Israel, Palestine and the passage of time

After 70 years of futile diplomacy and conflict, time may well be on the side of the Palestinians.

Enough time has passed to know that US diplomacy doesn't work in this area, writes Bell [EPA]
Enough time has passed to know that US diplomacy doesn't work in this area, writes Bell [EPA]

As peace talks stand on their last legs, or threaten to morph into another extended exercise in political agony, some are already writing obituaries about the Kerry process and the two-state solution. Over the last nine months, while the talks were taking place, Israel approved tenders for 14,000 new settler homes, a pace described as “unprecedented” by Peace Now. Meanwhile, Hamas and Fatah have demonstrated surprising initiative, and announced a surprise transitional unity government to the dismay of Israel and the US mediators.

It seems very likely that another attempt has bit the dust, and gone the way of its forbearers. Indeed, many are distracted by other international events, or simply fed up with the endless peace process. During two decades of such efforta, an intifadah has occurred, Iraq was invaded, several Arab dictators have fallen, and Syria crumbled into a violent dust – and that’s only in the Middle East. Time has eroded major countries and bastions of power, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds on, intractable, defiant of time.

Enough time has passed to know that US diplomacy doesn’t work in this area, but not enough, it seems, to accept an alternative mediator, method or solution. Much has changed on the ground in Israel and Palestine as well from the rise (and decline?) of Hamas, to the strengthening of the political right in Israel. Settlement building in the West Bank has expanded, as has the gobbling up of East Jerusalem, and the refugees’ plight keeps worsening, but the political solution to the conflict remains elusive.

Many have indeed concluded that the two-state solution is not feasible, leaving a troublesome selection between status quo, chronic conflict and a one-state solution. Time has passed, yet, it remains a defining factor for both peoples.

Time has eroded the idea of Israel as David vs the Arab Goliath, public and political opinion across the world is firmly with the Palestinians as the victim, even if that has not yet be translated into political pressure on Israel.

Israel continues to play for time, as it has from its genesis. A tactical brilliance, and a confidence in the practical, as well as short-term advantage, have always defined Zionism – and many Israelis are secure in that strategy. This is compounded by a disbelief in long-term prognostications and the need to react to them today: “In the long run, we’re all dead,” as economist John Keynes famously said. Given this, the bottom line is that Israel does not yet feel the imperative for a two-state solution, ie, the need to make the sacrifices today for tomorrow.

The sacrifices of today

For the Palestinians, on the other hand, despite considerable suffering, the fall back is the long term, and the inevitability of Israel passing into oblivion through war or slower erosion, demographic or otherwise. Palestinians may lose the military struggle and never settle in the negotiations, but they have time on their side. They are already making the sacrifices of today for tomorrow – or so it is hoped.

Despite these varying bets, time may come back to haunt the sides, and especially Israel. New forces have already been unleashed that will only grow. Time has eroded the idea of Israel as David vs the Arab Goliath, public and political opinion across the world is firmly with the Palestinians as the victim, even if that has not yet be translated into political pressure on Israel.

Europeans are targeting products from the settlements, some pension plans are disinvesting or considering it, and the b BDS movement, boycott, divestment and sanctions, is not stopping. Israel’s settlement enterprise is considered illegitimate everywhere except among a few diehard supporters. It may simply be a question of time until the pressure on Israel builds sufficiently. The two state solution may be simply delayed until the “political time” necessary for the Israeli system to absorb the inevitable takes place, or cause Israel a systemic political indigestion.

The great irony is that, while Israelis pursue their agenda oblivious of time, change may eventually catch up and in unexpected ways. Time has its own logic and a somewhat twisted humour. By the time Israelis are ready for two states, it may well be time for a one-state solution, and a full Palestinian readiness for that eventuality. Settlements will have grown, the discussions on the toughest issues, Jerusalem and the refugees, will have gotten more difficult, and the region will have experienced a few more flips and somersaults. Any readiness to compromise with Israel will have slipped that much further into the distance, possibly beyond any retrievable horizon.

Such is the nature of the game of those who flirt with or trample on time. It can wreak its nasty and unexpected revenge. Israelis can take credit for having fought off the corrosive effect of Middle East politics for as long as possible, but their belief in the immediate has blinded them to the imperatives of the long term; what worked in the past may not work in the future. Palestinians can take succour in their “sumud” (Arabic for steadfastness) in the face of a powerful enemy, but there have been opportunities lost in favour of ideals. Indeed, if Palestinians don’t complete their unification process, their cause may be subsumed over time into much larger and more powerful regional forces: Jerusalem is not only a Palestinian cause, and the refugees are an issue across the Arab world.

Despite all the hubris derived in standing up against venerable time, or its denial, time is the victor in the end. This is especially so for those who neither anticipate nor adapt to its endlessly creative dispensations.

After 70 years or more of futile diplomacy and conflict, it may well be time for Israelis and Palestinians to try a new tack. Instead of a hyper fixation on the short term, or a passive bet on the long, they can shape possibilities through bold sacrifices and innovative solutions. Only this way does anyone earn time’s elusive respect and succesfully influence its speeding course.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.

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