The Israeli leadership is not particularly excited about the upcoming Paris Mideast peace summit on Sunday, to say the least. The reactions range from apathy to resignation. Netanyahu did not need to think twice before uttering his strict refusal to take part in the summit, knowing it would be met with a shrug at worst, among the Israeli public and the country’s centrist-left political opposition alike.
But what does the nearly unanimous skepticism in Israel regarding the upcoming peace summit imply regarding the viability of the two-state solution to the country’s conflict with the Palestinians?
Approximately three years following the collapse of the 2013–14 Israeli–Palestinian peace talks under the auspices of US Secretary of State, John Kerry, diplomats from around 70 countries are expected to gather once more in Paris on Sunday for yet another summit, organized as part of a Mideast peace initiative, introduced by France. Amidst the increasingly vocal skepticism as per the viability of the Two-State solution in general, and the prospect of the initiative’s ability to achieve any positive outcomes in particular, the French initiative has set its objective rather modestly from the outset, stating that the summit is intended mainly to keep the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict afloat.
The French initiative includes the following items: borders based on the 1967 Lines, with agreed equivalent land swaps; security arrangements preserving the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state and guaranteeing the security of Israel; a fair, equitable and negotiated solution to the refugee problem; and lastly, an arrangement making Jerusalem the capital of both States.
Nevertheless, the Israeli government did not seem very impressed with the new international initiative. In a move that reaffirmed the skepticism surrounding the French initiative, but to some extent also its underlying premise, the Israeli prime minister’s office declined the invitation to participate in the summit, stressing that the Paris conference moves peace backward, and that Israel is not bound by any decisions that will be made at the conference. Netanyahu added: “It's a rigged conference, rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances”.
Netanyahu’s strict rejection of the French initiative could theoretically be met with harsh criticism from his political opposition in the conflict-ridden country that is Israel. Steering directly into yet another affront with the international community following the recent Security Council resolution debacle, could be seriously questioned by his political opponents in the country; for not using the opportunity to show the world that Israel is interested in peace, for missing the possibility to engage the international community in order to secure issues vital for the country’s future and much more.
However, the opposite is true and Netanyahu’s refusal to take part in the summit was not considered controversial: many Israelis seem to agree with Netanyahu’s decision not to attend the summit while the political opposition had chosen not to make this into an issue
The 1990s are gone for good
But what does the nearly unanimous skepticism in Israel regarding the upcoming peace summit imply concerning the Israelis’ willingness to advance the peace process in the framework of the two-state paradigm? Does it mean that Jerusalem is no longer interested in the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians?
Indeed, the Paris conference comes at a time when hope for progress in the peace process is at a deep low; an increasing number of peace activists, both internationally and in Israel itself, seem to have given up hope on the prospect of achieving a sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of two states for the two peoples. In Israel, the atmosphere of hopelessness had taken its toll especially on the once vibrant Israeli peace camp; this group, which comprised around half of the Israeli population during the early 1990s was broken up and became either apathetic, or wishful that the international community will do well where it had failed, and somehow manage to push forward the two-state framework onto the Israeli leadership.
Decoupling the two-states solution from the peace camp
But is the Two-States-Solution really fading away?
More often than not, people giving up on the two-state framework, do so due to at least two misguided assumptions:
- The majority of the Israelis are no longer interested in promoting a peace deal with the Palestinians that will rely on the partition of the land, as they consistently elect right-wing governments that increasingly speak out against the two-state solution
- The settlement project, which has been going on for decades, is too deeply rooted and stands in the way of the establishment of a viable Palestinian state
Let’s have a look at the first assumption, namely that the Israelis are no longer interested in pursuing the two-state framework. It is indeed true that the Israeli left is in shambles and that the country’s once flourishing peace camp has mostly withered away. It is also true that the most vocal politicians in the Israeli parliament repeatedly speak out against a peace deal with the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
However, it is misleading to equate the support for the two-state solution with the standing of the Israeli peace camp in the country. While it is true that the latter has been dealt a series of deadly blows from which it hasn’t managed yet to recover, the support for the two-state solution itself is a different story entirely.
Thus, within the highly fragmented Israeli society, the Two-States-Solution proves to be one of the most consistently consented and formidable political frameworks to have emerged over the past three decades. It is by no means a leftist issue, or a concern restricted only to the peace camp. The support for the two-state framework is particularly broad and stable precisely because it manages to attract large groups of supporters from across the political spectrum in the country and for a myriad of reasons. These range from a strict moral conviction on the leftist fringe, which objects the practice of the occupation as such, and all the way to right-wing voters that wish to avoid the absorption of a large amount of Palestinians into the state of Israel, whether due to economic and security-oriented implications of such a move, or due to the fact that they bluntly wish to have as few Palestinians in Israel as possible.
