Israel at 65
How The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process Became The World's Greatest Bore
To cure boredom over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to stop focusing on borders and start focusing on economic progress, says Bernard Avishai.
Israel turns 65 today, old enough to know better; and if life begins at conception, the state and I are exactly the same age. So forgive me for going all meta. I can imagine pretty much what I'll be, if at all, in 20 years. But Israel?
I ask because the conflict with the Palestinians seems headed to something bad, yet the peace process has become a great bore. Presumably, everybody knows the arguments and grievances and indignations. They know that two states have been preempted by Tel Aviv's complacency, or settler momentum, or Ramallah's nostalgia, or Gaza's missiles; that we're too afraid and they're too angry; that you can care about "Jewish," or about refugees, but not both; that the occupation has created one state anyway, and seriousness about human rights means demanding one-person, one-vote, a notional prelude to a political dream palace, which actually means a prelude to Bosnia, but never mind.
But wait: isn't John Kerry serious and hasn't President Obama inspired? Won't a renewal of Palestinian insurgency, with Syria in chaos and the Egyptian economy collapsing, lead to regional violence? Even if Israel has the power to win any war, don't Palestinians have the power to make them despise any victory? Boring. Everybody also knows that in restarting negotiations over restarting negotiations, Kerry's in denial about how far apart the sides are, or the limited power of American diplomacy to force them closer, or (the same thing) the limited power of the president to defy the Israel lobby.
The only people who aren't bored, it seems, are the pure hearts on both sides who claim that the peace the process is supposed to produce is anyway superfluous; that Palestinians can outlast Zionism like ancient Muslims sweated out the Crusaders, or that Israelis can hunker down behind their wall, wait for "the neighborhood" to settle down, and morph into Silicon Valley (soon, with more Haredi programmers). In Israel, cynicism actually means flirting with messianism: annex, sigh, annex, sigh, and join in hymns to the land of Israel. Then again, what is more boring: the dead ends careful people think themselves into, or the delusions faithful people con themselves into? Either way, Kerry Shmerry.
So Israelis are entering the state's 65th year in a kind of Après moi, le déluge frame of mind: Lapid's people can sit with Bennett's people, and both can sit with Bibi's people, not because they agree on a future, but because they can't really envision one. And they blush for people who try to. Sure, let Kerry start negotiations; let his shuttles continue. They won't lead anywhere. So we're safe. Not safe safe, but not-to-blame; safe in the conviction that nothing should really be expected of us, not when there are nuclear Ayatollahs to wag a finger at and existential threats defining "history." Hell, even our smartest American Jews are lamenting how there won't be Middle East peace in their lifetime. So no more strategy, just brilliant pathos.
If it isn't clear by now, I hate this talk, this boredom, this canny hopelessness, and not only because "knowing better" means realizing you'll be remembered for what you stood for, not for your predictions. More important, the new politics is staring us in the face but most keep defaulting to the old one, of all things, just to avoid looking foolish. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we're bored, not because we've heard it all before, but because what we've heard is vexingly out of date; two separate states addressing the problems, or redeeming the promise, of 1948, or 1967, not 2013.
The thing is, two states in a globalized, networked, densely populated land cannot be the same as two states in a land full of sparse agricultural villages and rivalries over hilltops. The UNSCOP partition plan was nice, at least for Zionist colonists. But forget partition. It was not conceived for what Tel Aviv has become and what the East Jerusalem-Ramallah-Hebron triangle will inevitably become. Economic integration has become much more important for national life to thrive than "self-determination"; open source cooperation is much more important than closed borders.
Most Israeli peaceniks of my generation still don't get this. They've been saying since before Oslo, "we'll give them their share of the land and perhaps they'll leave us alone," which had a certain plausibility, except for that refugee thing, and the matter of one-fifth of "us" being them. But I like to think that Kerry gets it, that somewhere in the course of his shuttles he's shifted paradigms—like to think it if only because it makes sense for a hip, worldly American to get it, so I can hardly believe he doesn't get it and thinks he can get others to get it.
I haven't much evidence for this, but there is some. "We are going to engage in new efforts, very specific efforts, to promote economic development [in Palestine]," Kerry said at last week's final press conference in Jerusalem. This came in the wake of President Obama's closing words in Jerusalem ("if people want to see the future of the world economy, they should look at Tel Aviv... Israel should have [entrepreneurial partnerships] with every country in the world"). Translation: the conflict needs to be reframed in terms of the new economy, indeed, that the issues in dispute could be both expanded and made more tractable if we recognized facts on the ground other than the kinds of villages and settlements that faced off in the 1940s.
Actually, most reporters immediately assumed that Kerry's talk of new economic efforts was merely a way to elide the “core issues” (borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees) where—given this government in Israel, and those divisions in Palestine—frustration is guaranteed. Or a way of sending a message to Abbas's Fatah brains-trust to leave Salam Fayyad in office, which Abbas did not do—about which more in a follow-up post. I have myself argued that economic progress under occupation, where movement of Palestinian talent and components is restricted to protect the settlement project, cannot be serious.
And yet consider the emphasis and timing of Kerry's statement. These are familiar notes, but the music seems different to me somehow, precisely because it’s clear to anyone who'll give it a moment's thought that enabling flows of talent and components into Palestine is a bigger core issue for a future two state solution than, say, the precise placement of the border; that the occupation needs to end first and foremost because of the economic harm it is doing.
