Monday, May 14, 2018

Moving the Embassy Didn't Matter: the Palestinians Were Already Stuck

Now that the Trump Administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel and moved the US embassy there, many are asking what this will mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prospects for future peace. A lot of public discussion, however, tends to be driven not by an analysis of what is and what may happen, but by what people want. This is one of those conflicts where dispassionate analysis is hard to come by - so naturally, I thought I'd give it a shot.

Objective analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is difficult because both sides have very strong narratives rooted in justice and righteousness. That these narratives are largely incompatible is lost on no one, which goes a long way to explaining why there's been no resolution. Even outsiders tend to look at the conflict through the eyes of what they want to have happen, and make predictions that are really attempts to calculate how to get from wherever we are at the moment to that end.

This is particularly true for those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The case for injustice in Palestine is easy to make. Even former President Jimmy Carter, a man of wisdom who knows how to weigh his words carefully, has likened the separation of Palestinians from mainstream Israeli society and the control over their movements and territory, as akin to South African apartheid. The Palestinian population is stuck in a third- (or even fourth-) world existence, both politically and economically, from which there appears to be no escape. There's an easy justice narrative there.

Israel too has a narrative about justice and victimhood. Beyond the Holocaust, which was perhaps the worst targeted crime against a population in human history, and beyond the centuries of violent anti-semitism that preceded it, modern Israel is an island of less than 9 million inhabitants surrounded by a sea of hundreds of millions of Arabs, many of whom have expressed the desire to wipe Israel from the map. However powerful Israel has become - and it is indeed very powerful - it is difficult to fault modern Israelis for believing that the world is a threatening place, with hatred directed against them from all sides.

But if we want to understand the possible and impossible next steps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, none of this helps. For a conflict analyst, it is enough to know that the two sides have mutually incompatible, even mutually contradictory, narratives about themselves and the other. This much has been true since 1947, and it hasn't changed.

So what now? Is the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capitol city the end of the peace process? Or will this usher in a new era of opportunity? There answer can't (or shouldn't) depend on whether we like or don't like Donald Trump, or whether we prefer the Israeli or the Palestinian narrative, but on an analysis of the situation.

In any such analysis, it is important to note that neither "side" is a monolith. There are Israelis who are happy about the US embassy move, and those who are upset by it. There are even Israelis who would be perfectly happy to see all the Palestinians expelled from the whole territory, although they tend to be quiet about it. There are Palestinians who desire to "drive the Jews into the sea", and those who would be happy to live beside them in peace. So what we see at any one point in time reflects a rough majority opinion of each side. Feelings and goals can change, and if they do the analysis changes with it. But for now, things are what they are.

As of today, Israel has most of what it wants. It has complete control over its recognized sovereign territory, and (as of today) a slightly greater recognition of its claim to Jerusalem, which it already controls anyway. Since its withdrawal from direct occupation of the West Bank and Gaza back in the 1990s, it no longer has the immediate burden of trying to provide services or a functioning economy for most of the Palestinian population, nor the difficulty of policing it from within. Israel still faces security challenges from terrorism, from the Syrian civil war next door, and from Iran, but these are for the most part as managed as they can be, and the bigger issues (Syria and Iran) are independent of the Palestinian issue.

The status quo, in essence, is one that most Israelis are perfectly happy with. The moving of the US Embassy doesn't really change that, except perhaps in a minor symbolic way. Despite the emotional narratives and (for some) references to the Will of God, the primary interest for the median of Israeli society is peace and security.

There is a subset of Israelis who would like to change the status quo still further, by gradually assuming control over the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, in their parlance). The settler movement is actively engaged in this effort at what Palestinians might call slow-motion ethnic cleansing, encouraged (or at least enabled) by the current Israeli government. Again, the moving of the US embassy doesn't change this calculus much either, except perhaps as a further signal that the US will not actively oppose settler expansion. Then again, no American administration since George H.W. Bush has done much to dissuade this movement, so there again the Trump Administration hasn't changed very much.

On the Palestinian side, of course, no one is happy with the status quo. The economy is a shambles, there is little hope either individually or collectively that their prospects will improve, they are subject to a host of difficulties in being told where they can live, where they can travel to, and what jobs they can or can't have, and their political leaders are largely ineffectual, alternately violent and corrupt. Things have been bad for a very long time, and every year they get a little bit worse.

Here, the moving the US embassy is a small material change in that it signals that the two-state solution - with Jerusalem divided into two capitols side by side - is dead. More importantly, today's events send a signal that the power of the United States is firmly on the side of Israel, the locally dominant power in the conflict. But this is at best a marginal shift, because these things have largely been true for a while. It is arguable that, except for the symbolic location of the embassy, not much would have been different under a Hillary Clinton administration.

It can be argued that outcomes are a function of the intersection between interests and power. Israel holds nearly all the power in the current situation, while the Palestinians have essentially none. Palestinians have not yet discovered any means of leveraging their assets in a way that would exert significant power on the situation. In the 1980s they launched the Intifadah, and although they paid a heavy price for it they did force Israel to reconsider the situation. Since that time, and with a few echoes in the 1990s, Palestinians have been largely powerless.

Palestinians' hopes have always leaned on one of three possible sources of power. Either their Arab brethren in neighboring states would help them, or the United States would help them, or they would somehow find the means to alter the situation themselves. The first hope vanished in 1979 when Anwar Sadat abandoned any significant pretext of sponsoring the Palestinian cause. The second swelled briefly in the Bush 41 and Clinton Administrations, but hasn't been much since; Trump's announcement is the last of a line of nails in that coffin. The third has been slowly leaching away with time, and as Israel has gotten better and better at sealing the borders and preventing any significant weaponry from getting into the Palestinian territories.

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that the conflict is stuck. The party which has the greatest interest in changing the situation has no power to do so, and no prospect of acquiring any. The party that has power to change things has no interest in doing so. Barring a truly massive uprising that disrupts Israel's security calculations - and today's events demonstrate that they're willing to be pretty ruthless about meeting the threat of force with much greater force - this isn't going to change.

So it is not true that Trump's decision to move the embassy has killed the peace process. The peace process was already dead. And, although I don't like it and wish the world were otherwise, I don't see that changing anytime soon.

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