Analysis from Israel

Palestinians aren’t ready for a two-state solution. But meanwhile, both sides need to live

If there’s one person I wish world leaders would listen to in the new year that began last week, it’s an anonymous physician from Gaza identified only by his initial. “I wish Israel never existed, but as it does not seem to be going away, I would rather be working in Israel like I used to before the first Intifada, not fighting it,” F. told Mudar Zahran, a Palestinian-Jordanian living in Britain, earlier this month.

F. isn’t alone. In a poll of Palestinian attitudes conducted by the Washington Institute in June, shortly before the Gaza war began, over 80% of respondents said they “definitely” or “probably” wanted more Palestinians to be allowed to work in Israel, while a smaller but still decisive majority wanted Israeli companies to provide more jobs in the West Bank and Gaza. And in a rare moment of honesty this July, even senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk acknowledged his people’s hunger for work, saying he would prefer an Israeli reoccupation to Gaza’s current situation, because “occupation means providing electricity, water and jobs.”

None of this means the Palestinians have stopped hating Israel. Indeed, fully 60% of respondents forthrightly told that same Washington Institute poll that “the main Palestinian goal for the next five years” shouldn’t be a two-state solution, but “to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea” – aka eradicating Israel. And 64% said that even if a two-state agreement were signed, it wouldn’t end the conflict; instead, “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.”

Yet meanwhile, they want to live – or at least, most of them do. Though Palestinians overwhelmingly applaud the “martyrs” who die while trying to kill Israelis, most don’t want to die such a death themselves; they would prefer to earn decent livings for their families and not be killed in constant wars.

And this is where international leaders, diplomats and journalists make their big mistake: Starting from the correct premise that most Palestinians would like to lead normal lives, they erroneously conclude that Palestinians are ready for a two-state agreement, which would help them to do so. And they simply ignore what Palestinians keep telling them, in poll after poll, failed negotiation after failed negotiation: They don’t want normal lives at the price of giving up their dream of destroying Israel. They aren’t ready to abandon their hope of “reclaiming all of historic Palestine.” They aren’t ready to waive the “right of return,” aka their demand to eliminate the Jewish state demographically by settling millions of descendants of refugees in it. They aren’t ready to end the conflict. And even if a two-state solution were reached, they would see it as nothing but an interim step toward the goal of Israel’s ultimate destruction.

Compounding this error is the fact that diplomats and politicians naturally hunger for high-profile agreements that will win them newspaper headlines and perhaps even Nobel prizes; there’s little glory in simply managing a conflict in a way that makes life a bit better for all sides. So over and over, they push the parties into fruitless negotiations that inevitably collapse, and in the process (for reasons I explained here) frequently spark a new outbreak of violence.

Yet “managing the conflict” is precisely what most people on both sides actually want. Israelis would like peace, but most don’t consider it achievable right now. Palestinians would like to destroy Israel, but most don’t consider that achievable right now. So meanwhile, both would like to live as well as possible – i.e., with minimal violence and maximum opportunities to earn a decent living – until some change in the situation makes one or the other of their mutually incompatible goals achievable.

This, basically, is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated years ago when he spoke of “economic peace” with the Palestinians. Although he was derided worldwide for thinking economic improvement could replace a diplomatic agreement, Netanyahu never intended this as a substitute for ending the conflict. His goal was merely to improve life on both sides until such time as ending the conflict actually became possible.

Though Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation was sharply reduced by the wave of Palestinian terror that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords, it still exists in many fields, from Palestinian construction workers who build houses in Israel to Israeli high-tech firms that outsource programming to Palestinian companies. And expanding it again could benefit both sides: Israel could provide jobs, which Palestinians desperately need and want; Palestinians could fill Israeli labor shortages in fields like construction and agriculture; Israeli firms could outsource work to the territories; and so forth.

Yet expanded cooperation clearly isn’t possible while Palestinians are actively waging war on Israel, either militarily or diplomatically. And this is where Western leaders come in. For while Hamas’ military war may be beyond their control, they have actively abetted the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic war – by demanding Israeli concessions just for the privilege of holding talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, by threatening Israel with boycotts and imposed solutions; and above all, by financing Abbas’ war with the billions of dollars a year they give the PA.

Ostensibly, their goal is to encourage an Israeli-Palestinian deal by “bolstering” Abbas while pressuring Israel. But no such deal is achievable as long as Palestinians don’t want it. And meanwhile, by fanning the flames of Israeli-Palestinian animosity, these Western moves preclude the kind of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation that could improve lives right now.

So if the West truly wants to improve the Palestinians’ situation, the best thing it could do is promote Netanyahu’s derided “economic peace.” There would be no signed agreements, just informal arrangements: Western countries would use their financial leverage to make Abbas scale back his diplomatic war and would stop supporting this war themselves; in exchange, Israel would take significant steps to bolster the West Bank economy. Although Gaza would have to be excluded as long as Hamas remains in power, helping some Palestinians is surely better than helping none at all.

Granted, it wouldn’t win Western leaders any Nobel prizes. But many ordinary Palestinians like F. might thank them for it.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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