When Secretary of State John Kerry revisits Israel and the West Bank this week, he’s unlikely to talk about what really needs discussing: What will Israel and the Palestinians do once the two-state solution dies?
No one wants to discuss such a grim prospect, let alone admit that the peace process is over. Such an admission would have earthshaking repercussions not only for the Palestinians and Israelis, but for Washington and the entire Mideast. So the pretense continues that peace talks can be revived.
President Barack Obama, on his recent trip to Jerusalem, spoke movingly of why a two-state solution was essential. “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River,” he said, “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
He meant that keeping the West Bank, all of East Jerusalem, and effective control of Gaza guarantees that Israeli Jews will soon be outnumbered by Palestinian Arabs in Greater Israel, a point made by many former Israeli leaders. Kerry also warned, during January confirmation hearings, that it will be “disastrous” if the door to a two-state solution shuts.
Yet, despite claims by all sides that the door is open, barely, it is closing fast.
In part, that’s because of the situation in the region. The rise of Islamist parties and the instability throughout the Mideast make Israelis rightly nervous about a new Arab state on their border, even one that is demilitarized. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far more focused on Iran’s nuclear program than on the Palestinian issue.
The prospects for talks are also undercut by the weakness of the Palestinian leadership, and its split between the West Bank’s President Mahmoud Abbas, a possible dealmaker, and Gaza’s radical Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel.
Yet despite these obstacles – and they are huge – I believe the door to talks might have been kept open, permitting some progress while waiting to see if the dust settles in the region.
That wait-and-see option is vanishing, however, for this reason: Israeli settlements on the West Bank are expanding to the point where they will rule out a viable Palestinian state.
One of the most influential ministers in Netanyahu’s Cabinet is Naftali Bennett, whose Habayit Hayehudi party opposes a Palestinian state and seeks to annex much of the West Bank. Netanyahu has given Bennett’s party control of the key posts that control settlement-building and confiscation of Palestinian land. He wants to build even faster.
During his first term, Obama tried, and failed, to persuade Netanyahu to impose a genuine freeze on settlement-building, in order to keep the playing field level during negotiations. On his recent trip, the president backpedaled. He adopted the Israeli argument that the settlement problem will be solved once the two sides agree on boundaries for a Palestinian state, because settlements beyond those boundaries will be dismantled.
Anyone who buys that argument is in denial about what’s already happening on the West Bank. The settlements themselves are defining any future boundaries of Palestinian self-rule. They crisscross the West Bank, and cut it off from Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. They divide Palestinian-controlled areas into disconnected cantons, ruling out a viable state.
Previous peace talks assumed that Israel would annex some large settlement clusters near the pre-1967 border with the West Bank, and remove the rest.
The Palestinians would get land swaps in exchange. That formula, too, is outdated.
Netanyahu rejects any reference to 1967 borders. Meantime, expanding settlements are pushing ever deeper into the West Bank and taking on the appearance of cities, making it almost impossible to imagine their removal.
One can only conclude that these settlements are being built in order to solidify Israel’s future control over most or all of the West Bank. After all, why build at this pace, in these places, if you think the settlements will one day be torn down?
Of course, it’s understandable why Israelis are leery about Palestinian statehood. It’s unclear whether the Palestinians and Arab states would ever provide the security guarantees required for Israel to acquiesce.
If, however, Netanyahu has ruled out serious talks on a viable, sovereign Palestinian state – and the facts on the ground say he has – then it’s necessary for him, and Obama, to prepare for the consequences.
Consider these hard truths: At present, Palestinian security forces help keep the West Bank calm, but that calm is beginning to fray. At present, the European Union and international lenders keep the moribund West Bank economy afloat, but these donors are getting restless.
If Palestinian prospects are narrowed to self-rule over disconnected cantons, those Palestinian security forces will soon quit, lest they be called traitors. European money may stop flowing.
The Palestinian Authority may resign, forcing Israel to retake administration of the West Bank.
If the occupation continues, Israel will become more isolated internationally, accused of apartheid.
No one wants to talk about the Day After the peace process dies. But it’s no use pretending that negotiations can be revived without focusing on the hard stuff: a settlement freeze; borders based on 1967 lines, with mutually agreed land swaps; and full Arab recognition and security guarantees for Israel.
If that’s not what Netanyahu wants to discuss with Kerry, they’d better start talking about the West Bank violence to come.
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