James Kitfield
National Journal
March 28, 2009 - 12:00am

Israelis and Palestinians are rapidly approaching a fork in the road between a two-state division or an enforced, unsteady unity that redefines Zionism, democracy, and the meaning of Israeli citizenship.

CYCLE OF VIOLENCE:  wounded Israeli lies on the ground (left) after a December rocket attack in the southern city of Ashkelon. A Palestinian woman and her baby (right) sit in front of a rocket-riddled building in Gaza in January.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by.

—From The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

JERUSALEM—The siren song of peace in the Middle East has lured virtually every modern American president toward the dangerous shoals of the Arab- Israeli conflict. Jimmy Carter answered the call at Camp David, and Ronald Reagan in Beirut; George H.W. Bush launched the Madrid initiative, and Bill Clinton the Oslo accords. Despite the subsequent assassinations of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, despite the deaths of hundreds of U.S. peacekeepers in Lebanon, and the bloodshed of the first and second Palestinian uprisings, each president recognized the United States’ direct stake in the conflict and gambled on ending it.


Photos: (L to R) REUTERS/Yoav Weiss; Getty Image s/Afp/PAT RICK BAZ

George W. Bush, after first aligning his administration closely with former Israeli Prime Minister and settlement champion Ariel Sharon as part of the post-9/11 “global war on terror,” also eventually came to understand how the Muslim world judges U.S. actions through the prism of this conflict. The inevitable backlash from perceived pro-Israel policies has retarded important U.S. initiatives, from trying to build regional support for confronting Iran, to toppling Saddam and stabilizing Iraq, to opposing Islamist extremist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

With just a year remaining in his presidency, Bush thus unveiled the Annapolis initiative, describing his vision of two states living in peace and security, and he boldly predicted its realization by the end of his term. Instead, Annapolis has joined the other place names on a roll call of futility, and the occupants of this disputed land have settled deeper into their well-worn cloaks of cynicism and despair.

Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.

“What we do know is this: that the status quo is unsustainable; that it is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in their own states with peace and security,” Obama said at his March 24 press conference. “And by assigning George Mitchell the task of working as special envoy, what we’ve signaled is that we’re going to be serious from day one in trying to move the parties in a direction that acknowledges that reality. How effective these negotiations may be, I think we’re going to have to wait and see.”

A Vision Fades

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently traveled here on her maiden foray into Middle East politics, at nearly every turn signs underscored the near-eclipse of the twostate solution that has served as the foundation of U.S. diplomacy and peacemaking for decades.

There were, for instance, the political billboards on the streets of this city backing presumptive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tenaciously fought President Clinton’s attempts to advance the Oslo accords in the 1990s. “Bibi” still champions settlement expansion in the West Bank, and opposes the division of Jerusalem or the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

  • Even among those who have worked tirelessly for a two-state solution, there is profound pessimism.
  • Many Palestinian elites are concluding that the future lies in a struggle for equal rights and the principle of one person, one vote inside a single bi-national state.
  • Israelis now see giving up
    land for peace
    as an invitation to rocket attacks.
Other billboards championed ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, a big winner in the recent elections. The likely foreign minister of the next governing coalition, Lieberman proposes the expulsion from Israel of Arab citizens unwilling to take a “loyalty oath.” Both politicians represent a marked rightward shift in the Israeli body against Hezbollah and recent fighting with Hamas in Gaza, has come to fundamentally question the “land for peace” principle on which a two-state solution depends.

Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah also provided a stark reminder of the fracturing of the Palestinian leadership in the 2006 elections pushed by the Bush administration. The winner was the Islamist group Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

Today, an increasingly unpopular Abbas and his Palestinian Authority reside uneasily in the occupied West Bank while Hamas exerts control over a devastated and locked-down Gaza Strip. Egyptian-sponsored talks to explore a unity government between the Palestinian factions, and a sustainable cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, have so far been inconclusive.

Meanwhile, the short road to Abbas’s office in Ramallah passes through Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem dotted by new, heavily guarded Jewish enclaves and the rubble of Palestinian homes destroyed because they lacked the building permits that the Israeli government refuses to grant. The road exits the city through a security barrier that is cutting East Jerusalem’s Palestinians off from their kinfolk and will encircle 8 to 18 percent of the territory of the West Bank, depending on a final course still to be determined. Outside the security fence, the road skirts large Jewish settlements on the West Bank where construction cranes and bulldozers bespeak the rapid settlement expansion still under way.

