Analysis from Israel

As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”

In other words, if Netanyahu is intransigent, it’s Netanyahu’s fault. And if Abbas is intransigent, it’s also Netanyahu’s fault. Under this administration’s definition of “honest brokerage,” only one side is ever to blame; the Palestinians have no agency of their own.

But it gets even worse–because it turns out Netanyahu wasn’t intransigent. As interviewer Nahum Barnea noted, even chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni–whom the American official termed a “heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement”–says Netanyahu “showed flexibility.” The American pooh-poohed this, insisting Netanyahu hadn’t moved “more than an inch.” Yet addressing the Washington Institute the following week, Indyk admitted that Netanyahu actually evinced dramatic flexibility and was in “the zone of a possible agreement” when he met Obama in early March.

So the bottom line is that Abbas rejected every proposal Kerry and Obama offered, while Netanyahu was in “the zone of a possible agreement.” Yet the administration nevertheless blames the breakdown on Netanyahu. In short, no matter what happens, the Palestinians will never be blamed.

The reasons for this are numerous. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, it helps deflect blame from the administration’s own mistake of wasting so much time and diplomatic energy on a dead end. Additionally, as Michael Doran perceptively argued this week, keeping Netanyahu on the defensive over the Palestinian issue undermines his ability to pressure the administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can anti-Israel animus be ruled out, given the American official’s shocking claim, when Barnea drew a comparison to China’s occupation of Tibet, that “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution”–the clear implication being that unlike other countries, Israel’s right to exist is revocable.

The most important reason, however, is simply that if the main barrier to peace is the settlements, then the problem is easily solvable and peace is achievable. But if the main barrier is Palestinian unwillingness to end their war on Israel, the problem is unsolvable and peace is unachievable. And to most of the world, blaming Israel unjustly is infinitely preferable to acknowledging that unpleasant truth.

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Why the status quo is the least bad option for Palestinians

Even among people who recognize that Israeli-Palestinian peace is currently impossible, a growing number think that Israel must nevertheless quit the West Bank. Israel has a right to defend itself, their argument goes, but not by controlling another people for decades. Instead, it should withdraw to the “internationally recognized border” and protect itself from there, like other countries do.

Forget for a moment that the “internationally recognized border” is an arrant fiction. Forget as well that Israel remains in the West Bank precisely because defending itself from the 1949 armistice lines (the abovementioned fictional border) hasn’t worked very well in either the West Bank—from which Israel partially withdrew in the 1990s before returning the following decade—or the Gaza Strip.

That still leaves another uncomfortable fact: As long as genuine peace remains impossible, Israeli control of the West Bank, despite the undeniable hardships it causes Palestinians, remains the least bad alternative for the Palestinians themselves. As evidence, just compare the Israeli-controlled West Bank to Gaza, which has been free of both settlers and soldiers since August 2005. By almost any parameter, life in the former is far better.

Take, for instance, casualties. According to B’Tselem’s statistics, Israeli security forces killed 5,706 Palestinians in Gaza from September 2005 through August 2019. That’s almost eight times the 756 killed by Israeli security personnel and settlers combined in the West Bank during this period (no Gazans were killed by settlers since there are no settlers there).

Nor is this surprising. Israel’s control of the West Bank means that suspected terrorists can often be arrested rather than killed, though shootouts (with attendant collateral damage) do occur. But in Gaza, where Israel has no troops, it can’t arrest terrorists. Thus the only way to fight terror is through military action, which naturally produces many more casualties among both combatants and civilians.

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