Kerry’s focus on economic progress in this context may sound hackneyed but it can also be an appeal for realism and creativity. Okay, the PA is on the ropes; residents of Palestinian cities need international donors to pony up around $2 billion a year to pay teachers and police, and Fayyad made donating easier. But Palestinians have over $8 billion in bank deposits (Jordanian Palestinians have well over $12 billion), and banks can't lend even half of it because, given the occupation, there are few investible business plans. In this sense, Fayyad was doomed from the start.
But in this sense, also, think about the placement of a border—a much more fraught issue when you think of two states as land subtending agricultural villages and smallish industrial villages rather than networked cities. But Israel and Palestine are already headed to something much more like the latter than the former. Israel is a city-state, an arc-shaped Hebrew megalopolis of about six million Jews, from Beersheba to Haifa and on into the Galilee, an entrepreneurial node in a global network. Bending around this arc is a string of hybridized Israeli Arab cities, another million and a half people, many of whom are percolating into Hebrew civil society, and whose Arabic culture disrupts Israel's urbane Hebrew culture not at all. Sure, there is racism: Jews and Arabs are humans. But there is also Rambam Hospital in Haifa, where Jewish and Arab doctors and patients portend an Israel and Palestine we often see but don't project from.
And interfacing with this Israeli, Hebrew city-state is the Palestinian, Arabic state-in-the-making, increasingly integrated with the economic life of Amman. Indeed, when hundreds of thousands of refugees start pouring back, much of the West Bank hill cities (and Jordan Valley) will look like, and have the urban density of, Amman. A two state solution cannot now be a divorce. As I've stressed again and again, both states north of the Negev desert are about the size of greater Los Angeles; West Jerusalem to Ramallah is San Diego to Tijuana. You cannot divorce San Diego from Tijuana, and why would you want to?
In fact, when you think of the jurisdictions these city-states will exercise, you'd think naturally of police, education, civil law, property law, etc., pretty much what the PA has hypothetically exercised under the Oslo Agreement. But now try to think of jurisdictions that do not require the two city-states to work cooperatively and grow reciprocally. There aren't any. Think of water and sewage, bandwidth and telecom, health delivery and control of epidemics, labor and immigration law, certification and integration of tourist services, banking and currency controls, roads and bridges, railways, construction standards, technical universities, and so forth. In effect, this must become one big system: two nations, yes, but one urban infrastructure.
So a border will matter, independence will matter. But as Sam Bahour and I have written, independence must be enabled by interdependence. Housing stock and office space in Palestine, as in Israel, will grow up, not out; the flow into Palestine of intellectual capital from Israel and Jordan will matter more to Palestinian development than any financial capital it gets from Western Europe or Gulf States. Palestine graduates about 1200 computer technologists a year. How many will be competent unless they work on large-scale projects such as can be found in Israel's technology centers for Intel, Cisco, and Google? How many Israeli medical tourism companies can thrive without forging partnerships with Palestinians drawing clients from Dubai and Qatar?
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting the sides are not interested in cultural distinction and national sovereignty; I am not saying notions of holiness, or justice under international law, won't matter. Both sides will want to build "their own state." But the obvious direction here is toward an array of confederative institutions, which is just what the global economy has established and portends.
Even on the most enduring and volatile core issues, such as Jerusalem, various good faith negotiations in the past (like those between Olmert and Abbas) have presumed new confederative institutions simply to solve otherwise unsolvable problems. Jerusalem, they agreed, would have two capitals but one municipality. Well, what was that projected municipality if not a confederative institution? What was the projected international committee that would become custodian of the old city? Security arrangements, remember, were similarly agreed on, and would assume an American or other third party patrol on the Jordanian border to guard against smuggling heavy weapons and missiles. What was the joint body that would deal with this third party if not a confederative institution?
Two interlocking city-states, that is, will have economies that are urban, networked and rooted in knowledge-based entrepreneurship. In that context, even the return of refugees becomes easier to entertain. For the fight to maintain a Jewish national reality is no longer about who will control an agricultural Galilee, but what will the language of work be in Herzliya. Olmert suggested to Abbas (and Abbas had agreed with Yossi Beilin back in 1995) that the sides establish refugee claims in an international commission, yet another confederative institution that manages restitution of property and/or compensation. But why in God's name can't Israel and Palestine jointly agree on a residency system so that a number of citizens of one state may become resident aliens of the other?
A Palestinian citizen who reclaimed a farm in the Galilee, but voted in Palestine, would be traveling perhaps twenty minutes to get to the polls. Ditto, a resident of Ariel, formally in Palestine, but a citizen of Israel. I am not saying that all settlers should remain in place or all refugees should become residents of Israel. Palestinians are right that, in principle, Israelis should not gain by having broken international law since 1967; Abbas was right when he conceded to Olmert that the return of millions of refugees would destroy Israel. But, really, what negative impact would fuzzy arrangements over residency have on the tourism businesses starting up in Bethlehem or the bioinformatics companies starting up around Rambam or the Weizmann Institute?
The point is, we have to start working these problems as if independence presumes interdependence; projecting vivid lines of cooperation and reciprocity, so that we can all begin to trust in a future together—not because we like each other, but simply because the imperative of cooperation seems so plausible. This is what Germans and Frenchmen began to work on when they formed the makings of a common market in the beginning of the 1950s.
And when I say we, I suppose I mean Kerry first and foremost. It is simply not enough for him, or the Obama administration, to work quietly behind the scenes on process and let people who are chasing the past set the terms of the conversation. Palestine is not just Israel's internal affair; Israel is not just Palestine's foil. It is time for the vision thing. As for the rest of us, the choice is either to contribute to this vision or bore ourselves to death.