Tolan to Mitchell: “Good Luck”

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Anyone with any illusions about the daunting task that lays ahead for Obama’s new Middle East envoy George Mitchell should read this recent online piece by journalist Sandy Tolan (right).

Readers of previous posts will surely know that I’m a huge fan of Tolan.  In this latest article he lays out five critical questions for Mitchell as he seeks to jump-start the search for a two-state solution.  Fair warning: Tolan doesn’t pull his punches:

Twelve years later…post-Oslo “facts on the ground” have all but doomed the traditional path to peace. The two-state solution, the central focus of efforts to end the tragedy of Israel and Palestine since 1967, has been undermined by the thickening reality of red-roofed Israeli settlements, military outposts, surveillance towers, and the web of settlers-only roads that whisk Israelis from their West Bank dwellings to prayer in Jerusalem’s Old City, or to shopping and the beach in Tel Aviv. So dense had the Israeli West Bank presence become by 2009, so fragmented is Palestinian life — both physically and politically — that it now requires death-defying mental gymnastics to imagine how a two-state solution could ever be implemented.

I personally find Tolan’s analysis to be provocative and important. I’m interested in hearing your reactions…

5 thoughts on “Tolan to Mitchell: “Good Luck”

  1. I think that Tolan’s piece represents a strain of thought that patronizes the Palestinians and allows them no agency or responsibility for their actions. They are always the child-like victims, their retrograde politics are excused, and Israel is always at fault.

    The core of conflict is not Israel’s settlements in West Bank. It preceded their creation and, as we saw in Gaza, they can be removed or dealt with in land swaps as contemplated in Clinton’s proposal. The problem is Palestinian rejection of Jewish self determination. However much well-meaning people want to believe that all Israel has to do is give up this or that and peace will arrive, they fail to recognize what most Israeli’s see as plain as day. Concessions by Israel have encouraged aggression from Gaza (and Lebanon) instead of sating it. Pretending that isn’t the case may work in lefty echo-chambers abroad but it doesn’t convince the people that must be convinced that it is safe to make sacrifices.

    It is sad irony that the blame Israel stance of people like Tolan only encourages the Palestinians to continue their refusal to make peace with Israel and condemn themselves to tragic path they have chosen for the past 60 years.

  2. Tolan never asserted that the “core of the conflict” is Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank. His essential point (one that your comment does not address) is that Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank has made a two-state solution virtually impossible.

    With all due respect, I find your “core of the conflict” argument to be reductionist and simplistic. Placing exclusive blame at the door of the Palestinians for their “rejection of Jewish self-determination” is as inaccurate and unhelpful as identifying Israel as the sole villain for its “imperialist, colonialist ethnic-cleansing of Palestine.” We can continue this rhetorical game of ping-pong until doomsday, but it won’t change the facts on the ground. And as Tolan argues, these facts are increasingly mitigating against two viable states for two peoples.

    BTW: I’m not sure what you mean Israel’s “concessions.” Do you mean the Oslo agreement? After Oslo, Israel doubled it’s number of settlements in the occupied West Bank. The Gaza withdrawal? Yes, Israel withdrew from Gaza, but retained control over its borders, its ports and airspace, and has maintained a blockade which has contributed to the increasing misery of its citizens.

    This is an important context in which we must understand Palestinian behavior. It is not the total context, but it is one you conveniently ignore in your comment. Palestinian “aggression” does not occur in a vacuum. And as difficult as it might be, we need to understand why Palestinians might doubt whether or not Israel is truly serious about the peace process.

    At the end of the day, there are rejectionists on both sides. Identifying the “core of the conflict” as Palestinian rejection is disingenuous – and it will not contribute to a way out of this conflict. In the meantime, I believe Tolan’s questions remain critical no matter who we blame for these troubles: is a two-state solution viable any more? And if not, what will be the way out?

  3. His five questions for Mitchell concern Israeli settlement activity as though that is the only reason a Palestinian state has not emerged. I think there is very good evidence that Israeli settlements are not the only reason it hasn’t and argue that it not even the principal one. Israel has repeatedly recognized Palestinian Arab national aspirations going back to at least the 1930s. Since then it has repeatedly shown itself willing to surrender terrority and evacuate its citizens from those territories eg. Sinai, Gaza. Under the right circumstances, it will do so again from the West Bank as a large majority of Israeli citizens are in favor of doing so.

