Behind the Israel Protest Turmoil: A Middle East Without a Peace Process

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Welcome to the post-peace process: The drama that unfolded on Israel’s boundaries on Sunday as 12 Palestinians were killed in a wave of unarmed civil disobedience was but a taste of things to come. That was the warning from Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Sunday night, and he’s certainly got reason to worry: Rather than pin their hopes on a moribund peace process, Palestinians have begun instead to align themselves with the Arab Spring  by pressing for their own rights through acts of people power. Even if there’s no immediate followup to Sunday’s protests, they represent a political crisis of epic proportions, not only for Israel and the United States, but also potentially even for the Palestinian leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas (and even, possibly, for his new Hamas partners in government).

Israel’s security establishment has always seen mass unarmed civil disobedience as far more threatening than rocket fire or suicide bombers, because military responses to non-military challenges weaken Israel’s diplomatic and political standing. The protests also represent a challenge for Abbas, whose proclivity to compromise on issues such as the rights of Palestinian refugees in order to achieve an agreement with Israel is not shared by those taking to the streets.

And while Sunday’s protests that turned deadly on the border with Lebanon and on the cease-fire line with Syria will have suited the agenda of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, those refugees — whose families have lived in squalor since their dispossession by Israel in the conflict over its founding in 1948 — do not need the Assad regime to spur them to stake their (often downplayed) claims in the outcome of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Not that there is any Israeli-Palestinian peace process left to speak of. Just last Friday, Obama’s Middle East Special Envoy, Sen. George Mitchell, gave up the pretense that defined his position and resigned. And Sunday’s events were a sharp reminder that the collapse of the peace process does not mean ordinary Palestinians are simply going to accept their lot. Indeed, the conflict is now heading into uncharted waters in which many of the assumption of the past two decades are called into question.

Of 1967 and 1948

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Sunday that the protestors’  “struggle is not over the 1967 borders but over the very existence of Israel, which they describe as a catastrophe that must be resolved.” He’s not wrong: The reason Palestinians use the term “catastrophe” – “Nakbah,” whose annual commemoration was the theme of Sunday’s protests – to describe the moment of Israel’s emergence as a nation state  in 1948  is the fact that more than half of the Palestinian Arab population  lost their homes and land in the process of Israel’s creation. Indeed, it’s that dispossession that drove the formation of the modern Palestinian national movement, which was not originally pursuing statehood on the 1967 lines, but the recovery of that which was lost in 1948. The idea of accepting Palestinian statehood in the territories occupied by Israel in the war of 1967 (the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem) was, for the PLO, a compromise pushed by Yasser Arafat and adopted in 1988, a reluctant acknowledgement of the intractable military facts on the ground (that Israel could not be militarily defeated) prompting an acceptance of the partition principle that Palestinians had rejected forty years earlier.

It’s the refugee issue, also, that sits at the heart of the reluctance by Hamas to formally recognize Israel. As I wrote five years ago,

In the Western and Israeli narrative, Israel’s creation is seen as redress for centuries of Jewish suffering in Europe culminating in the Holocaust. In the Palestinian and Arab narrative, Israel’s creation meant the violent displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and another Arab humiliation at Western hands. So, while May 15 is celebrated by Israelis as Yom Haatzmaut (independence day), the Palestinians mark the same day as the somber anniversary of Al-Nakbah (the catastrophe), the moment when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost everything.

Even President Mahmoud Abbas has always insisted on a refugee “right of return” as part of a two-state solution. Israel has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for the plight of the Palestinian refugees, and sees their return as representing a mortal “demographic” threat to Israel’s ethnic-Jewish majority — hence Netanyahu’s reference to Israel’s very existence. There had been  plenty of indications, while negotiations had been under way, that Abbas was willing to fudge the issue by securing a “right of return” to a Palestinian state rather than to homes lost inside what is now Israel. But neither Abbas nor any other Palestinian leader had dared tell the refugees themselves that they wouldn’t be going back to where their forebears had lived – and Sunday’s demonstrations signal that the Arab Spring may have made it even more difficult for Abbas to compromise on the refugee issue.

So, Netanyahu is right: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be resolved by addressing only what happened in 1967, while ignoring what happened in 1948. And, of course, the failure of the two sides to agree even on resolving 1967 makes even more unlikely, at this point, a resolution of the entire conflict by mutual consent. Because 1948 – with the achievement of a Jewish-majority state intimately connected with the displacement of  hundreds of thousands of Arabs – is precisely where the two people’s narratives are at their most mutually exclusive.

Palestinian Independence from the U.S.

During the two decades of the peace process, Palestinian leaders had assumed  that despite ups and downs, Washington would eventually deliver Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. The self-evident collapse of that assumption has prompted a Palestinian declaration of strategic independence from Washington — hence Barak’s warning on Sunday, of more, and worse, to come. Abbas in February resisted pressure from Obama to refrain from going ahead with a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. He has ignored U.S. policy on Hamas to create a unity government with the organization, and is once again planning to ignore Washington’s objections by asking the UN General Assembly in September to recognize Palestinian sovereignty over all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

But this is uncharted territory: Part of the bargain of the U.S.-led peace process was that  the Palestinian leadership would keep the peace and keep the heat off Israel, in exchange for the promise of statehood through the negotiation process. Absent the promise of achieving statehood by that route, even the current security status quo on the West Bank, under which Abbas’ security forces shield Israel from both terror attacks and, often, also from unarmed protest actions, is now called into question.

Palestinian Independence from Abbas?

Were the protest actions seen on Sunday to mushroom into people-power intifada, it would potentially undermines the authority of both President Abbas and his new Hamas governing partners. (At least Abbas managed to get Hamas on board before this broke out, because otherwise the Islamists would have an incentive to stoke the fires to undermine Abbas; now they may actually have an incentive to restrain protest action to protect their own control over their Gaza bailiwick.)

Even if Abbas may like to see protest action and approaches to the U.N. as simply strengthening his own bargaining position,  it’s unlikely that the protestors share his negotiating agenda, nor will they be easily persuaded to stop their actions in deference to the security cooperation between Abbas’ forces and the Israelis. And, as General Keith Dayton, the U.S. officer tasked with building Abbas’ security forces, warned in 2009, without the achievement of Palestinian statehood by 2011, the ability of those units to enforce the peace would come into question because they see themselves as the security forces of a Palestinian state, not a gendarmerie protecting the status quo.

A Crisis for Israel, a Crisis for Obama

As Israeli commentator Aluf Benn wrote on Sunday,

“the nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real – that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.’ Israel prepared for demonstrations of Nakba Day in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, in the Galilee and the Triangle, but instead it was the Palestinian diaspora that tried to climb its fences. More than an intelligence lapse, the situation highlighted the limits of power.”

While Israel’s military power dwarfs that of every regional rival, it remains vulnerable on the political front. And that’s where Palestinians are likely to push in the coming months.

For President Obama, Sunday’s protests highlight the difficulty he faces in composing the speech he’s scheduled to give at the State Department on Thursday with the aim of  “resetting” relations with the Arab world. Administration officials had said that he would want to focus on the killing of Osama bin Laden and on the Arab Spring, but wouldn’t have much to say on the stalled peace process. But the weekend’s events, not only on Israel’s front-lines, but also in Cairo where tens of thousands of people demonstrated in support of the Palestinians, ought to have sounded a warning: Believing that the U.S. can realign itself with the newly empowered Arab public while maintaining unconditional support for Israel in the face of a challenge by Palestinians may simply be wishful thinking.