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So…are we at war?

This is a cross post from my blog at the Times of Israel

It feels like a bit of a silly question to be asking. I mean if we were at war surely we’d actually know about it. Surely there’d be bombs going off everywhere, tanks firing shells and infantryman shooting all over the place. None of that’s happening. So I suppose we’re not. Yet how bizarre a world we live in when the break down of a peace process is marked not by war but by, well, nothing.

Let’s face facts, this whole thing just isn’t working. Even the words we’re using aren’t descriptive of the situation. Terms such as “peace process”, “conflict”, “negotiations” simply don’t have any meaning when used to describe what it is that those old Israeli and Palestinian men and women are doing behind closed doors.

The editor David Horovitz titled his recent op-ed Why the peace talks are collapsing, part 94. But before even reading the piece he has enlightened us as to two strategic realities that are carved in stone. Number one; the peace talks aren’t working. Number two; we’re not going to stop having them.

The fact that both sides had to be practically dragged, kicking and screaming into these negotiations served as a pretty good hint to anyone watching that nothing was going to come of them. But there’s a greater truth here that is entirely being ignored; this isn’t a peace process any more. We simply haven’t come to terms with the fact that the strategic reality is so different from when the Oslo talks began that even to talk of two “sides” is to misrepresent the situation.

In the wake of the first Intifada two very clear sides sat opposite one another with two very clear objectives to be reached; an end to Palestinian terrorism and the creation of a Palestinian state to live next to Israel in peace and prosperity.

Fast forward to 2014 and it is clear that before peace talks had even started Palestinian terrorism has been brought down to nothing more than a trickle and without the need for Israel to make any sort of territorial concessions. The Palestinian Ace in these negotiations has been nothing more than the threat of going to the UN to form their state. There has never been the threat of violence hanging over the heads of Israelis.

With this in mind I can’t blame the Israeli side for being unsure as to what it is that they are looking to gain from these negotiations that Israel doesn’t have already. If there’s no reward to be had then why take any risks?

This is why this format of “peace negotiations” has failed and will keep failing. Indeed the PA has both failed even to maintain control of its own territory. Therefore it is aiding it’s supposed mortal enemy in hunting down threats from within (such as posed by Hamas) all the while swearing that Israel is negotiating in bad faith. What on earth are their objectives? Surely if it was as simple as a getting rid of the Israeli presence in the West Bank they would simply have uttered from the script handed to them by Netanyahu.

But then again, if they do that how are they to maintain any credibility with their own people in the camps? So hated is Israel by Palestinians that not having an agreement is preferable to telling Israelis that their state would be safe with a Palestine next door. But then if that is the case, why enter negotiations at all?

This is the condition which these two “sides” find themselves in when facing each other. Unsure of what their objectives are, aware only of the need to please the Americans and put on a show for the world. Each does all it can to force the other out of the room first.

This isn’t going to get us anywhere.

It seems to me that everything the Palestinians want from Israel is tangible. Prisoner releases, removal of checkpoints and settlements and ultimately an end to Israeli presence in a negotiated area. Conversely everything Israelis want are intangible things. Statements explicitly referring to the Jewish character of the state of Israel. An end to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees and ironclad guarantees that a withdrawal of the IDF and settlements from the West Bank won’t simply result in a repeat of Gaza. The specter of rockets falling on Israel’s heartland from a new Palestinian state is the nightmare not just of policy makers but all Israelis.

Hence the rather confusing picture painted by the fact that the large majority of Israelis are in favor of a withdrawal from the West Bank but also elected a right wing government to do their negotiating for them.

I can’t see how two sides are supposed to hammer out anything resembling a real and lasting cessation to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank when they are talking at such cross purposes. For instance it’s unclear how a Palestinian proclamation that the state of Israel is a Jewish state will help assuage the anger felt by Palestinians living in Balata and ensure that they won’t take up the gun at the earliest possible opportunity. It’s unclear how continued Israeli settlement building is likely to do anything other than convince that same Palestinian to pick one up.

Currently the IDF remains and settlements are growing. As is the threat of international isolation. To move forward in a meaningful way requires an Israeli team that believes a free state of Palestine will be a positive for Israel rather than a negative. It requires a Palestinian team with the courage to do what they know is best for their people, even if they know that they will be demonized and in danger for doing so. If this isn’t the case then the process will be theater from the start.

Israel needs to recognize the fact that the Palestinians have nothing to offer Israel save for statements and theoretical agreements as to what any future state might look like. When Netanyahu says things like:

Israel won’t release additional Palestinian prisoners without receiving something of value in return

He’s ignoring the fact that the Palestinians have nothing of value to hand Israel. This is the reason that mere statements from the Mahmoud Abbas have been elevated to the level of “value”.

Furthermore no one says that there is an indefinite amount of time with which to negotiate with the PA. As stated above there are refugee camps in the West Bank that the PA won’t enter, relying on security arrangements with Israel to ensure the IDF will go in instead. The shakier the PA is, the more likely they are to be deposed, either by Hamas or by popular uprising. This would make extremists on both sides happy but do nothing save ignite a return to armed conflict. A day may come when we will regret not closing this deal while we had the chance.

It is time to move away from this dynamic of American enforced “negotiations”. We need to step out of the negotiating room and create a new set of facts on the ground.

Right now the Israeli general public is skeptical that a Palestine would be something other than another Gaza and the Palestinians simply don’t believe the IDF will ever leave the West Bank. Let’s face it, the two are overwhelmingly correct as things stand regarding the ‘other’.

Each set of leaders needs to take measures to show the general public on the other side of the Green Line that they are serious about creating a more peaceful environment. To do so essentially involves making bold moves that would make it very clear to anyone watching that Israel has no designs on the West Bank. The beginning would be to make it absolutely clear that the IDF isn’t going anywhere until there’s a permanent resolution. On the other hand removing settlements established in areas that the Palestinians will need for a state would be a good start.

The Israeli argument; that the West Bank is necessary for security measures, doesn’t have anything to do with the inclusion of civilians in said areas. Their existence serves only to send the message that Israel has NO intention of leaving the West Bank. It’s the only possible message they can send. Similarly the removal of said settlements will send the opposite message. We need to be sending Palestinians one simple message “we are serious about this”.

For their part the PA needs to assert full control over their people and rather than aid IDF incursions needs to assert fuller control over their own people. If the PA can’t go into the refugee camps then Israel can’t be expected to rely on them to ensure security. With the right of return. Israelis can’t be expected to believe that a state of Palestine won’t simply be a launchpad for attacks on Israel if the PA are constantly claiming Israel is the usurper. They need to state meaningfully that once the deal is signed there will be no calls for more.

But more than any individual steps it is the mindset that needs to change. Simply playing out the specter of negotiations in order to keep the Americans happy just isn’t helping any of us. It’s not just that we need to get to an endgame it’s that we need to get back to wanting one. Whereas plane hijackings, bombings, hostage takings and bus bombings were once the norm for Israelis they are now rare tragedies. We need to recognize this fact and take advantage of it lest those days of the normalcy of terrorist massacres return.

But over and above strategic political and military reasons for ensuring an end to this conflict there is a moral one. It is simply unacceptable to maintain a military occupation over a people for an indefinite period of time. The fact that we are no longer suffering as a result of this is more reason to stop not less. We are the only Jewish state on the planet. We are obliged on a moral, ethical, human level to do all we can, whenever we can, to ensure that we are not occupiers.

Right now not only aren’t we doing enough to change this reality we are actively moving to prolong it.