Israel Gets More Comfortable with Status Quo

By Tony Karon Monday, Feb. 15, 2010

“If, and as long as between the Jordan (River) and the [Mediterranean] Sea there is only one political entity, named Israel, it will end up being either non-Jewish or nondemocratic,” warned Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week. “If the Palestinians vote in elections it is a binational state, and if they don’t vote it is an apartheid state.”

Former President Jimmy Carter suffered a verbal pummeling three years ago for comparing the standoff between Israel and the Palestinians to apartheid – the South African system that meant not only segregation, but a denial of citizenship to a whole category of people. And so it was ironic that a key Israeli leader warned his people that the status quo on the territories conquered by Israel in 1967 amounts to the same thing. Barak’s point was to warn that unless the Palestinians are given an independent state of their own, the world will eventually notice that their lives are controlled by an Israeli state that denies them citizenship, raising the specter of the sort of international isolation and sanctions that helped change South Africa. (See pictures of life in the West Bank settlements.)

If Defense Minister Barak sounds a little exasperated, that may be because he’s swimming against Israel’s domestic political tide in seeking to restart momentum toward a two-state solution. Whatever the long-term dangers, Israelis right now don’t see any negative consequences for maintaining the status quo. The Palestinians are under siege in Gaza and walled off in the West Bank. Terror attacks are rare today and most Israelis are scarcely aware that the Palestinians exist. Israel’s booming economy, increasingly integrated with those of Europe and the U.S., is knocking on the door of membership to the OECD; its lifestyle is increasingly American; its culture entirely integrated with the globalized West.

The peace process of the 1990s collapsed in a spiral of bloodshed, and most Israelis have simply moved on. Opinion polls indicate that they would prefer a peace deal with the Palestinians, but also that most don’t believe such a deal is possible. Yitzhak Rabin in the old days promised to “pursue peace as if there was no terror and fight terror as if there is no peace,” but now that terror has been largely subdued, Israelis feel no urgency about peace. (See pictures of Gaza in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion.)

For even the most moderate segment of Palestinian leadership, a two-state solution would have, at the very least, involved setting the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiation, and accepting East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. But Israel’s political median has moved steadily to the right since the days of Rabin, and the minimum demands acceptable to Palestinian moderates are deemed too much for the Israelis. The militant settlers who believe they have a God-given right to build their homes in the occupied territories are now part of the mainstream, disproportionately represented in the army’s mid-level officer corps, and an important support base of the Netanyahu government. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is himself a settler. The religious-nationalist ideological core of the settler movement has threatened to violently resist any attempt to move them, and for many Israelis, the cost-benefit analysis weighs against uprooting them: Why risk a domestic civil war in order to return land to the Palestinians, who might later turn it into a base to fire rockets at you? Perhaps in another generation.

The situation may be intolerable for the Palestinians, but for Israel there simply is no immediate downside to maintaining the status quo. Telling Israelis about the specter of apartheid and demographic “time bombs” is like telling Americans that they must fix social security. Nobody disagrees, but don’t hold your breath.

Barak sounded his warning in the same week that South Africa marked the 20th anniversary of the decision by the then President F.W. De Klerk to free Nelson Mandela and begin negotiating an end to apartheid. It was certainly a courageous decision by De Klerk, but it’s important to remember that it was not some epiphany about the immorality of apartheid that changed his mind. By 1989, with the Cold War essentially over, Pretoria had gotten the message that it could no longer count on U.S. support to head off sanctions and other international pressure in the name of anticommunist solidarity. Financial sanctions were beginning to bite and the price of maintaining the status quo was beginning to appear prohibitive. De Klerk, to his credit, realized that his people had more to gain from negotiating from a position of relative strength. And the political unrest in the black townships, combined with the expanding sanctions and growing isolation, helped him make the case to his own electorate.

Political leaders typically change course not because they change their philosophy, but because the cost-benefit ratio in maintaining the status quo no longer makes sense. That was true for Rabin – who embraced the Oslo process after calculating that Israel could not forever count on unconditional U.S. support – and also for Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas. Rabin’s cost-benefit analysis told him that Israel’s best interests required moving toward a two-state solution from a position of strength, and the Palestinian leadership recognized that, as much as they desired a return to the homes and land they lost in 1948, the balance of forces made that a futile goal. They decided to instead seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza as a more limited, but attainable objective. Hamas has not yet formally made such a shift, although its leaders are clearly moving toward accepting some version of a two-state outcome – and the more Hamas takes responsibility for the well-being of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank, the more likely they will be to accept Israel’s existence as a bitter but inescapable compromise.

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who made a political career out of opposing a two-state solution, this year committed himself to the principle, albeit on terms too restrictive to be embraced by the Palestinians. Netanyahu adapted his view because he was left no alternative by the international community.

Still, President Obama has admitted that the domestic political calculus on both sides of the divide has blocked progress toward realizing a two-state solution. But if his efforts are to bear any fruit, Obama and his international partners will have to change the cost-benefit analysis for the Israelis and Palestinians by raising both the inducements to act and the consequences of inaction. As long as the status quo remains more politically comfortable than the alternative, there’s no reason to expect any progress.

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