The pope, according to a no doubt apocryphal story, maintains that there are two possible solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict – the realistic and the miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous solution involves a voluntary agreement between the parties themselves. The American-sponsored peace talks that got under way in Washington last week may be viewed in this light. It will take nothing less than a miracle to produce a peaceful settlement of the century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land.
The obstacles to peace are formidable. All previous attempts to clear them have ended in failure, most notably the Camp David summit of July 2000. An American-sponsored peace process of some sort has been going on intermittently since the Madrid conference of 1991, the mother of all Middle East peace conferences. So direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, with or without American peace processors, are nothing new. In the words of one American, it is deja vu all over again.
The current negotiators will have to find solutions to all the deeply sensitive issues that lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the so-called permanent status issues. These include the right of return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and the borders of the Palestinian entity.
But there is an immediate stumbling block: settlements. A partial and temporary Israeli freeze on their expansion on the West Bank is due to expire at the end of the month and, if it is not renewed, the Palestinian negotiators have said they will walk out. And who can blame them? If Israel persists in its bad old Zionist ways of `creating facts on the ground`, the peace talks will become a charade. It would be like two men negotiating the division of a pizza with one of them continuing to swallow chunks of it.
The prospects for reaching a permanent status agreement are poor because the Israelis are too strong, the Palestinians are too weak, and the Americans mediators are utterly ineffectual. The sheer asymmetry of power between the two parties militates against a voluntary agreement. To get Israelis and Palestinians round a conference table and to tell them to hammer out an agreement is like putting a lion and a lamb in a cage and asking them to sort out their own differences.
Third party intervention is clearly indispensable. To put it more simply, there can be no settlement unless America pushes Israel into a settlement. Playing the honest broker will not do the trick. In the first place, most Arabs regard the United States as a dishonest broker on account of its palpable partisanship on behalf of Israel. Moreover, honest brokerage is not enough. In order to bridge the huge gap separating the two sides, America must first redress the balance of power by putting most of its weight on the side of the weaker party.
The negotiations in Washington will be face to face but they will also be back to back, with each leader constantly watching his domestic constituency. President Mahmoud Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, is the most moderate partner for peace Israel could hope for. But his domestic position is rather precarious. He is the leader of the mainstream party Fatah, a democratically elected president, and the head of the Palestinian Authority. But he faces a formidable rival in Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, and other splinter groups like Islamic Jihad.
Hamas won a free and fair election in January 2006; it moderated its rejectionist stand once in power, and formed a national unity government with Fatah in March 2007. In June of that same year, however, it seized power violently in Gaza to pre-empt a Fatah coup. Since then Gaza has become an open-air prison camp because of the brutal and illegal Israeli blockade.
Today the Palestinian camp is deeply divided between the West Bank, ruled by the Fatah-dominated PA, and the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. Hamas is vociferously and violently opposed to the peace talks with the Jewish state. It maintains that Abbas has no mandate to represent the Palestinians. Its military wing reinforced the message by killing four Jewish settlers in Hebron on the eve of the talks. Hamas`s capacity to play the spoiler should not be under-estimated. Even in the highly unlikely event of Abbas reaching a peace agreement with Israel, it is difficult to see how he would impose it on Palestinians in the teeth of such strong opposition.
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister and leader of the Likud party, enjoys a more solid power base at home but he, too, is subject to severe constraints on his freedom of action. His coalition partners are the Labour party, Yisrael Beitenu, and Shas. Together they command a comfortable majority of 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel`s parliament.
Confronted with painful choices over the future of the West Bank, however, the coalition is likely to fall apart. Likud used to regard Judea and Samaria, the Biblical names for the West Bank, as an integral part of the land of Israel. Yisrael Beitenu and Shas still do. Labour, with only 11 seats in the Knesset, carries little weight. This is the most rightwing, chauvinistic and racist government in Israel`s history. The ideological makeup of the government militates against a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu is not a dove who has fallen among hawks. On the contrary, he is a rightwing nationalist, a believer in Greater Israel and a proponent of the strategy of the iron wall, of dealing with the Palestinians from a position of unassailable military strength. He grew up in a nationalistic Jewish home. His father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who at 100 years old is still a force to be reckoned with, was the secretary of Ze`ev Jabotinsky, the spiritual father of the Israeli right. Netanyahu junior belongs to the hawkish wing of the Likud. He denounced the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO as incompatible either with Israel`s security or with the historic right of the Jewish people to the whole land of Israel. The policy guidelines of his first government, when the Likud came to power in 1996, amounted to a declaration of war on the peace process. Netanyahu spent his three years as prime minister in a largely successful attempt to destroy the foundations for peace with the Palestinians that his Labour predecessors had built.
To his second term as prime minister Netanyahu brings the same old ideological baggage and the same dogged determination to deny the Palestinian people the same right to national self-determination that Israel exercised back in 1948. His rhetoric has changed, but his policy can still be summed up in one ominous word: politicide – to deny the Palestinian people any independent political existence in Palestine. This world view identifies him not as a genuine partner to President Abbas on the road to peace but as the proponent of permanent conflict.
Yet the possibility of a change of heart cannot be entirely ruled out. Maybe Netanyahu will surprise us all by moving on from the relentless rejectionism of the past to become a peacemaker. And maybe the pope will start smoking pot.