Daniel Levy On Obama, Netanyahu and the Settlements

Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East Initiative at the New America Foundation (which is run by a blogger, it should be noted) and the director of the Prospects for Peace initiative at the Century Foundation, is one of the smartest analysts of the Middle East conflict in Washington, or anywhere else. He often veers too left for my taste (on only one occasion, I believe, I veered too left for his taste), but he's a rigorous thinker and is steeped in the painful and complicated details of the ongoing crisis. Levy, who keeps his own blog, of course, has been a player in negotiations through the 1990s, and brings real-world experience -- and real Israeli experience -- to the conversation. As we enter the Obama era, it seemed worthwhile to send Levy some questions:

Jeffrey Goldberg:  Are you a Zionist?

Daniel Levy: The answer is a yes, albeit a more complex yes than I'd like it to be.  I would describe myself as a Zionist on at least three levels.  First, and at the most practical level, having made aliyah to Israel from the U.K., taken up citizenship, and made my life there, my Zionism meets the more classical and exclusionary definitions.  Second, I do consider the Jews to be a people, and support that people's right to self-determination in a nation-state, Israel.  Finally, and in many ways derived from both of the above, I consider Israel to be central to my own Jewishness and my identity--more than a religious affiliation, it's a national and cultural affiliation to modern Israel, the language, to Tel Aviv, etc.
Where it gets complex is this--sixty years after the establishment of the state, and alongside all its accomplishments, the onus is now on Israel and its founding ideology, Zionism, to demonstrate in practice that it can be non-expansionist in territorial terms toward its neighbors, and that it can confer genuine equality on the non-Jewish citizens of the state.  Most troubling of course is that for more than two-thirds of its existence, Israel has imposed a hostile occupation on another people, the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and to be blunt, that occupation will have to end for Israel to survive.  To the extent to which a Zionist narrative has been used to drive forward and justify the post-'67 settlement enterprise (and the discrimination within Israel), it is a Zionism that actually works against the interests of Israel, and not, of course, the Zionism that I am signing up for.

JG: You write about the occupation in a way that suggests you believe it was Israel's fault from the outset.  Whose fault do you believe it is?  Put another way, do you think the Khartoum declaration of late 1967--the so-called three noes--set the stage for the tragedy that followed, or is it not relevant?

DL: The Khartoum noes represent a more complex issue than is often assumed.  The setting is, of course, after the '67 war, with Israel in control of vast swaths of Egyptian and Syrian territory, as well as the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.  Israel expresses a readiness to talk peace and understandably interprets the three noes of Khartoum as, well, being a negative answer.  But historians suggest it wasn't that simple.  See this long quote below from pages 258-259 of Avi Shlaim's book The Iron Wall:

"Israel's leaders watched with keen anticipation to see what conclusions the Arab leaders would draw from their military defeat.  The conference ended with the adoption of the famous three noes of Khartoum: no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace with Israel.  On the face of it these declarations showed no sign of readiness for compromise, and this is how Israel interpreted them.  In fact, the conference was a victory for the Arab moderates who argued for trying to obtain the withdrawal of Israeli forces by political rather than military means.  Arab spokesmen interpreted the Khartoum declarations to mean no formal peace treaty, but not a rejection of a state of peace; no direct negotiations, but not a refusal to talk through third parties; and no de jure recognition of Israel, but acceptance of its existence as a state.  President Nasser and King Hussein set the tone at the summit and made it clear subsequently that they were prepared to go much further than ever before toward a settlement with Israel.  At Khartoum, Nasser and Hussein reached a genuine understanding and formed a united front against the hard-liners...The Khartoum summit thus marked a real turning point in Nasser's attitude to Israel.  At Khartoum, Nasser advised, and indeed urged, King Hussein to explore the possibility of a peaceful settlement with Israel.  This was, of course, not known in Israel at the time.  As far as Israel was concerned, the Khartoum declarations closed every door and every window that might lead to a peace settlement.  On October 17 the cabinet took a decision that amounted to an official cancellation of the decision of 19 June."

The famous three noes are explained as being an opening position and that Jordanian King Hussein actually had something of a mandate from Nasser's Egypt to begin exploratory talks with Israel.  We know those took place.  We also now know that Egypt itself was putting out peace feelers prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In the end, of course, that Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was reached, but only after another needless war--something that might unfortunately be repeated with Syria now.
But here's the bigger picture: the UN in 1947 in UNGAR 181 calls for a division of mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state according to a territorial ratio of approximately 55 percent to 45 percent.  After the War of Independence, Israel is in control of not 55, but 78 percent of the land, and builds its state in that area.  After the '67 war, Israel controls 100 percent.  I would argue that Israel's big achievement today is that we have reached a situation where the Arab world is saying yes to the 1949-67 division of 78:22--not the 1947 plan, but also not one centimeter more than the '67 lines.  Some may argue that if Israel already got a yes to 78 percent, we can surely get it to 80 percent, or 85 percent, or even more--I think that is neither realistic nor desirable, and in attempting to achieve it, we are liable to commit national suicide.