    The question is what are the right circumstances. The experiences with Lebanon and Gaza have convinced the Israeli center that further territorial withdraw is highly dangerous. They see that large numbers of Palestinians (and other Arabs) support using their territorial gains for further violence against Israel for the purpose of dismantling her. They can’t and shouldn’t allow a repeat of Gaza on the West Bank and therby imperil the heart of the country. I don’t really know Tolan but I see that his analysis completely ignores this dynamic. The question is why. My fear is that if not for him, than for others who adopt the one-sided critique of the conflict, is that it really masks a political agenda that seeks a one-state solution. You know, the democratic and secular Palestine that will be neither and the destruction of Jewish self determination.

    I and most Israelis agree that some settlers will have to be evacauated from the West Bank. Do you agree with his position (or, as he claims, the Palestinian position) that no Jews can remain in a future Palestinian state in order for it to be viable? My own view is that notion is every bit as racist as those in Israel who call for the expulsion Palestian Israelis in order to make their state more viable.

  4. Israel has repeatedly recognized Palestinian Arab national aspirations going back to at least the 1930s. Since then it has repeatedly shown itself willing to surrender terrority and evacuate its citizens from those territories eg. Sinai, Gaza.

    I’m not sure I’m clear about how Israel ever recognized Palestinian national aspirations in the 1930s. And citing Israel’s evacuation of its citizens from Sinai and Gaza is more than a tad misleading since they had a minute number of settlements in those territories – certainly far fewer than they have on their deeply entrenched settlement grid on the West Bank. I also tend to agree with the analysts who claim that Begin and Sharon withdrew from the Sinai and Gaza (respectively) precisely so that they COULD consolidate their presence more firmly on the West Bank.

    They see that large numbers of Palestinians (and other Arabs) support using their territorial gains for further violence against Israel for the purpose of dismantling her. They can’t and shouldn’t allow a repeat of Gaza on the West Bank and therby imperil the heart of the country.

    We are in agreement that Israel can’t allow a repeat of Gaza on the West Bank. What they did in Gaza was disastrous. If they opt for a unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal from the West Bank while sealing its borders through tight control over borders and airspace, that will only be a recipe for continued conflict and bloodshed for both peoples.

    I don’t really know Tolan but I see that his analysis completely ignores this dynamic. The question is why. My fear is that if not for him, than for others who adopt the one-sided critique of the conflict, is that it really masks a political agenda that seeks a one-state solution. You know, the democratic and secular Palestine that will be neither and the destruction of Jewish self determination.

    Your suspicion of Tolan’s nefarious “one state solution” agenda is somewhat superfluous. He actually mentions the option of a single shared state right upfront. From your words you certainly make it clear that you consider this option as tantamount to disaster. But if trends continue at their current pace, this is an option that may need to be explored more realistically whether we like it or not. As it stands, increasing numbers of American and Israeli Jews are seriously debating the notion of a bi-national state between two peoples.

    Do you agree with his position (or, as he claims, the Palestinian position) that no Jews can remain in a future Palestinian state in order for it to be viable? My own view is that notion is every bit as racist as those in Israel who call for the expulsion Palestian Israelis in order to make their state more viable.

    Your question misrepresents Tolan entirely. He never wrote that “no Jews can remain in a future Palestinian state in order for it to be viable.” He claimed, I think rightly, that if many of the Jewish settlements are allowed to remain, there will be no realistic chance for a Palestinian state. That is to say, if these settlements are left standing as they are, they will continue to cut off Palestinian communities from one another, creating nothing more than a collection of isolated cantons that in no way will resemble a viable, contiguous state.

  5. Let’s talk about that two-state idea from the get-go, even before talk of the settlements. Bluntly, I don’t buy it as a physical, political, economic, or ecological possibility – not even a little bit, and not even at any earlier point in history.

    How is it supposed to look? Right off the bat, does it mean full segregation of the current populations? That means that 1.2 million people get expatriated; they have to pack up and move from Israel proper to either Gaza or the West Bank. Is that part of the plan? (And for that matter, what about that fascinating exception to the federal ideal of Israeli Jewishness, the Druze?)

