Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Problem With Boundaries

There is something deeply unsatisfying about the reported deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Rodham Clinton: 90 days to stop building in the West Bank in return for F-35s and various diplomatic guarantees. Presumably, the Obama administration (to paraphrase Churchill) has had to choose between humiliation and the aura of diplomatic failure. It has chosen humiliation now, and will get diplomatic failure later.

But then why is Netanyahu's cabinet in an uproar?

Because what this deal actually does is provide the various parties to the negotiation an opportunity to delineate a border. As New York Times correspondent Mark Langer writes, burying his lead:

The logic behind a 90-day extension is that the two sides would aim for a swift agreement on the borders of a Palestinian state. That would make the long dispute over settlements irrelevant since it would be clear which housing blocks fell into Israel and which fell into a Palestinian state.

As with healthcare, the administration is taking a path that is not easy to watch, but may be the most practical. I have argued here before that the US government must have, and eventually convey to the parties, a view regarding the elements of a final status agreement: more Dr. Kissinger, less Dr. Phil. But the occasion for putting a thumb on the scales should be a negotiation over the border, not a dispute over continued settlements, which has been clouded by past negotiations over the border. Various talks between Israelis and PA officials, from the Geneva group, to the Olmert meetings, portended land swaps. These first efforts to draw lines, all of which assumed the Eztzion bloc would be part of Israel, say, cannot simply be erased from everyone's consciousness.

THE ANALOGY TO healthcare may be pushed further. The administration has been criticized for allowing Senate committees to debate the shape of the healthcare bill before committing itself to a final plan. The process was ugly; and the administration sweetened the outcome for resistant blue-dogs along the way. In the end, however, it got senators who had skin in the game, and it used their disagreements to define the "solution space" in which to intervene. And once (as Jonathan Cohn has shown) Obama saw the shape of the bill he could get, he still had to choose: let it go, for political reasons, or campaign for it, for historical ones. Had he not chosen the latter course, we would not have had a health reform bill at all.

Something like this moment is now in the offing in the Middle East. What the administration has done is allow Netanyahu the equivalent of (forgive me) pork to bring the Israeli state, so that the most critical issue defining a Palestinian state can be brought into relief. Israeli ministers most vociferously opposed to any state are justifiably in a panic (a "honey-trap" says Moshe Yaalon). Like Republicans who had hoped to kill any reform in committee, they are not so much convinced that they have lost the game as understand that now they are in one.

This is not to say the actual placement of a border is going to prove all that important in the long run: Israel and Palestine will be two interlocking city-states in any event. Still, it is crucial to have one somewhere, so that each city-state will know where its zoning rights begin and end. Anyway, the debate over the definition of a border will immediately occasion a triangular split in the Israeli government right between Land of Israel fanatics, for whom no settlement is a bridge too far, Orthodox fixers, and mere reactionaries, for whom Jerusalem is the main chance and security guarantees actually matter, and globalists, who fear most of all international isolation if the PA collapses and relations with Washington get freighted.

So the Netanyahu-Clinton agreement, should it be accepted by all sides, will not save Obama from choosing. Ensuing negotiations, over the next couple of months, will almost certainly not produce an agreement. But they will define the solution space Obama will have to move into and the line he will have to publicly fight for.  It will tee-up perhaps the most important foreign policy test of his presidency, and set up the right moment to visit Jerusalem. As with President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis--who had previously been thought weak, but proved how shows of strength require a sense of timing--it may be Obama's best chance to reignite the global hopes invested in him.


Y. Ben-David said...

Dan Meridor, one of the 'pro-peace' members of the cabinet pointed out that by first talking about borders, the Israeli gov't would be putting itself in an impossible position, because they are making all the concessions without the Palestinians making any committments whatsover for peace. In other words, the gov't is sticking its neck out by giving up valuable assets like the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (as Olmert already offered) without knowing what Israel is getting in return (i.e. primarily Palestinian agreement to forgoe the "right of return" of the refugees). It will never work.
In any event, the Palestinians are not interested in an "independent Palestinian state living in peace and prosperity, side-by-side with Israel" because any Palestinian leader who agreed to such a thing would be branded as a traitor for all time. Their view of their interests is not the same as that of the "progressives", as strange as that may seem to the "progressives" who devoutly believe that everybody in the world is just like them.

Mario said...