So my bottom line is that Israel needs to take yes for an answer, which means ending the occupation. And let's face it, the fact that the occupation is so entrenched, especially the civilian settlements and their supportive infrastructure--none of that can be considered a sensible or legitimate response even to the traditional interpretation of the Khartoum noes.  Does it justify Palestinian violence?  No.  Is the post-'67 settlement enterprise a huge mistake for the Zionist project and an albatross around the neck of Israel?  Absolutely yes.
We can argue about the history, but the imperative today is to seize the opportunity to entrench the '67 borders, a two-state reality, and to end the occupation (with agreed, minor, and mutual land swaps involving the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but respecting the 78:22 principle).

JG: Man, you know nothing turns me on more than long quotations from Avi Shlaim.  There's an unbiased observer for you.  Anyway, next question: Who's to blame today?  Or put another way, why is the process so locked-down right now: Israeli political paralysis, Palestinian religious extremism, the continued presence of settlements in the West Bank, American disinterest, all of the above?

DL: In answer to your latest delightful question, I'm not too keen on playing the blame game.  I could agree to all of the reasons you gave and add lots more.  But I think we need to get beyond who is to blame and to think constructively and creatively about how to get out of this mess.  The situation is not good.  Neither Israelis nor Palestinians benefit, and while scoring points can always be fun, it doesn't get us very far.  In fact, I would even say that blame is secondary to a bigger problem which is that we are locked into a process that is increasingly incapable of delivering--and we need to recognize that.
I would suggest that there are two basic design faults to what we call the peace process, whether that be Oslo or Annapolis or everything in between.  One, the two parties have gone about as far as they're going to go to finding solutions in bilateral negotiations.  What is left to do--the final points of closure on core issues--is obviously the hardest bit, and I don't think the parties can do that alone, especially not with the current leaderships one both sides.  There is almost a perverse incentive at work to postpone hard decisions and to negotiate indefinitely--that is the path of least resistance in terms of domestic politics for Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Two, the Palestinians are expected to successfully build their own economy, security forces and institutions of governance while in a pre-state condition of pervasive foreign (Israel) occupation that includes an expanding civilian settler population--that needs to be protected by the IDF.  The idea is that the Palestinians prove themselves and then Israel makes progress--it has not and cannot work that way.
So both sides are struck.  The process suffers from the laws of diminishing returns as we keep trying this failed and flawed method and it does no favors to Israel as it creates circumstances in which we are unable to extract ourselves from a predicament which severely damages our interests.  I would suggest that what we need now is effective external intervention to break this impasse, and realistically this would have to be U.S.-led.

JG: Okay, external intervention is needed.  What, exactly, does President Obama do?  How does he get the Israelis to remove settlements?  How does he strengthen the PA and marginalize Gaza?

DL: To an extent, it does depend on what kind of an Israeli government an Obama presidency is working with.  If the Israeli leadership at the time is not clear in its willingness to remove settlements, withdraw on the West Bank, and implement a two-state solution, then I would recommend not investing in a peace process just for appearances' sake.  Such a process would, after all, not succeed, further undermining both hope and credibility, and the last thing we need is another failed process.  Under such circumstances--and most people will assume that this is the scenario of a Netanyahu premiership (although I'd at least test the proposition that Netanyahu can be a pragmatist after all)--I would suggest that the Obama administration makes its explicit declarative intention as being to keep the two-state option alive and viable.  That means focusing on preventing new settlements, outposts, and settlement-expansion (and also on allowing the Palestinians to reconstitute a reformed PLO and Palestinian national movement).  A singular American focus on settlements--and that can be lots of talking and monitoring and upbraiding, it doesn't have to be linking aid--can have a fascinating, liberating, and even decisive impact on the internal Israeli debate about settlements.  The Obamaites could also ask Bill Clinton a thing or two about handling Netanyahu, as he played no minor role in Netanyahu's first term as PM being cut short to barely 30 months.

On the other hand, if one is dealing with an Israeli government that has identified an Israeli national interest and even Israel's survival with a West Bank withdrawal, two-state solution, and settlement removal--as is the case with the outgoing Olmert government and with Prime Ministerial candidate Tzipi Livni, then I'd suggest a different tack.  The key in this scenario would be for the U.S. to come up with creative ways for addressing the legitimate Israeli concerns regarding what happens in the territories from which Israel withdraws--how does one guarantee a predictability of especially security, but also of governance outcomes once Israel and the IDF is no longer there.  So it's about providing compelling, attractive, and even enticing answers to the questions that postpone the needed Israeli withdrawal.

