Why is there no peace?

The pre-Christmas Security Council resolution about Israeli settlements—and the reactions to it—once again highlight the difficulties in forging Israeli–Palestinian peace. There is no agreement about anything, not even whether the resolution helped or hindered the cause of peace.

A key to understanding why peace has been so hard to achieve (and why, despite both sides claiming to desire it, negotiations haven’t occurred for years) is to look at what both sides mean by ‘peace’. In short, the concept means very different things to Israelis and Palestinians. 

For Israelis, ‘peace’ means security. It means less Israelis dying in terrorism and war. Because less Israelis were killed by Palestinians before the Oslo peace process than during or after, the peace process is considered a failure. This does not mean that Israelis are anti-peace. Quite the opposite, for decades poll after poll has revealed that Israelis would be happy with the creation of a Palestinian state as long as Israeli security was not imperilled as a result. Stung by the security failures of the Oslo peace process, Israelis will only back another peace process if the Palestinians first prove they want peace. This is a reversal of the popular concept of the peace process, summarised by ‘land for peace’. Israelis now believe in ‘peace for land’, in that order. 

For Palestinians, ‘peace’ is about achieving what they consider their national rights, which include the establishment of a state and the immigration to Israel of the descendants of Palestinian refugees from 1948 (which would end Israel’s Jewish majority ). When the Oslo process began back in 1993, things were looking good. The Palestinian Authority was established. Israel withdrew from 60 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza ( including 90 per cent of the population). Palestinians were allowed many trimmings of statehood, such as diplomatic representation. But progress quickly stalled. Israel didn’t withdraw from nearly as much land as the Palestinians thought they would or should. Movement through Israeli checkpoints and between the newly-created-though-non-contiguous Palestinian-controlled areas became more difficult during the Oslo process than before. The nepotism of the newly installed Palestinian leadership, and the impunity of the newly installed Palestinian security forces made life difficult for normal Palestinians. This corruption was hardly Israel’s fault, but these difficulties were brought about by the peace process, thereby adding to its unpopularity.  

There is a circular, chicken-and-egg argument as to who is mostly to blame. Israel slowed down implementation of the peace agreements, and generally made life harder for the Palestinians, in an attempt to improve Israeli security. Would Palestinians have been less inclined to support terrorism if Israel had have ceded more land, or made movement less difficult for Palestinians? None of the above includes discussion of the people on both sides committed, through politics or violence, to undermining the peace process. No Israeli or Palestinian action would mollify those who considered any concession to the other side as religiously forbidden. 

More importantly, none of the above explains why no one is attempting to make peace right now. The short answer is, neither side got all or part of what it wanted through negotiations and peace processing, but both sides are getting part of what they want through unilateral actions. There is, therefore, in the minds of both Israelis and Palestinians, no particular need for a new peace process. 

Because of Israel’s soldiers in the West Bank, its separation barrier and its intelligence assets, Israeli security is currently really good. Israelis aren’t dying in mass casualty attacks any more. And while there is some Israeli–Palestinian security cooperation, Palestinian media and politicians continue to be full of praise for Palestinians that try to kill Israelis, and full of encouragement for any and all actions (whether domestic or international) that seek to undermine and, ultimately, end Israel’s existence. Israelis remain convinced that their current feeling of security is in spite of, not because of Palestinians, and that ceding land to Palestinians will undermine Israeli security. So Israelis are happy not to enter negotiations. 

As for Palestinians, they have realised that they are, step by step, getting closer to statehood by using the international community: The UN General Assembly and a multitude of individual countries have recognised Palestine as a state (despite it meeting few of the Montevideo Convention criteria of statehood); this ‘State of Palestine’ has acceded to numerous treaties and international bodies, including the International Criminal Court, where it is attempting to make like more difficult for Israel in the realm of international law (a concept known as ‘lawfare’). Even the Security Council has stepped in, passing the resolution about Israeli settlements. All of this has come about without the Palestinians compromising on a single issue, including their maximalist and unachievable demand for the ‘right of return’.  

The international community justifies all these actions as attempts to help the Palestinians in the face of supposed Israeli intransigence. But the ironic thing is, these actions are actually making both sides more intransigent. Israelis, because they are losing all trust in the international community to have their back ahead of potentially dangerous Israeli concessions. And Palestinians, because they are winning battle after battle with Israel, and getting closer and closer to their dream of statehood, by going down this road. Why, then, would Palestinians bother with negotiations, which involves compromise, when they can get what they want for free? 

The problem is, the way each side defines ‘peace’ enables them to exclude the other’s definition. If Israelis can have security without Palestinian statehood (and if, as history shows, movement towards Palestinian statehood reduces Israeli security), why bother with Palestinian statehood? If Palestinians can have movement towards statehood without the need for compromise, why compromise? This is why, for several years, there has been no negotiations, despite a standing Israeli offer, on the condition that Palestinians, at some point, accept Israel as a Jewish state (and in doing so, indirectly concede the Palestinian ‘right of return’). Israel so offers because it knows no Palestinian leader will accept. And Palestinians are far too content winning battles against Israel in the international community to enter the perilous domain of negotiations, which includes the implicit demand for compromise. 

Unless the Israelis and Palestinians realise that their own definitions of peace will not be fully realised until the other’s is, peace will not come about. The international community has an obvious role to play; while pressure against Israeli intransigence is necessary, so to is pressure against Palestinian intransigence. The recent trajectory of international policy in regards to Israeli–Palestinian peace is therefore making things more difficult. 


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