What I find most unreal about the peace process at this point is that, regardless the final borders, all Israeli governments will continue to insist on control of the West Bank's border with Jordan, which is to say, on control of all the West Bank's borders. I would like to ask Prof. Avishai whether he thinks this will not produce the same sense of humiliating imprisonment (and sense of continued occupation) in the West Bank that the withdrawal from Gaza produced.
For me, the consequences of the Gaza withdrawal proved (and continue to prove) that it would be suicidal for Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank before the West Bank has established a rule of law and a government capable of exercising true, full sovereignty in a state of peace with Israel. A halfway house to sovereignty consisting of "autonomy" within borders controlled by Israel seems a recipe for war. Am I missing something?

Bernard Avishai said...

Mario, plausibly, control will entail international (i.e., American forces), Jordanians, etc. Israel and Palestine will both have an interest in keeping the border tight, given the anti-aircraft and other missile technology that, in the hands of terrorists, could destroy any peace. As for "imprisonment," I don't think you are giving enough credit to Palestinian entrepreneurs, who show every capability of globalizing the place.

Y. Ben-David said...

I certainly don't place much faith in "Palestinian entrepeneurs". Businessmen don't run countries. National leaders have other interests besides maximizing profits for their businessmen. Remember, even in the US the opposition to the idea that was popular in the time of Calvin Coolidge that said "the business of America is business". Was Germany launching two world wars in the "business interest" of the countries? Did Saddam Hussein's invasions of Iran and Kuwait serve business interests? Does Egypt's and Syria's stagnant economies indicate the power of the "entrepeneurial elites" in those countries. Have the "entrepeneurial elites" of the Middle East succeeding in "globalizing" the economies there?
The Palestinians , by and large, hate, fear and are jealous of Israel. Should an independent Palestinian state arise, its government would stake out a policy of economic separation from Israel to assuage nationalist feelings. Your "globalized" Israel-Palestine entity could never arise. The Palestinians and other fear and loath Israeli economic power and do NOT want to be dominated by Israel, which is what would happen in the integrated entity that Avishai is promoting.

Vox Populi said...

I just don't see how the Israeli can possibly agree on borders with the Palestinians within 3 months. To do borders, you have to solve Jerusalem and its surroundings. There's no way that Jerusalem can be solved without discussing compromise on other issues. There are too many dependent pieces to focus on just one area in isolation.

potter said...

Y. Ben David,

Every example you give is an authoritarian dictatorship.

We can see that Palestinians have elections and want a say in who governs them and how they are governed.

According to your reasoning, assuming that Palestinians hate, fear and are jealous of Israel- surely they will want to prove that they can do as well. It would be insane to turn to aggression towards Israel after lessons learned ( and felt) all these years and after achieving international recognition. So however Palestine organizes itself- in cooperation with Israel or in competition- the people will be involved in the Palestine project, moving towards prosperity and normal life which means getting the state to work economically. That would be a big plus for Israel's security.

Y. Ben-David said...

Yes, I saw how "impressed" you are by the Palestians. Why, I can't imagine. Their regimes are just as dictatorial as the ones I said. Just because "progressives" have fallen in love with them doesn't make them truly liberal. "Progressives" like Bernie used to say how "democratic" Stalin's USSR was, also Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, the Sandanista regime in Nicaragua, etc. The FATAH and HAMAS regimes are basically the same. They certainly aren't interested in living in peace with Israel (after all, they say this openly, regardless of what some entrepeneurial acquaintances of Avishai may say). Their propagandists can be happy that you and Avishai fell into their trap.

Potter said...

Yes, I saw how "impressed" you are by the Palestians. Why, I can't imagine.

No need to put quotes around "impressed". You can't imagine because you have perhaps not availed yourself of the evidence presented or don't want to- or have not taken note of how they are less violent, more organized and dealing smartly using international pressure. These days Palestinians in the media make a lot more sense to me than Israeli's in the so called "pro-Israel" camp whose dogs don't hunt so well. Wiser Palestinians will stick with international law, the way to go. And they will win out one way or another. And thank goodness, the sooner the better as well because that will ( or might) save Israel. I count myself as pro-Israel- meaning I want to see Israel survive as a liberal democracy. Funny you should talk about truly liberal when Israel shows depressing signs about it's own ability to claim that, with it's right side having such trouble countenancing opposing views about survival and indeed what is moral.

Anonymous said...

The current "negotiations" have very little chance of producing anything substantive. Netanyahu has been given every incentive to waffle and stonewall and continue enjoying both gold-plated carte blanche from the Obama Admin., and the grudging support of the settler-fanatics in Israel (and little incentive to take risks for a peace deal). But, if we start to finally see some consistent clearheaded common sense being articulated in the U.S. on these issues, i.e. along the lines of Bernard's remarks here, that will nonetheless constitute progress.


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