I say creative because the current way to answer that question is all about building Palestinian capacity without changing the basic circumstances.  And I am convinced that cannot work.  The alternative package that the U.S. would have to take a lead in putting together would lean heavily on an international role for a period of time in the newly de-occupied Palestinian state--with a particular focus on guaranteeing security-related issues.  Yes, I am talking about an international force, but only once there's an agreed border and as a post-occupation partial replacement for the IDF--and the U.S. would not be the main provider of troops (numbers anyway are not large). 
That's the kind of plan the new administration should be thinking about, while in addition, American diplomatic engagement would also almost certainly be needed to finalize an Israeli-Palestinian agreement (American proposals and hard work to carry the sides across the finishing line), and additional incentives, both bilateral and international as appropriate, for both parties--including in the security arena, costs of relocating settlers, and Palestinian refugee compensation.
As for the PA, Gaza, etc., virtually everything we have done so far in supposedly strengthening the moderates and intervening on behalf of one side has been either counter-productive or ineffective.  One can't marginalize Gaza --it's part of the two-state solution.  And we're most certainly going to have to bring Hamas inside the tent to make this work.  I think that's doable and the first imperative for the U.S. is to leave the Palestinians to do their own internal politics, and to reconstitute their own reformed national movement.  I'm not suggesting U.S. mediation, but the removal of what amounts to a U.S. veto on Palestinian national reconciliation.  Our basic demand from a newly unified Palestinian national leadership should be: no use of terror and agreement on an authorized interlocutor for U.S.-mediated peace talks with Israel.

None of this will be easy, including the internal Palestinian stuff.  The Egyptians are working on that right now, but the prospects are not good, although they would be improved if the U.S. sent signals that they approve of these talks, and if other actors, such as the Saudis, were encouraged to support these mediation efforts.
That's enough for now.  There is of course much more to say on what needs to be done on the regional level, and of how to use the Arab Peace Initiative as a central ingredient for peace making and as an incentive for Israel.  But let's save that for later.

JG: Over the next four years, what are the chances that we'll see another Arab-Israeli war, in either Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank?

DL: Unfortunately, the chances of another war are not insignificant, although there is no inevitability to there being further war and if we act smart this outcome can be avoided.  However, if one looks at the trajectory of hostility to Israel, instability in the region, and misguided Israeli policies, then that makes for a worrying trend line.

Hezbollah, of course, maintains its own militia in Lebanon and that would be the focus of any future Israeli-Lebanon clash--as it was two years ago.  I would argue that the smartest move Israel could make regarding Lebanon would be to remove those excuses (or reasons) that Hezbollah uses to justify its maintenance of an independent armed capacity that actually resonate inside Lebanese politics.
What would that mean?  Israel could hand over the Shebaa Farms (which are of no value and which Israel has no intention of keeping anyway), could start ending IDF over flights of Lebanon, and could allow the Lebanese armed forces to equip itself as a more serious national army (although not with offensive capacities that would threaten Israel).  These measures would create a situation whereby Hezbollah would be faced with a dilemma, as its justifications for its current military posture would be removed.  Hezbollah would then have to rely on external explanations (such as the Palestinian cause), or risk being seen as explicitly serving an Iranian, not Lebanese, agenda.  Such moves by Israel would actually limit Hezbollah's room for maneuver, and I would suggest that they would make future clashes less likely.  Of course, Hezbollah and the state machinery of Lebanon may become indistinguishable--Hezbollah is already part of the government and could assume a more leading role.  But in most ways that only complicates their decision-making further when it comes to entering conflict with Israel.  Bottom line: there are things Israel, the U.S., and the international community can be doing to help stabilize Lebanon, to limit Hezbollah's choices, and to make confrontation less likely.
On the Palestinian front, there is ongoing, if often low-intensity, conflicts. If anything the default position is still the war footing.  The current ceasefire is testimony to that--a secession of hostilities of limited duration.

Absent a resolution to the basic conflicts, new rounds of violence, whether more or less intense, can be expected to break out.  Netanyahu's suggestion for economic peace is of course a joke and will certainly not prevent this violence.  But as I discussed earlier, the Annapolis model is also not working and that too will collapse into violence (and expect some of the Palestinian security forces to be involved in the violence) if its failings are not corrected.  The most important preventive action to be taken in this regard would be to remove the casus belli and to end the 1967 occupation with the kind of provisions and in the fashion that I described above.
Of course, that does not mean there will be no threat to Israel's security, or that everyone will be happy, but: 1, this is a precondition without which further conflict is pretty much guaranteed; and 2, it offers the most promising sustainable security environment for Israel and places Israel in a far stronger position to deal with future threats (defending Israel from an agreed upon border, no settlers to protect, increased regional and international legitimacy, basic neutralizing of Palestinian grievance narrative, etc.).

In addition, there are other threat scenarios--Syria may not wait forever for a peace deal, neither Egyptian nor Jordanian stability are guaranteed, and Iranian bellicose rhetoric continues--but Israel is in a far better position to manage all of these if we can get beyond our current occupation predicament with the Palestinians, and if we can do that then I think Israel will have an answer for any of these uncertainties.  I believe we can get it right; I'm just deeply worried that we won't.