Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Realities on the ground

A resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is all but inevitable, given its political geography. The question is when the players involved will concede to this fact, writes Abdel-Moneim Said 

اقرأ باللغة العربية

There are a number of “facts” that the Israeli leadership on both the right and the left are trying to overcome, at least at present when various circumstances appear conducive to the resumption of an effective peace process that seeks to close the huge gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. These facts are, firstly, that 12 million people inhabit the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Half of these are Jews and the other half are Arabs (it is commonly held that the Arabs outnumber the Jews by about 250,000 people). If the Jewish half is determined to remain on Palestinian territory, the Arab half has also demonstrated during the past years and decades that it will not relinquish its land. This is not just because of the extent to which Palestinian nationalism has matured over the years but also because there is no other place the Palestinians can go. Secondly, Israeli Arabs make up 21 per cent of the population of Israel. If they haven’t left in the past, it is hardly likely that they will do so in the future. Thirdly, the Arab citizens of Israel have a party called the Arab List that has 13 seats in the Knesset. That number is unlikely to decrease. In fact, it will probably increase because it does at present not reflect the actual ratio of Arabs demographically or electorally. Fourthly, in spite of the historic legacy of mutual hatred and enmity, the land and people in that area between the river and the sea constitute a single economic entity with a single currency: the shekel. There is also a common labour market, a common market for goods and services, and a common healthcare market, among other things. Like in all common economies, these markets are contingent on the relative assets of the two sides. It is well known that 150,000 Palestinian workers cross into Israel every day. And just as Palestinians go to Israeli hospitals for treatment, Israelis go to the West Bank for dental work and car repair services. 

Naturally, these are not all the facts. There are others stemming from the long history of conflict, from the nature of the hostile proximity between the two sides, from the fact that Israel occupies the whole of Palestinian territory. In short, the coloniser/neighbour is a heavier and harder fact than the distant colonising power. It will have to go one of these days because of this political geography. The 1994 Oslo Accords acknowledged all these realities of antagonism. It tried to overcome them by means of the “two-state solution” which was the contemporary translation of the UN Partition Resolution of 1948, which spoke of an Arab and a Jewish state linked by a customs federation. More than two decades after Oslo, the abovementioned facts have increasingly cast their shadow over relations between the two sides: they are growing deeper, on the one hand, and the rejection is growing violent, on the other. These convulsions are primarily visible among extremist circles on both sides, but they also appear among moderates who either want to change the facts on the ground (adding mutual security coordination to the bundle) or who choose to ignore them, which only exacerbates and complicates things further. 

In his recent statements, Israeli Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay chose to vie with the Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition. He rejected the principle of dismantling Israeli settlements in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and he also refused to work with the Arab List in order to forge a front that would give the Labour Party and centre left a chance to forge a government. Taken together, this means that Netanyahu will remain in power for the foreseeable future. There may be another possibility, however. By drawing closer to the views of the right-wing coalition, Gabbay and his party may be working to forge a common front that will place themselves in a stronger bargaining position and, simultaneously, help protect national unity in rough times. What is curious is that this is happening at a time when Netanyahu and Lieberman as well have expressed reactions to the Palestinian unity agreement that diverge remarkably from their previous stances. Whereas formerly, in such situations, their rhetoric was tough and vehement, proclaiming, for example, that the PA would have to choose between “peace” with Israel and “unity” with Gaza, their language this time was more subdued. Moreover, Israel proved ready to perform certain services to facilitate the meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza. There were also many signs that Israel welcomed Egyptian and Arab efforts in this regard.

The confusion and agitation in Israel is a natural consequence of the developments taking place on the Palestinian front. As much as the establishment of a Palestinian state requires an agreement with Israel to secure the latter’s withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories, it is also contingent — and perhaps more so — on the components of statehood that the Palestinians themselves build on the ground: government institutions, a national economy, social institutions, international and regional relations, and the like. Such processes are already in progress on the ground in that area between the river and the sea, and they involve a dynamic role played by the Israeli Arabs in crystallising new concepts for the Palestinian national movement, on the one hand, and in dealing with Israeli political realities, on the other. While Gabbay rejected the notion of a coalition with the Arab List, the manner in which he announced this underscored the political weight of the Arab Israelis. 

What happens in Israel will depend greatly on what happens in Palestine. Previously, the Palestinian strategy was based on resistance against the occupation. For Fatah, this meant political and diplomatic action and, if necessary, grassroots intifada. For Hamas, it meant paramilitary action and suicide operations. But now it appears that there is another strategy in the works. This one is based on creating realities on the ground, just as Israel has always done throughout its history. One of the most important of these realities applies a cardinal principle of statehood which is that the legitimate government must monopolise the right to legitimate recourse to force and its military and political/diplomatic instruments. It is clear, now, that the Palestinians have come a long way in building their government institutions under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Sallam Fayad. When legislative and presidential elections are held, this will impart many of the characteristics of genuine statehood on the Palestinian entity. However, the Palestinian state will become an actual reality, whether the Israelis like it or not, when the bifurcation between government and arms ends, which is to say when both are brought under a single legitimate authority. At that point, confusion and controversy in Israel will intensify. Perhaps, too, that is when all will arrive to face facts, the most salient one being that vast common “space” mentioned above. Hopefully this will give rise to two sovereign states following the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, mutual recognition and the implementation of other points agreed upon in previous negotiations, as well as new points that will serve to turn a leaf on long pending issues or to resolve more recent issues created by developments on the ground.

Certainly, all this will require huge amounts of patience. However, the way forward is clear, regardless of denials here and there that often appear to have more to do with internal politics and politicking than with actual policy. 

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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