All are signs of mounting “facts on the ground” designed to preclude the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Those facts have assumed a life and momentum all their own despite years of American jawboning against them and Israel’s broken promises to halt settlement activity.
  Presumptive Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu champions
expansion in
the West Bank.
Avigdor Lieberman may be the new foreign minister.
  Photos: (L to R) Getty Image s/David Silver man; Getty Image s/Afp/GALI TIBBON

Elliot Abrams was the point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. He argues that the peace process has foundered not because settlements have undermined a two-state solution but rather because both sides fundamentally reject the concessions necessary to achieve a two-state resolution.

“For 25 years, people have said that the solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is obvious and that anyone who can draw a map can see that we’re 95 percent of the way to a resolution, but that is exactly wrong,” Abrams recently told reporters. “To the degree that people understand what a two-state resolution looks like, it’s clear that the maximum Israeli leaders are willing to offer is less than the minimum Palestinian leaders are willing to accept. That’s where we are today and where we’ve been for years, through various governments on both sides. They both know what a deal looks like, and they don’t want it! So the question we confront is how to change that reality over time, and no one knows the answer.”

Facts in the Mind

Perhaps the most unmistakable signs that the search for a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has nearly run its course, however, are not the facts on the ground or the obituaries offered for the two-state solution by Netanyahu or the Bush administration’s neoconservatives who long opposed it. Rather, the evidence is the growing pessimism in the minds of those who still believe that a two-state solution remains the only course that can prevent calamity for both sides.

“Almost no one on either side believes in the ‘peace process’ anymore, because it offered only process, without peace or any concluding settlement,” said Nazmi al-Jubeh, a university lectureron the West Bank who has served as a Palestinian negotiator. As a result, he said, increasing numbers of the Palestinian elite are giving up hope for selfdetermination, concluding that the future lies in a struggle for equal rights and the principle of one person, one vote inside a single bi-national state.

“Personally, I think that would be a disaster, but if there is not a stop to settlement activity, people like me who have fought hard for a two-state solution will give up all hope,” Jubeh said. “Because at its core this conflict is not about culture or morals or religion, it’s about land. And if our land continues to disappear into settlements even as we negotiate, and each day new obstacles are created to a final resolution, then the possibility of division of our peoples into two states will soon be destroyed.”

Robert Malley, the special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs during the Oslo Accords, now directs the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Program. “Many of us who have invested so much in a two-state solution and have dreamed of partition are really bereft today,” he admitted, speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations. The time has come, he said, to question what is fundamentally wrong with the Mideast peace process. “We’ve had Israeli leaders who recognize that the future of a democratic Jewish state is imperiled,” Malley said.

A State Department program to train a Palestinian
security force appears to be paying off in the West Bank.

“We’ve had Arab leaders who realize this conflict jeopardizes their own credibility in the face of a wave of radicalism in the region. We’ve had Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace. So why has every initiative proposed under so many different configurations failed to produce a resolution? My sense is that these failures have brought us to the end of an era, but no one knows what the next era will hold.”

Former Israeli Maj. Gen. Danny Rothschild also worries that time is running out for a negotiated settlement, and for a promising Arab League initiative that offered Israel normal relations with 22 neighboring Arab nations in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to pre-1967 borders.

“The window for a two-state solution based loosely on the Arab League initiative is still open, but I don’t know for how much longer,” said Rothschild, who directs the Council for Peace and Security, a group of former senior Israeli officials who endorse a peaceful resolution to the conflict. By Rothchild’s reckoning, two trends in the Middle East make reaching a settlement an urgent priority. First, a well-documented demographic time bomb powered by higher Arab birth rates is set to explode some time in the next 20 years, at which point Jews will be a minority inside an Israel that includes the West Bank. That scenario threatens the fundamental Jewish and democratic character of Israel.

“The other trend is toward Islamic fundamentalism and radi-and will work against a settlement of this conflict,” Rothchild said in an interview, pointing to the growing popularity of Islamist extremist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to violent street protests against relatively moderate and secular Arab leaders in Egypt and Jordan, and above all to the rising power and influence of theocratic Iran. “So time is not on our side, and only the United States can break this deadlock by once again acting as an honest broker and bringing Israelis, Palestinians, and moderate Arabs to the negotiating table.”

