Prospects seem so poor for Israeli-Palestinian peace that even some long-time advocates of a two-state solution have begun arguing for new approaches to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
“We’re on a slippery slope, on both sides, to something very ugly,” veteran Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher said over coffee at Kramer books in Dupont Circle last week.
Alpher, a former Mossad officer and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has the political strength or personal desire to reach an agreement to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel and end the conflict between the two peoples. Well-meaning attempts, such as Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2014 peace push, can only fail under the circumstances and leave the region worse off.
World leaders are making a mistake by trying to build agreements on the model of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which sought to end every aspect of the conflict at once, Alpher said.
“My argument is, 25 years after Oslo, it’s fair to suggest that whoever wants to deal with the issue should stop and say, ‘We tried this at the highest level, and we failed.’ If you try again based on all the same rules, you’re going to make things worse.”
Alpher, a Washington native who has lived in Israel since 1964, is often associated with Israel’s peace movement. He writes a weekly analysis column for Americans for Peace Now and co-edited Bitter Lemons, an online dialogue with Palestinian academic Ghassan Khatib.
But Alpher said that he is an independent analyst, not an ideologue. He was back in Washington to speak about his new book, “No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine,” whose policy prescriptions seek to slow down — not transform — the ride to a binational Israel in constant conflict with its Palestinian inhabitants.
“I used to be optimistic. Then I became realistic. Now I am so concerned about the future that I have written this book,” he writes.
The flaw inherent in all peace attempts, including the 2008 effort between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, where the two parties came closest to agreement, is between what Alpher calls “pre-1967” and “post-‘67” issues.
The post-’67 issues — borders, security arrangements, land swaps — are relatively simple to agree on. But the pre-’67 issues, which arose from Israel’s creation, are “narrative issues” upon which both the Israeli and the Palestinian national identities are founded: Jerusalem and the holy places, Palestinian refugees. Agreements repeatedly founder on these issues, Alpher said.
One lesson from Kerry’s failed peacemaking effort, Alpher said, is that the two sets of issues should be separated, and the narrative issues should be set aside. “Talk about the nuts and bolts of a two-state solution, not about the end of the conflict.”
Alpher views Israel’s settlement and West Bank policies over 50 years almost like a Greek tragedy. They “add up to a strategic mistake worthy of being listed in Barbara Tuchman’s 1984 ‘March of Folly’ alongside the Trojan War and the U.S. War in Vietnam,” he writes.
“The existential threat to Israel is from within,” he said, “as a democratic, Jewish, Zionist state. And this is our doing. And in this sense it’s a strategic mistake. The recognition [in 1967] should have been, Get out.”
In the book, he offers five possible scenarios for the future: The Arab world contributes to Israel’s continued military-strategic strength despite the continuing Palestinian problem; things become so bad that Israelis decide unilaterally to give up the West Bank; the Palestinians revolt against Israel’s presence on land they claim for a future state; or the Palestinians give up their struggle for independence.
Alpher said the more likely scenario is “muddling through.”
Nevertheless, he said, “we’re in a revolutionary era in the region, which is why you can’t truly predict the future.”
What if Gaza runs out of water in two years, he asked, as the United Nations predicts? “What effect does that have? Or if [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan makes an agreement with Israel and becomes a patron of Gaza. What effect will that have?” Or what if Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince and rising star, announces he will come to Jerusalem “and offer Israel peace and normalization ‘if you and the Palestinians do A, B, C and D.’ What effect would this have on Israeli public opinion?”
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did make such a groundbreaking gesture in 1977, Alpher noted. But that was only after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War. That’s a high price to pay for fundamental change.