Are Middle East Negotiations Dead?

January 29, 2010 12:31 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

President Obama's "State of the Union" left out the traditional call for the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which, for years, has been boilerplate in Presidential addresses to Congress.

I imagine Obama left it out because his previous calls fell on deaf ears in Israel, with Prime Minister Netanyahu continuing to expand settlements. 

And Netanyahu's announcement yesterday that Israel intends to annex Ariel, a West Bank settlement of 15,000 that is 25 miles deep into the West Bank, could be the death knell for negotiations.  The Ariel announcement means that the borders of Israel would extend so far into the West Bank that a contiguous Palestinian state could not be created.

For their part, Palestinians resist negotiations because they have gone nowhere and succeed only in taking the onus off Israel during them.

Palestinians also argue that Israel uses periods of negotiations to seize more land without conceding anything, on the grounds that any "concession" would cause right-wingers in the governing coalition to walk out.

In fact, just yesterday, President Obama himself alluded to the fragility of Israel's coalition as an excuse for not applying pressure (as if we should care whether a right-wing coalition in Israel survives). 

Palestinians have been especially reluctant to yield to the US call for negotiations ever since we forced the Palestinian Authority to reject the Goldstone Report on war crimes against their own people, making them look like utterly ridiculous marionettes.

So, Palestinians believe, they are better off without negotiations, letting the pressure on Israel build.

It may not work, but negotiations haven't worked either.

So where does that leave Palestinians?  Are they completely without recourse?

Not at all.  They can demand their rights without reference to statehood and without negotiations to achieve them. That means they punt on the question of one state, two states, or three states (don't forget Gaza).  They demand their rights whether they are exercised within Israel or within their own country.  After all, basic human rights are guaranteed to all people, whether in their own state or as a minority in another country.

These rights are specifically guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was ratified by the United Nations with the support of, among others, the United States and Israel.  (It was written by Eleanor Roosevelt, the US delegate).

The rights it guarantees (the right to vote, equality before the law, freedom of movement and resistance, peaceful assembly and association, the right to own property and not to be deprived of it, among others) are precisely the rights denied to the Palestinians of Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

Why shouldn't the Palestinians demand these rights, laying aside the question of a state with internationally recognized borders until the Israelis are ready to seriously discuss returning to the pre-'67 borders?

But would Israelis agree to granting Palestinians basic human rights? That is hard to say.  The far right has a strong racial animus to Arabs and would be reluctant to see any change in the status quo.

But that is not true of most Israelis.  Most Israelis are deeply troubled by the occupation but cannot imagine how it would be possible to evacuate hundreds of thousands of settlers from their West Bank homes.  They might be relieved if the Palestinians focused on rights rather than territories.  

After all, Israel's options would then be clear. Either grant the Palestinians fundamental rights or confront the settlement demon and begin the process of de-occupation and the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state.

But what if Israel said "no"?  "No" to rights.  "No" to ending the occupation. Then what?

That is where the issue of consequences would rise.  Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have repeatedly collapsed when Israel has refused to fulfill a commitment to which it agreed.

It accepts a proposal and then supplements it with a host of unilateral conditions.  It then says it cannot implement the original commitment until its new conditions are met.

Or it uses the device employed when President Obama demanded a settlement freeze.  Netanyahu changed the subject by accepting, in nebulous terms, the two-state solution and coupling that with a partial freeze.  But he exempted East Jerusalem, the area of most significance to the Palestinians and where most of the settlement expansion is now occurring.

That transparent gambit won him praise from Secretary of State Clinton and the easing of US pressure. 

Saying "no" had no consequences.

But saying no to a Palestinian call for fundamental human rights would have to produce consequences, of one kind or another.  If it doesn't -- if Israel pays no price for simultaneously maintaining the occupation and refusing to accord rights to those under occupation -- then Palestinians will come to believe that they have no recourse at all except submission. And that isn't going to happen.

What would happen is that the Palestinians would go to the United Nations, to the European Union, and even to the United States to seek those consequences.  And these would most likely come in the demand for sanctions.  There is already a burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that is seeking to bring down the occupation the way a similar movement brought down apartheid. 

Is this what Israelis want?  Do they really want those concerned about the occupation to be forced to turn to an option this extreme?

I know that the last thing I want is a successful international movement that would boycott and sanction Israel as if it was apartheid South Africa.  But it's probably inevitable unless Israelis come to their senses and begin the process of ending the occupation while the decision is still theirs to make.

As for the United States, President Obama needs to stop worrying about the survival of Israel's right-wing coalition.  He should instead focus on the survival of Israel itself, not to mention the well-being of Palestinians whose suffering is mightily abetted by US policies (and arms). And that means pressure, pressure, pressure.  For Israel's own sake.

I used to believe that there was no alternative to negotiations.  I was wrong.  There is.  And, at this rate, its day will arrive soon.