As a recent survey from December 2016 shows, despite almost 10 years of consecutive right-wing led governments, a series of violent escalations and failed international initiatives to broker a peace deal between the two sides, 61% of the Israeli public is still in favor of the two-state solution. Looking closer at the segmentation of those polled, it is possible to see that within the center-left camp, the support for the two-states framework ranges from 75% among the centrist Yesh Atid party voters to 92% among the Zionist Union voters. A further interesting piece of information, however, is that no less than 49% of the Likud voters are in favor of the partition of the land and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But what about the settlements? Is it not too late for the two states framework? Could it be that the settlement project is simply too deeply rooted to allow for the establishment of a Palestinian State along the 1967 border?
Demystifying the Settlement Project
A further myth that needs to be demystified is the widespread notion of the settlement project’s alleged irreversibility. The notion of the latter’s success has primarily to do with a successful PR campaign, which is the result of effective political work and the absence of any serious political force to challenge it.
Thus, in 2017, Palestinians enjoy the overwhelming demographic majority in 82% of the West Bank. 80% of the Israelis living beyond the 1967 border are concentrated in merely 4% of the territory and these territories are subject to be annexed to Israel within the Two-States-Framework as part of the land swaps scheme. It will therefore not be necessary to evacuate approximately half a million settlers.
Furthermore, the economic data makes clear that the settlement project is by no means capable of surviving by means of its own volition. The settlements receive massive subsidies from the government, and despite this support, the annual growth rate of the settlers has fallen from 10.4% to 4%. Finally, there is hardly any significant Israeli industry in the West Bank and most settlers have to go into Israel for work.
No political vessel to push forward the Two-States-Solution
So we see that the two-states-solution is far from dead. The Israeli public is generally supportive of it and the settlements do not constitute an absolute impasse.
So where’s the problem?
The persistent gap between the aforementioned support for the two states solution on the Israeli street level on the one hand, and the stagnation that fosters the unjustified sense that an impasse has been reached on the other hand, is largely due to the absence of an Israeli political platform that is both charismatic and credible enough to translate this support into an actionable political program.
How did we get to this point?
One of the reasons for the above mentioned failure lies in the fact the Israeli protagonists that have been vocal about the need to promote the two-states solution for the past years, have done so by concentrating their efforts on a campaign, which instead of focusing on the merits of the two-states solution in itself, fluctuated mainly between warnings of international isolation, and moralist claims that condemned the practice of the occupation as such.
While the moralist approach was merely ineffective, employing the international community as a ticking time-bomb set to detonate at an unclear point in the future, took a double hit on the Israeli lobby for the two-states and the possibility to cooperate with the international community on the matter: firstly, in that it based its reasoning for the promotion of the two-states solution mainly on the danger for the country’s international isolation, it effectively depleted the two-states of its intrinsic value for the country; and secondly, by depicting the international community involvement in the peace process as a potential threat to the Israeli state given the potential of sanctions, it paved the way for the country’s right-wing to depict the international community as meddlers, and the Israeli lobby for the two-states as its local minions.
A further reason lies in the Israeli right-wing’s rhetoric of security that successfully framed the way the common Israeli thinks about the settlements. Israeli politics is deeply rooted in the traumatic history of the Jewish people and following nearly seven decades of ongoing conflicts with neighboring countries, Israeli policies are intertwined with the country's security needs. Security is the main prism through which politics is viewed in the country, and also the fundamental perspective through which the public assesses a potential agreement with the Palestinians. The absence of the security argument in favor of the two-states-solution from the Israeli discourse played a decisive role in clearing the stage for the country's right wing to present the settlements as a security belt and the formation of a Palestinian state as an imminent security risk.
The Problem with Paris
The negative response by the Israeli government to the French peace initiative from its onset is part of, by now, a mainstream broader rejectionist trend towards international initiatives to advance the peace process. The rejectionist approach is a direct result of the aforementioned political campaign that managed to tag the international community as a biased broker tainted by foreign interests. The multilateral approach to the conflict and its internationalization are consequently widely viewed in Israel as a loss of sovereignty and succumbing to foreign interests regardless of the support for the idea of the two-states-solution itself.
Paris will fail to bring forward the two-state framework not so much because of the content of the French initiative, which doesn’t bring anything unfamiliar to the table, but rather due to the poor perception of the international community in Israel, and mainly due to the same reason that the popular support for the two-states within Israel is not leveraged towards a cohesive political program – There is currently no political platform inside the country that is able to effectively communicate the Israeli interest and the urgency of promoting the two-states framework.
The concept of the two states for the two peoples has proved to be one of the most formidable and consented political programs in the history of the state of Israel. However, in the absence of a significant political power in the country to effectively push forward the two-state framework, no peace negotiations or international peace summits could provide any fuel for the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. An international initiative cannot replace an endemic Israeli political party that will push forward towards the promotion of a sustainable political framework with the Palestinians. This is especially true at a time when the international community image is at an all-time low given its inability to operate in the face of the other, more pressing, atrocities raging in the Middle-East.