Column: The long, slow demise of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and why it’s not coming back soon
Twenty-five years ago this week, I rushed to the scene of a powerful explosion in downtown Jerusalem. A 22-pound bomb packed with nails and ball bearings and live bullets had been detonated on the No. 18 bus at 6:46 on the morning of Feb. 25.
When I got there, Orthodox Jewish men from the religious burial societies were picking up pieces of scalp and severed digits and charred flesh. A crowd of angry Israelis was shrieking, “Death to the Arabs,” and demanding vengeance. I interviewed a distraught 22-year-old soldier sitting on the curb who told me he’d tried to rescue passengers, but they were on fire, stuck to the seats in the bus, their hair burning on their heads. Twenty-five people died. Responsibility for the bombing was claimed by Hamas.
For the record:
12:07 p.m. Feb. 22, 2021An earlier version of this column said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to annex all of the West Bank. He has threatened to annex parts of the West Bank.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which had gotten underway with so much optimism and excitement only a few years earlier, was already coming undone, and I was watching it happen. First, Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler on the West Bank, had massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in 1994. Then in November 1995, a right-wing Israeli law student, Yigal Amir, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at a peace rally.
Now the Islamic militants from Hamas were taking their turn: They blew up the No. 18 bus and then, over the next few weeks, months and years, they blew up more buses, a shopping center, a pizzeria, a coffee shop, a discotheque. Three months after the No. 18 bus bombing, in a climate of fear and rage, the pro-peace candidate Prime Minister Shimon Peres of the Labor Party was defeated in his campaign for reelection by the young Likud Party hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, who paid lip service to peace but took few steps toward achieving it.
It took many years for the peace process to fizzle out fully. There were some dramatic early successes followed by endless attempts to resuscitate the process and recapture the momentum.
But today, peace between Palestinians and Israelis is no longer within view, even at a distance. The world has changed in ways that are inhospitable to a just, safe and durable resolution of the conflict.
Here’s the lay of the land at the moment:
The Labor Party — the legendary left-leaning party of David Ben Gurion that dominated Israeli politics for so many years and fought for a two-state solution under Rabin and Peres — is now so weak that it is conceivable it could win too few votes in the March 23 election to meet the threshold for representation in the Knesset.
Netanyahu, who has done so much to undermine the process, is now the longest serving prime minister of Israel. He’s running again in March despite having been indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is currently in what longtime American negotiator Aaron David Miller calls “the 16th year of his four-year term.” Palestinians are riven, mistrustful not only of Israelis but of their own corrupt and autocratic leaders as well. Elections have been scheduled for this summer, though some doubt whether they will take place.
After decades of the Israeli government approving new settlements, the number of Israeli settlers living on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem has climbed to more than 650,000, making a contiguous Palestinian state ever more unlikely. Support for a two-state solution has declined, and Netanyahu has gone so far as to threaten to annex parts of the West Bank.
Most recently, other Arab states have wavered in their fidelity to the Palestinian cause. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan have cut separate peace deals with Israel, urged on by the Trump administration — and by a shared antipathy toward Iran. Saudi Arabia could eventually follow suit.
And the United States, having reduced its dependency on Middle East oil, has shifted its attention elsewhere. China poses a far more consequential foreign policy challenge. And the battle against COVID-19 and the rebuilding of the American economy will undoubtedly keep the United States focused on domestic issues for the foreseeable future, barring emergencies.
The collapse of the Oslo peace process is the subject of “The Human Factor,” a new documentary by Dror Moreh, whose 2012 film “The Gatekeepers” examined the leaders of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet. The new film tells the story of the conflict through the eyes of the American diplomats who worked, sometimes for decades, on behalf of a two-state solution: Miller, Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Rob Malley, Gamal Helal, Daniel Kurtzer.
How sad it is to watch as they reflect on their mistakes, successes and frustrations. Was Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to blame or Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Netanyahu or Hamas — or we ourselves? Did peace collapse because of the bombings and killings or because of strategic miscalculations or simply because neither side, ultimately, could empathize with the other?
At the film’s climax, President Clinton desperately struggles to bring Arafat and Barak to terms before he leaves office, only to find that the maximum each would offer was less than the minimum the other could accept.
“When I look back now, we saw the world the way we wanted it to be,” says Miller, who advised six secretaries of State over 15 years on Israeli-Palestinian issues. “We did not see the world the way it was.”
The situation is not entirely hopeless. It’s conceivable that over time, the two sides could restart talks and revive the two-state solution, or work out some kind of confederation, or even, I guess, agree to a single-state model, although I remain highly skeptical.
But that’s going to take a while. Hard-nosed realists tend to shrug and say that after a century of conflict, if it takes 10 or 20 or 50 more years to fix, that won’t be the end of the world.
But when I remember the soldier on the curbside next to the smoldering No. 18 bus, the overcrowded refugee camps of Gaza, the stones, bullets, bombs and rockets, and the keening at the funerals on both sides of the Green Line, I can’t help but wonder what future tragedies that delay will bring.
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