocate authority and territory to their inferior subject. "I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire" declared Winston Churchill in 1942 in an unexceptional declaration [Hendrik Spruyt, Ending Empire – Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005, p.1]. However the alternative to an Israeli - Palestinian peace agreement is not a manageable low intensive conflict that the Israeli superior side can bear and contain by dividing the Palestinians into five sections with different legal status and accessibility to each other: those in Gaza Strip, West Bank Palestinians, those in East Jerusalem, the Israeli Palestinians and the Diaspora Palestinians. Developing this system and tightening it under the pressure of armed clashes and demographic changes will lead Israel to create an ethno-military regime on Mandatory Palestine [i.e. between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean] of Jewish – Israeli minority over the Palestinian majority. The conflict will move from a conflict between a regional empire and a national liberation movement to a kind of civil - domestic war between the Palestinian majority and the Israeli –Jewish ruling minority. In such case Israel will be unable to claim neither democracy nor practicing Jewish values.


Dr. Menachem Klein is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. His book A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine - an Insiders’ Account of the Geneva Initiative, was recently published by Columbia University Press.