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Photo: Graffiti on the seperation wall near Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem.
At the end of April, the U.S. led negotiations between the PLO and Israel ended without an agreement. Much has been written about why this round of talks failed, with emphasis placed on the impact that illegal Israeli settlement construction, land confiscation, home demolitions, and violence had on the negotiations process. I will not repeat those discussions here. Rather, I think it is important to step back to assess the broader negotiating framework.
The U.S. administration and many commentators are now calling for a resumption of talks from the place where they left off. Those making these calls generally assert that the broad terms of what a negotiated solution must entail are known. These terms include the annexation by Israel of major settlement blocs, limited right of return for a small number of Palestinian refugees, continued Israeli control over most of Jerusalem, continued Israeli oversight of Palestinian borders and airspace, and the phased establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on portions of the West Bank and Gaza. Agreement on how to implement these terms is pushed for through a process with no determined end point or accountability mechanisms.
Among those who hold this to be the known solution, failure to reach an agreement is not seen as the result of significant differences between Palestinians and Israelis. Rather, failure to reach an agreement is seen as the result of Palestinian and Israeli leaders’ unwillingness to take the difficult steps needed to negotiate the final details of an agreement.
This position is patronizing to both Palestinians and Israelis. The idea that Palestinians and Israelis continue to live within a system of extreme oppression and violence because of a failure to agree on the implementation details of a generally accepted framework does not make sense. Rather, what makes more sense is that the differences between the Palestinian and Israeli positions go beyond disagreements over details and instead reflect fundamental differences in what both parties hold to be the core of the conflict and the end goal of the negotiating process.
The truth is that while Palestinians have sought equality, an end to occupation, and the address of historic injustices through negotiations, Israel and the U.S. have set as their goal the preservation of Israel’s security and its Jewish identity/demographic majority through partition and ethnic separation. This means that Israel and the U.S. have not placed as their foremost concern ending the conflict through a process that addresses the rights of both Palestinians and Israelis with attention given to justice. Instead they have focused on ending the conflict in a way that maintains current systems of power, oppression, and ethnically defined privilege.
What now needs to be made clear is that a push for partition as opposed to justice is problematic. Placing partition as the goal of negotiations creates a situation where negotiations must inevitably become zero-sum bargaining processes focused on the redistribution of land, resources, and control. This creates incentives for those with power—in this instance the Israeli government—to take steps to maximize control and bargaining position at the expense of the weaker party, even while carrying out negotiations. This context helps explain why illegal Israeli settlement-building, confiscation of Palestinian land, forced displacement, restrictions on Palestinian movement, and other violations of Palestinians’ rights proliferated during the Oslo process and continue today.
Setting partition as the end-goal of negotiations also makes it impossible to address the historic roots of the conflict and the injustices that resulted from the original UN Partition Plan, most notably the displacement and dispossession of Palestinian refugees in 1948. After all, if the goal of negotiations is the preservation of the current demographic balance and power structures that were created as a result of the 1948 War, a critical reassessment of what occurred during that war is impossible. This in turn explains why the current push for partition has been carefully framed within a post-1967 context that ignores and minimizes the way in which it is in actuality a direct continuation of the ideas outlined in the failed 1947 UN Partition Plan.
After 20 years of failed negotiations, it is time to recognize that negotiations based first and foremost on the idea of partition and the exclusion of the Palestinian refugees will not resolve the conflict but will instead entrench the injustices done to all Palestinians.
Recognition of this failure must lead to a paradigm shift that will allow for the achievement of peace between Palestinians and Israelis on the basis of justice, human rights, and equality for all. This shift must involve a move from seeing negotiations as a process focused on the preservation and/or creation of nation-state structures and the maintenance of ethnic privilege to seeing negotiations as a process focused on both guaranteeing the rights of all people regardless of their religious and ethnic background and addressing the historic injustices of the past.
Instead of demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, we must demand respect for people’s rights regardless of their ethnic and/or religious identities and we must critically evaluate what formally defining Israel as a Jewish state would mean for Israel’s non-Jewish population.
Instead of seeing the potential return of Palestinian refugees as a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority and therefore denying refugees’ rights, we must understand that Palestinians were denied their right of return in 1949 because they were the demographic majority prior to their displacement and their return was seen as a demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish majority. Maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in Israel has been the reason given for denying Palestinian refugees their right to return to their homes ever since 1948. Continuing to deny their rights based on demographics is to accept as just their original dispossession. Rather than starting from a position that sees refugees’ rights as a threat that must be denied, it is time that we start considering how restorative justice principles might be used to preserve the rights of Jewish Israelis while also realizing the rights of refugees to return to the locations from which they were displaced and the property from which they were disposed. The return of Palestinian refugees is part of the solution and should not be seen as an obstacle to peace.
Instead of seeing security as only being achievable through the continued militarization of Palestinian and Israeli societies and through their separation from each other, we must understand that Israelis’ security is directly linked to Palestinians’ security. We must understand that realizing social, economic, and political equality, and addressing past and present injustices—not separation and isolation—will bring security. This means that conversations should not be about finding a way to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side (but separately) in security but rather should be about finding a way to guarantee the full protection and respect for the human rights of all peoples in the land.
It’s important to call for an end to obstacles to peace like settlement construction, home demolitions, and acts of violence, but this is not enough. What is needed is a transformation of the whole negotiating process. Continuing to move down the same paths that have resulted in failure for more than 20 years will not bring peace. What is needed now is a radically changed process—a process focused on equality and justice as opposed to ethnic separation and exclusion.
If equality and justice can be realized, then peace will follow.