Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Shtachim-for-Shtichim Shtick

In the aftermath of Ariel Sharon’s recent warm reception at the United Nations, Binyamin Netanyahu accused him of “trading shtachim for shtichim” – literally, giving up territories for (red) carpets. This accusation – despite the semi-clever Hebrew wordplay – is nothing new. Since the beginnings of Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians a decade ago, opposition right-wingers have accused Israeli governments of giving away valuable “real” assets in return for nothing more than intangibles – handshakes, fleeting approval, and so on. Israeli governments have consistently defended their agreements with the Palestinians as successful “business deals”; when Netanyahu himself was Prime Minister, he lost no opportunity to trumpet his supposed insistence on genuine reciprocity: “If they give, they’ll get.” In reality, this entire line of discourse represents a misunderstanding of our situation at best; and, in my opinion, is nothing more than a grand deception of the Israeli public.

Value for Value?

The image of Israel’s various deals with the Palestinians peddled to the public has been that of a value-for-value exchange: Israel gives up certain assets, in return for other assets it will receive from the Palestinians or their supporters. According to this paradigm, Israel and the Palestinians both gain from the exchange, since the assets Israel cedes to the Palestinians (territories, economic concessions, and so on) benefit the Palestinians more than they cost Israel, while the benefits to Israel (peace, legitimacy, and so on) cost the Palestinians less than they benefit Israel. (Or, looking at it another way, Israel needs peace more than land, and the Palestinians need land more than they need the continuation of conflict.) Understood in this way, traditional Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – e.g. the Oslo Accords – satisfies the prime test for a sensible deal: “In a successful negotiation, everyone wins.”

In essence, then, the traditional view is that Israel and the Palestinians are negotiating a real-estate sale: we are the seller, and the Palestinians are the buyer. According to this view, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank constitutes an undeserved gift to the Palestinians – we’ve given up one of our most desired assets, and gotten nothing in return except for some warm fuzzies from the international community, and nothing at all from the Palestinians themselves. This way of looking at the Disengagement, and at Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in general, is comprehensible, simple, sensible – and dead wrong.

Do We Covet Our Neighbor’s Assets?

In a normal real-estate transaction, the seller exchanges a property (a house, for example) for a sum of money. Since money is exchangeable for all sorts of good stuff, we assume that if he receives enough of it, the seller will walk away happy. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aren’t quite so simple, however; to understand what’s really going on, we need to look more closely at what each side wants, and what each side brings to the table.

What does Israel actually want from the Palestinians? From our standpoint, they actually have remarkably few assets. They have no available land to trade; to the extent that they (lacking sovereignty) can be said to possess any territory, their territory is thoroughly populated by Palestinians. They don’t really have anything else material that we want. Basically, I can think of only two things we want from the Palestinians:

  1. Stop killing us. Despite what you may have heard, we really don’t enjoy being victims of terrorism.

  2. Stop making us the bad guys. We don’t need to be seen as the world’s greatest angels, but we’re thoroughly sick of being seen – by you, by the rest of the world, and even by ourselves – as oppressors, occupiers, bullies, and so on. (Hint: If you’d stop trying to kill us, we could go easy on the other stuff.)
This boils down to a simple proposition, one that I believe to be the fundamental basis of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking (such as it is): “You get out of our face, and we’ll get out of your face.” Of course, the Israeli Left hides this proposition, burying it in a cocoon of convoluted documents and committees of the intelligent-but-powerless. It wouldn’t do, after all, to admit that “peace” for Israel and the Palestinians is really a code-word for mutual avoidance and loathing! The far-Right, which likes things to be very succinct, has substituted their own abbreviated version of my proposition: “Get out.” But most of us have never read the Oslo Accords (I’ve tried, I really have tried); and being the kind-hearted, enlightened souls we are, very few of us would agree with the “transfer” maniacs – at least not when we’re sober. So I believe that my version fairly represents the hopes and aspirations of mainstream Israelis. (“Mainstream Israelis”, of course, refers to those who more or less agree with me. Other writers have different, incorrect definitions of “mainstream”: people who agree with them.)

So all we’re really looking for is a change in Palestinian behavior, which would enable us to change our behavior in turn, and justify our giving up control of some or all of the Territories. But there’s a problem here. How is a Palestinian behavioral change to be measured and evaluated? If we exchange Territory X for Behavioral Promise Y, how can we be sure that the Palestinians will fulfill their promise? How long do they have to behave nicely for us to be satisfied? What if they promise to abandon terrorism, but a few people don’t get the message?

In reality, of course, we’ve learned that Palestinian promises of good behavior (at least as we understand them) count for very little. We tend to put this down to bad faith on the Palestinian side, and I have no doubt that this plays a significant part. (After all, when Mahmoud Abbas signs the Road Map and then refuses to make any effort to disarm Hamas, what can we say other than that, at best, he has a little reading problem?) But I suspect that even if our Palestinian negotiating partners really wanted to fulfill their promises to us, they wouldn’t be able to do so; and even if they managed to do so for a while, they wouldn’t be able to do so permanently. The problem is that nobody among the Palestinians can commit the entire Palestinian public to conduct itself in a manner acceptable to Israel, and make the commitment stick. There is no monopoly of armed force among the Palestinians, and in fact the “moderates” among them – that is, the people who are willing to sign agreements with us, whether they intend to keep them or not – are among the weaker forces in Palestinian society.

It’s also worth noting that from the Palestinian leadership’s standpoint, the things we offer – territory, trade, and so on – are not necessarily as attractive as we think they are. Yes, ordinary Palestinians suffer at Israeli roadblocks, suffer from poverty, suffer from unemployment; but the terror organizations thrive on exactly these factors. The most dynamic and powerful forces in Palestinian society are all creatures of the Occupation; and these forces are in no hurry to rid Palestinian society of the grievances that keep them strong and vibrant.

So What’s to Negotiate?

If Palestinian commitments to Israel are not reliable – and with all the good will in the world, I can’t think of any reason to believe that they are, or will be any time soon – then there isn’t any obvious point in negotiating with even the most moderate of the “moderates” in order to obtain such commitments. No matter what concessions we make, our real expectations of the Palestinians (at least for now) are zilch. So we might as well admit that the whole notion of “value for value” in negotiating with the Palestinians is chimerical.

Lacking any real possibility of a value-for-value negotiation with the Palestinians, Israel is left with three broad options regarding the Occupied Territories:

  • Do nothing (as the Right prefers) on the assumption that time is somehow on our side;

  • Negotiate anyway (a.k.a. the “let’s pretend” game);

  • Do something unilateral, as Israel just did in Gaza and the northern West Bank.

From Madrid to Taba, Israeli governments chose to play the “let’s pretend” game; now, rather suddenly, momentum appears to be shifting towards the unilateral approach. No Israeli government since the early 1990’s has seriously adopted the first approach; despite all the criticism of other governments’ “giveaways”, each new Prime Minister has found himself doing something to reduce the extent of Israel’s occupation of the Territories.

If the Palestinians have nothing real to offer us – that is, if our choice in dealing with them is between unilateral withdrawals disguised as exchanges and unilateral withdrawals not disguised as exchanges – why not just stay put? Thereby hangs another post!


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