The Impossible Dream - It's Soon or Never

Date: 
July 31, 2013

The impossible dream of peace in the Holy Land -- the end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank; secure and recognized boundaries for Israel and Palestine; a just solution of the refugee problem; a shared Jerusalem with East Jerusalem for a Palestinian state; recognition and normal relations between Israel and the 53 member countries of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference; and an end of conflict and an end of claims  – seems less impossible today than it did only a short time ago. This week Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington for the first time in three years and have set a nine month timetable for an agreement.

I said here on June 7 that President Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank in March and the subsequent efforts of Secretary Kerry seemed to create a fundamental improvement in the outlook for direct talks and progress toward an agreement.

Since then, two other developments have helped cause a tectonic political shift. First was the realization of Israel’s increasing international isolation in response to its settlement expansion. This month the European Union published regulations that distinguish between trade, investment, cultural and other cooperation with Europe and Israeli entities located within the 1967 lines and with those Israeli entities located east of the 1967 lines, including East Jerusalem.  While the immediate economic impact of the regulations will be limited, the political message was strong. The European governments not only do not recognize settlements but are willing to sanction Israel for continuing to build them.

Second, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political rhetoric has changed.  While he said in 2009 for the first time under U.S. pressure that he supported the idea of a Palestinian state under certain circumstances, his continued support of settlement expansions suggested he had little interest in advancing the two state goal.  However, the Prime Minister has said recently that a bi-national state would be “disastrous” for Israel and that he believes peace talks are necessary to prevent that.

Skepticism

There remains great skepticism that after so many false starts that any agreement can be reached.   Palestinians fear that talks without an agreement will be used  to buy more time for Israeli expansion into the West Bank as it was in the 1990s during the Oslo “peace process” when the settler population doubled to 400,000 (it is now over 500,000) and no agreement was reached.  The failure of talks then led to the terrible violence of the second intifada. The same specter of violence exists should these talks fail again.

To overcome Palestinian distrust, Israel has agreed to a phased release of 104 “heavyweight” Palestinian prisoners who were jailed for capital crimes before the Oslo talks began more than 20 years ago.

For their part, Palestinians have apparently agreed not to use their political leverage against Israel as long as the talks continue – namely, a bid to sanction Israel in the UN system, especially in the International Criminal Court, and perhaps to bid for full UN membership.    

The question remains whether any real chance of an agreement exists after decades of failed peace efforts, including Oslo, Taba, the Wye River, the Arab League plan, the Roadmap and Annapolis. The status quo remains far less tolerable for Palestinians living under occupation than for the more prosperous and secure Israelis, but that balance seems to be changing.

Identity Issues

Most sensitive are the core unresolved “identity” issues: the right of return of refugees from 1948, 1967 and their descendants; Palestinian sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state; and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. On Tuesday, July 30, John Kerry stated, “The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation. And they are on the table with one simple goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.

Security Paramount Concern

Netanyahu also has said importantly that resuming talks with the Palestinians is in Israel’s “vital strategic interest”. This is strong language meant to hold off those in his party who support settlement expansion and even annexation of the West Bank to Israel.

One argument used against an agreement is that Israel cannot be secure living next to a Palestinian state.  Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and South Lebanon were met with rockets fired into Israel. Occasional rockets from Gaza continue to this day.  Israel’s international airport is visible from the 1967 lines and would be vulnerable to rocket attack. Israel also has argued that for security reasons its military forces must remain indefinitely in the Jordan Valley.

However, with U.S. and Israeli support there has been close security cooperation in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that has made huge gains in security.  A Palestinian state will need its own police and security forces to maintain law and order, but there is broad agreement that it would be otherwise demilitarized.  Military and security experts believe there are ways to ensure internal and border security that both parties can agree to. President Obama has said that there should be full withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the West Bank under an agreed timetable and has appointed a U.S. general to consult with the parties on security arrangements.     

Negotiating a Solution

To achieve a successful outcome on the negotiations it will be necessary for the U.S. to urge both sides to move outside their comfort zones.  As Kerry is not likely to be running again for public office, it will be easier for him to do than it was for Secretary Clinton.  In the same way it may be easier for President Obama to propose solutions in his second term than it was in his first.  

This time of ripeness for negotiations will not last long.  It should become increasingly evident in time that failure of the talks is not an option.  

As the talks continue, CMEP will provide you with opportunities to act and pray as well as timely analysis of new developments. To make sure you receive these updates you can edit your email subscriptions by clicking here. If you have friends at church, work, school, or in the neighborhood who you think would be interested in helping to support Middle East peace, you can tell them to sign up for our email network at go.cmep.org/networksignup.

As Christians we need to pray for success and do everything possible to help negotiations succeed, remembering that with God, all things are possible.