    Well, never mind that, let’s go ahead – let’s say, it happens. Poof! Everyone in the borders of Israel, whatever they end up being, is Jewish. Everyone in the new state of Palestine, however it ends up looking, isn’t. Let’s even ignore what anyone anywhere else thinks about this, especially the American taxpayers who bankroll it.

    What’s going on in Israel itself, then?

    First, consider the menial labor class. This is a major issue throughout Israel’s sixty-year history: in a state by and for Jews, who gets to clean the streets and urinals? Positing the relaxation of “the Palestinian problem,” the society will have to cope with ethnic and economic tensions which have until now been distracted and co-opted into militaristic nationalism. If Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are not going to accept such work, then are we to look forward to ever-more populous foreign workers living in Israel? Since Oslo and especially since 2000, that seems to be the solution. So if that escalates, what are their rights and roles in society? Can they be citizens? Nationals?

    Second, consider the military, both in terms of actual activity and in terms of political presence and influence. Will it be maintained at its current levels of manpower and equipment maintenance? How about the new borders? Real borders aren’t merely lines on a map, they demarcate limits of direct influence. Is the IDF really going to consider the Jordan border and the new Palestinian airspace to be off-limits? How interested in a new state could any Palestinian reasonably be if Israel can treat its airspace as it treats Lebanon’s? Will the new state of Palestine be permitted to negotiate whatever it sees fit with Syria or Jordan? How about the whole seacoast?

    Third, last time I looked, there were thousands of settlers living in federally funded country-clubs, many of whom are permitted to carry firearms, prone to intolerant views, and generally left to their own devices regarding assaulting people they don’t like. Let’s presume that most of this real estate, perhaps all of it, becomes Israel. Now that their residences are basically suburbs and no longer “settlements,” they don’t get federal funding or other supportive policies any more. So, what happens to all those country club residences? Some may well become slums. Either way, who wants to live near these people? What is public policy to do now that they are no longer under the blanket of military “protection,” and have to abide by Israeli civil laws? Look forward to an Israeli cop being shot by a former settler when he gets a parking ticket

    Fourth, and this is the really big issue, all the talk seems to be about acreage without any meaningful content regarding ecology. Israel proper is water-poor. Its coastal aquifers, including in Gaza, have become salinated through over-aggressive use and drilling. At present, 90% of the water used from the aquifer under the West Bank goes to Israeli use, either in the settlements or in Israel. Instead of talking about percentages of land area, any serious discussion about land ownership must really about water rights and use-purchase agreements. Am I to understand that the two-state solution means that the Palestinian state owns the water beneath it? And if so, is it empowered to set the terms for Israel’s use of that water? Or more accurately, am I to understand that the Israeli proposal for the two-state solution includes such things?

    I raise these questions not because I see them as logistic difficulties. Such difficulties could be overcome and negotiated. I raise them because they are consistently absent from the discussions of a two-state solution. In other words, I don’t think anyone in Israel’s policy-making community has ever presented an idea or vision of what Israel will *be and do* as one of those two states. My most cynical interpretation is that the phrase is, and here I speak only regarding the policy-makers, lip-service to appease us Americans.

    I could take that all the way back to Ben-Gurion, but the outstanding example is Sharon. Yousef Baker’s article (http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20578) discusses his tactics as prime minister and again with founding Kadima. All Sharon’s ostensibly peace-seeking rhetoric was predicated on the audience’s presupposition of the already-existing two peoples, two economies, two cultures, and two religions, and the extension of those into two states. For someone who was so fond of speaking of “facts on the ground,” his statements always lacked all substance regarding the facts I outlined above. In that absence, I think that what Sharon called “disengagement” began with on cultural and political separation (politicide), moved on to segregation, ultimately to expulsion, and given recent events which are effectively Sharon-ian and undertaken under a Kadima-based government, economic and military annihilation. I cannot help but conclude that “two state” means “one state shoves its unwanted and embarassing elements into a separate place and then obliterates them.”

    Unfortunately, people called “moderates” on this issue here in the States, such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, seem entirely on-board with that.

    Best, Ron Edwards
    P.S. Here’s a thought-provoking debate between Uri Avnery and Ilan Pappe about one-state/two-state visions for the future: http://gush-shalom.org.toibillboard.info/Transcript_eng_improved.mht.

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