Waiting for Obama

President Obama’s promise to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict near the top of his foreign-policy agenda has elicited great expectations in the region that his administration will succeed where so many of his predecessors’ efforts have failed.

“I think George Mitchell is the personification of the honest broker role that the Obama administration intends to play in resolving the conflict, and I hope he is backed by policies that allow him to play that role,” said Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That honest broker role [for the United States] has been entirely missing for the past eight years, and the entire Middle East region is in pretty bad shape as a result.”

In talks with senior Obama administration officials, Moussa has confirmed that the Arab League initiative is still on the table but won’t stay there indefinitely. “The mistake we made in the past was accepting the idea of open-ended talks, which is why we insisted on President Bush’s promise that by the end of 2008 there would be a Palestinian state. And absolutely nothing happened! All we got were more settlements, meaningless negotiations, and the massacres in Gaza. So we cannot build on the Annapolis initiative, nor can we re-enter a ‘process’ of delays that give the Israeli government more time to create settlements.”

On a recent trip to the region, veteran Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk was struck by the gap between extremely high expectations that a peaceful resolution is within reach, and pervasive pessimism that any agreement can change a situationon the ground that has deteriorated markedly over the past eight years.

“When President Obama announced the appointment of George Mitchell, it reminded me of the first National Security Council meeting of the Clinton administration in 1991, when the president said he was going to devote all his energies to resolving the conflict,” said Indyk, speaking recently at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. In those hopeful days, Indyk recalled, most Arab nations had been brought into negotiations under the Madrid initiative; Iraq’s anti-Israeli dictator, Saddam Hussein, had just been defeated in the 1991 Persian Gulf War; and Israeli military hero Yitzhak Rabin had been elected with a mandate to make peace.

“We were all convinced that President Clinton would resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his first term, but of course it didn’t turn out that way,” said Indyk, who contends that the “edifice” of peacemaking has been largely dismantled over the past eight years. “So today, President Obama is pursuing the same objectives, but in a much bleaker landscape. The divisions in the Palestinian leadership make coherent negotiations much more difficult, the recent Israeli elections marked a rightward shift in Israeli politics, and the Arab peace initiative that held out hope that a two-state solution could turn into a 23-state solution is now in jeopardy. So, what all that means for the peace process is, at best, unclear.”

What it almost surely means is that the Obama administration will have to rebuild the edifice of peacemaking even while brokering negotiations on the final blueprints of a deal. That will require U.S. officials to promote substantive enough talks on “final status” issues such as borders and Jerusalem to renew the Palestinians’ faith that a two-state solution is still viable. Conversely, America’s efforts will have to buy enough time for institution-building and government reform of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank to once again convince Israelis that “land for peace” can equal security.

The gap between those tracks has perhaps never been wider. Spanning it will require bridges such as a sustainable cease-fire in Gaza, creation of a unified Palestinian government that brings Hamas into the equation either directly or indirectly, reform of Palestinian governing and security institutions, and a verifiable halt to Israeli settlement expansion.

“The [2006] war in Lebanon and the recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza have really set back Israeli politics to the point that I don’t believe any coalition can reach a grand deal, because the public now believes that when Israeli forces move out of territory they get rockets instead of peace,” said David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

In Israeli politics, a broad consensus now exists that the focus should instead be on incremental improvements in the economic lives of Palestinians on the occupied West Bank, and on building Palestinian institutions and police forces. Yet no Israeli politician, Makovsky says, wants to grapple with the unavoidable second half of that equation.

“For the Palestinians to be patient during this institutionbuilding phase, which could take years, Israel will have to stop settlement construction,” he said at the institute. “That’s why I think it would be valuable to start talks on demarcating theborder [between Israel and a Palestinian state]. That doesn’t solve the Jerusalem piece of the puzzle, but we’re close enough on borders for talks that will clarify the issue of settlements.”

