So it has begun. President Barack Obama travels to Israel—as well as Palestine and Jordan—this week and columnists, bloggers, and foreign policy wonks of all stripes have begun commenting on the visit. My friend Aaron Miller weighed in Sunday morning with a big article in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section about where the President can find common ground with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, though most of the piece was devoted to the relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The National’s Hugh Naylor quotes Yossi Bellin, who will forever be identified as an “architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords,” as stating boldly that President Obama should not bother making the trip unless he comes with proposals to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to an end. Overall, there have been at least sixteen articles and op-eds in the past few weeks dealing with the peace process and President Obama’s travels to the region. Most of them are in line with the low expectations that the White House has set ahead of the visit, suggesting that the meetings between the President and Israeli prime minister will deal almost exclusively with Syria and Iran. That may be the case, but there are some modest expectations bubbling up on the peace process.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is very little reason to believe that this is a propitious moment for resolving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. My critics have gently pushed back along three fronts: 1) They argued that a new Israeli coalition government that includes the centrist Yesh Atid party may very well be more flexible than its immediate predecessor; 2) peace processing is “better than doing nothing,” and 3) Mahmoud Abbas needs help otherwise Hamas will gain ground on the West Bank. All three arguments are specious, however. Yesh Atid’s leader, Yair Lapid, may be a centrist on domestic issues but his views on the peace process align pretty closely with those of Prime Minister Netanyahu. It also is true that the prime minister has repeatedly called for negotiations, but that is a political layup. Netanyahu accrues the political benefit of calling for talks knowing Abbas will not accept because the Israelis have made it clear they are unable/unwilling to meet the Palestinians’ minimum requirements for a deal. It is hard to take the “better than doing nothing” argument seriously because it is unclear to me how all the investment of American time and resources have made things much better. Throughout the 1990s, the United States tried mightily to bring the conflict to an end and still there are more settlers in the West Bank, the second intifada was far more violent than the first, and Gaza remains under Israeli lock and key while its rockets are ever more threatening to Israelis. As for the third reason, engaging in meaningless talks with Israelis at the Lansdowne Resort and Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia will only further weaken Abbas, given Hamas’s narrative that U.S.-sponsored negotiations are a ruse to deny Palestinians their legitimate rights.
If by chance these arguments are not convincing, just check out the front page of Sunday’s New York Times. Although the paper’s headline-writers indicate that the development of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem will “complicate” negotiations over the city’s disposition in any settlement with the Palestinians, the body of Jodi Rudoren’s piece makes it clear that this is a vast understatement. There is nothing to negotiate. No longer can one look at the city and say, as an old Israeli friend declared to me in the early 1990s, “It’s clear. One part of the city is ours and the other part is theirs. We should share it.” In the ensuing two decades, the Israelis have done everything possible to make the predominantly Arab parts of East Jerusalem little more than an enclave of Palestinian residents in a greater Israeli and Jewish municipality. Piece-by-piece the Israelis have filled in a jigsaw of new neighborhoods that ring the eastern part of the city. For anyone who doubts the power of “facts on the ground,” the following passage in the Times article struck me:
The vast majority [of Israeli Jews in East Jerusalem] are in large, established neighborhoods like French Hill, near Hebrew University, or Har Homa, at the city’s southern edge, and are not seen by most Israelis as settlers.
French Hill was founded in 1969 and can reasonably be called an “established neighborhood,” but Har Homa? The same Har Homa that was only built—to much controversy and crisis in the peace process—beginning in 1996? I’m not faulting Rudoren. The fact of the matter is that it was crucial for the Israeli government to build and populate Har Homa in order to make the division of Jerusalem impossible. Seventeen years later Har Homa is established in that it exists and about 13,000 people live there, but it is not “established” in the same sense that Rehavia, for example, is established.
I’m not denying the importance of Jerusalem to Jews and Israelis, though I have been taught that early Zionists regarded it as a backwater to the new Jewish state and “new Jewish man” they were building. Along with all my co-religionists, I will declare next Monday night, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And it may well be that the vast majority of world Jewry agrees with the idea that Jerusalem is the united, indivisible capital of the state of Israel. Yet at the same time, let’s not pretend that peace is possible as long as Jerusalem is off the negotiating table.
So to Yossi Bellin who demands a plan from President Obama and others who see possibilities for negotiations where others see none: what plan, what bridging proposal, what sets of understandings, principles for negotiation, or road map can possibly help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as the Palestinians require more than a token presence in Jerusalem and the Israelis remain intent on making sure that does not happen?