Last week’s ugly mess involving the abortive visit to Israel of two Democratic congresswomen was useful for only one reason: It exposed how much the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has become a pathetic festival of magical thinking, performance art, reality denial, political fundraising and outright political fraud. It’s become about everything except what it needs to succeed: courageous, fair-minded, creative diplomacy and leadership.
At the official U.S. level, Jared Kushner has spent three years ginning up a peace plan that he still won’t show anyone. So far, his only achievement is an Israeli-Palestinian economic conference in Bahrain that no Israeli or Palestinian officials attended.
Kushner actually seems to believe that the problem can be solved by the Israelis and Gulf Arabs funding a leveraged buyout of Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty and statehood.
Kushner deserves some credit for fresh thinking about how to attract investment to the West Bank, but he lapsed into magical thinking when he allowed all the diplomatic features of his plan to be dictated by the political needs and desires of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The reason his plan has not been released yet is that it does not serve Bibi’s election needs. Even though it reportedly offers the Palestinians only some diluted form of autonomy in the West Bank and Arab districts of Jerusalem, any new powers for them are a nonstarter right now for Netanyahu, who needs every right-wing settler vote he can muster to win reelection Sept. 17.
President Donald Trump says he will release Kushner’s plan after the Israeli election, but I would not trust that for a second. Trump’s only participation in this process has been to exploit it by being slavishly pro-Bibi to win political donations from Sheldon Adelson and votes from Jews in Florida. If Bibi doesn’t want Kushner’s plan released, it won’t be.
But let me not pick on Kushner. If Kushner has no Palestinian partner for his leveraged buyout plan, mainstream Democrats have no Israeli partner for their golden oldie – the “two-state solution.” They pretend that Netanyahu is a partner for a two-state solution, even though Bibi’s been openly, gradually but steadily moving Israel toward annexation of the West Bank.
Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill have even stymied an attempt by some Democratic and Republican senators to pass a mild resolution in the Senate saying a two-state solution should still be on the table.
But let me not be too hard on the Democrats – the American center left – because the Israeli center left has no plan on the table, either. The main Israeli center-left party, called Blue and White, is not running on a platform that even acknowledges the principle of two states for two people: Israelis and Palestinians. It fears looking naive to Israelis and losing right-of-center votes.
Talk about reality denial, the most existential question in Israel – what to do with the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank – is not on the September ballot.
Then again, one should not come down too hard on the American and Israeli center lefts since the Palestinians also have not put any detailed two-state peace plan on the table, and, even if they did, they no longer have a single governing authority to negotiate for them and definitively end the conflict with Israel. The Palestinians are divided between an Islamist Hamas-led government in Gaza and the more secular Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And both are teetering on failed-state status.
Not to be outdone in magical thinking or performance art, the progressive Democratic far-left contingents in the U.S. Congress, and on college campuses, and in Europe, also have no plan. They have an attitude. It’s often expressed in support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. If you go to its website, BDS specifically states that it “does not advocate for a particular solution to the conflict and does not call for either a ‘one state solution’ or a ‘two state solution.’”
BDS does, though, specifically call for a boycott of Israel until it stops “its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” but it’s vague on whether that is just the West Bank and East Jerusalem or all of Israel. It also demands the return of all Palestinian refugees and their descendants since the 1948 war – not to a future West Bank Palestinian state but to their original villages in what is now Israel – while making no mention of the rights of the Jews to a state in their historical homeland.
As such, the pro-BDS progressives – who do not distinguish between boycotting Israeli products from occupied territories and boycotting the idea of a Jewish state – have no plan or real Israeli partner.
So there you have it. We have peace plans with no partners and movements with no peace plans.
The only hope I see is for the emergence of an Israeli leader ready to boldly make a unilateral – but coordinated – separation from the West Bank in the way that Ariel Sharon made a unilateral – but uncoordinated – withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. In a unilateral separation, the Israeli army would retain overall security control of the West Bank but cede much more day-to-day economic control and political control to Palestinians, and curb Jewish settlement deep in the West Bank.
There are currently about 105,000 Jewish settlers now living deep inside the West Bank, right in the heart of where any Palestinian state in a two-state solution would be located. That is, they are living beyond the West Bank settlement blocks, where another 300,000 Jewish settlers live but would remain in any peace deal.
If that settlement process deep inside the West Bank is not halted immediately – and incentives created for those settlers to move – there will be no hope ever for a two-states-for-two-people peace deal. The only option left will be one state for two people, a recipe for permanent strife.
So, Israelis and Palestinians don’t just need a plan for peace now, they need a plan to save a plan for peace. That’s how bad things are.
The only Israeli leader powerful enough to provide that right now is Netanyahu, but he is focused only on saving himself from indictment on corruption charges. Could Benny Gantz, the former Israeli army chief of staff and leader of the Blue and White party, be that person if he defeats Netanyahu? I hope. He has the potential.
I am reading a smart and prescient new book related to all of this, titled “Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny,” by veteran U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross and analyst David Makovsky. I asked Ross what was the key difference between Israel’s leaders then and now.
“As much as Israel’s founding leaders may have disagreed with one another, men like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin always in the end put the interests of the state above their own,” Ross said. “They understood that whether you were making a choice or doing nothing, you were making a choice.”
Two quotes in this book stand out. One comes from Begin, the right-wing prime minister, after he was criticized by fellow Israeli religious-nationalists for offering a plan for Palestinian autonomy in December 1977 to Anwar Sadat. Begin told his critics that his proposal demonstrated “decency” and that Israel could not ethically control land without granting rights. Israel, Begin added, would never “be like Rhodesia,” then an apartheid state.
The other quote is from Sharon, who once remarked to Ross when asked about his big decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza in 2005: “My generation is the last one that is not afraid to make big decisions. I fear that the next generation will be led by politicians and they won’t decide.”
Let’s hope that’s Sharon’s prediction is wrong. Otherwise, Begin’s Rhodesia fears will come true.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.