Peace Through Palestinian Security

In January, with Israeli air and ground forces bombarding Hamas positions in the crowded Gaza Strip in some of the worst bloodshed of a long and bloody conflict, a small team of U.S. officials in Israel were monitoring the nearby West Bank to see if it, too, would erupt in flames of violent protest or even a third intifada, or uprising. After all, Hamas leaders were calling for “days of rage,” Arab satellite television was broadcasting horrific images of the estimated 1,200 Palestinians killed (along with 13 Israelis) in the fighting, and violent protests were breaking out in several foreign Arab capitals.

Israeli officials in Maaleh Adumim on the West Bank make no secret of plans to build another 3,500 housing units.
Getty Image s/Uriel Sinai
When the only response from the West Bank was peaceful university demonstrations, professionally handled by Palestinian security forces recently trained in riot and crowd control, U.S. officials thought they had witnessed that rare thing in the Middle East nightmare: the dog that doesn’t bite. Increasingly, experts credit that and other recent successes in West Bank security to a small program run out of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem.

Almost since its inception in 2005, the office of U.S. Security Coordinator under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton has largely flown under Washington’s radar. Dayton reports not to the Pentagon but to the State Department, and his program has suffered from low funding ($75 million in 2008) and staffing (about 16 people). The internecine warfare between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas that erupted in 2006 greatly complicated Dayton’s mission of training, equipping (with nonlethal equipment only), and mentoring Palestinian security forces.

Despite those limitations, experts are beginning to see the office’s bottom-up focus on constructing a security foundation in the West Bank as a prerequisite to reviving the peace process. One person said to share that view is Obama’s national security adviser, James Jones, the retired Marine general who was a firm advocate of the program in his previous position as the Bush administration’s special security envoy to the Middle East.

Michael Oren, author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present and a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said recently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “You can send George Mitchell back and forth to the Middle East as much as you like, but expanding what Gen. Dayton is doing in the security realm to other sectors of Palestinian governance and society is really the only viable model for progress that we have. What we’ve learned from the peace process is that there are no Nobel Prizes at the end of this road. We have to build a foundation for progress street by street, and city by city.”

So far, the two battalions of Palestinian security forces trained under the U.S.-financed program, which runs units through an eight-week course at the Jordanian International Police Training Center, have deployed to the West Bank cities of Jenin and Hebron to favorable reviews from both Israeli and U.S. officials. In each city, Palestinian civilians, who in many cases were witnessing their first locally recruited security forces, quickly began phoning in tips, and crime levels dropped appreciably.

“When the first battalion of Palestinian security forces kicked off operations, Jenin was a Wild West town with a lot of Islamic Jihad guys and drug dealers,” said Dov Schwartz, an aide to Gen. Dayton. “I was there a few weeks ago, and it’s a much different place. People are out eating ice cream at night, businesses are staying open later, and the governor complained about normal things like a recent drought! And we saw the same improvements in law and order in Hebron.”

With another battalion in the training pipeline, Dayton’s office has stepped up its activities, including starting construction of a new headquarters for the Palestinian presidential guard, creating a strategic planning cell in the Palestinian Authority’s Interior Ministry, and beginning an eight-week course in Ramallah for more-senior officers in the security forces. To carry the momentum forward, Defense Department officials say, Dayton wants operational control of his office transferred from the State Department to the Pentagon, which has the resources to dramatically increase funding and staffing levels and would be less restrictive in limiting movement of U.S. officials in the West Bank.

Based on their recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military officials say that Palestinian security forces will never supply the level of security Israel demands unless the Israel Defense Forces lifts the numerous restrictions it puts on the Palestinians’ counter-terrorism capabilities and authorities, and unless the IDF adopts a more holistic “clear, hold, and build” counterinsurgency approach to operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Our frustration is that the IDF has an extremely tactical, as opposed to a strategic, viewpoint, so they go after perpetrators of violence and treat the symptoms without ever considering the root causes,” a senior U.S. officer knowledgeable about the West Bank operations said. “What we’ve learned in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is that you have to follow up that security piece with economic development that promotes jobs, and restores personal pride, dignity, and hope to local citizens so that they turn away from radicalism and violence. The Israelis just don’t think in those terms, which is one reason they haven’t stopped settlement activities. Until they do that, Israel will continue to undermine the credibility of the more professional Palestinian security forces we’re trying to create, by making it seem that they are only doing the bidding of Israel and the settlers.”

“Death of a Thousand Cuts”

In the Middle East, it is said that to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you need an advanced degree not in diplomacy or history, but in cartography. To grasp how shifting lines on a map are redefining the prospects for peace, it is instructive to stand on a barren, windswept hillside on the West Bank known simply as “E-1.” For expert cartographers, the contours of this empty hillside approximately delineate a fateful crossroads, one likely to determine whether two peoples part ways or are bound together in perpetual conflict and grievance.

On a hill across from E-1 lies the massive Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, with its broad, palm-tree-lined streets and modern cream-colored Mediterranean-style housing blocks that are home to more than 32,000 Israeli settlers. At one end of Adumim, the steel frames of new houses are sprouting row after row among cranes and bulldozers, and billboards woo homebuyers with expansive views and the close proximity to Jerusalem. Israeli officials justify the development by insisting that Adumim and three other major settlements near the security fence must be incorporated into Israel as part of any peace settlement, and thus the new construction does not violate numerous Israeli promises to halt settlement expansion.

   All we got were
more settlements,


and the massacres in Gaza.’’

—Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League
 Getty Image s/AFP/John Thys

From the ridge behind E-1, the outskirts of East Jerusalem are clearly visible, hillsides of buildings stacked one on top of the other. These are the Palestinian neighborhoods cut off from the West Bank by the still-unfinished Israeli security fence snaking across the landscape. The 3,000 acres of empty space in between await a decision on whether an undivided Jerusalem extends in a corridor of Jewish settlements all the way to Maaleh Adumim, or whether this land serves as a natural expansion area for an overcrowded Arab East Jerusalem that becomes the capital of Palestine.

The hillsides around E-1 are not entirely empty, however. At the top of the ridge sits a lonely new police station at the end of an impressive three-lane highway that boasts traffic circles, observation posts, light poles, and a grass median. The highway and related infrastructure reportedly cost more than $47 million, and are clearly meant to serve more than an isolated police headquarters.

In fact, officials of Maaleh Adumim make no secret of their plans to construct 3,500 housing units on E-1, the real purpose of the enterprise. According to an official statement, the new settlement will form “contiguous construction between our city to the capital of Jerusalem, and will be the Zionist response that will prevent the division of Jerusalem.”

Danny Seidemann, a wiry and animated lawyer, is considered one of the pre-eminent cartographers of the fault lines beneath Jerusalem, based on the numerous cases of land confiscations that he has argued before Israel’s Supreme Court. The slow encirclement of Adumim by the security fence, and plans to build a new Jewish settlement on E-1, explain why he and numerous other experts believe that the door to the two-state solution is swinging shut.

“Netanyahu has promised to develop E-1 in the past and to make settlement activity irreversible, and if he is as good as his word, even in the face of American pressure, then the two-state solution is finished,” Seidemann said in an interview. The lesson of the surge of settlement activity last year, he said, was that it not only clouded the prospects of the Annapolis initiative, it also undermined former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s control of the government bureaucracy and Abbas’s credibility with his own people.

“So if the Obama administration doesn’t send a strong and early message that there will be no more settlement expansion, then E-1 gets developed in six to eight months, making it impossible to divide Jerusalem as the capital of two states,” Seidemann said. “After that, I assure you that all of Obama’s peacemaking initiatives will die the death of a thousand cuts.”

Nathan Brown is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University and the author of numerous books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Settlements have convinced many of those in Palestinian intellectual circles that Israel is never going to let a Palestinian state emerge with viable borders and freedom of movement, so [their view is] if you can’t beat the Israelis, then join them in a single bi-national state,” he said in an interview. “The problem with that approach is that the determination of Israelis to maintain a Jewish state will dictate that they are the dominant nationality and Palestinians are folded into society as second-class citizens, with no voting rights or real citizenship. That is essentially what is happening de facto today. So we’re seeing the emergence of one state, just not a solution.”

In ages hence, Israelis and Palestinians may well look back at the Obama years as the place in time where two roads diverged. The signs are everywhere in this contested land that the status quo is unsustainable. Many peace activists still believe that the well-worn if crooked path to a two-state resolution offers the best hope for a lasting peace. They also know that events are conspiring toward a different choice, and they have every reason to fear the road less traveled.

This is the first in a two-part series on tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Next week: Jerusalem.


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