Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest trip to Israel is already over, but his continued effort to sell his plan on security arrangements to the parties seems to be getting nowhere. The plan, which is predicated on importing foreign troops into the West Bank and the Jordan River crossings in the aftermath of a two-state peace deal being reached, doesn’t please either the Israelis or the Palestinians. But while the Israeli government is continuing to talk to Kerry about the scheme in spite of the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu is less than thrilled with his idea, the Palestinians appear to have rejected it out of hand.
The Israelis have good reason to worry about placing their security in the hands of other nations, a point that was re-emphasized to the country yesterday when an Israeli soldier patrolling the northern border with Lebanon was shot and killed by a terrorist sniper. Terrorism has continued despite the presence of United Nations peacekeepers and the supposed commitment of Lebanese Army troops to the cause of keeping the border quiet. But despite Israel’s obvious misgivings about the scheme, it is the Palestinians who are most upset by it even though its purpose is to clear the way for the independent state they want. The reasons for their respective positions tell us all we need to know about likely futility of Kerry’s pursuit of an agreement at this point in time.
Those arguing in favor of Kerry’s idea point to the relative success of international peacekeepers in maintaining border security on two of Israel’s former war fronts.
Along the border between the Israeli Negev and the Egyptian Sinai where once the two countries’ main armored forces faced off in four wars, the international observer force has had little to do. Indeed, when problems arise, as was the case during the last year, when the since-deposed Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo gave Islamist terrorists the freedom they needed to try to cause trouble for the Jewish state, the Egyptian Army cooperated fully with the Israel Defense Forces.
The same is true along the border between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syria. Indeed, though at times the Syrian civil war has threatened to spill over into Israel, the frontier between these two bitter enemies has been largely peaceful since the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War some 40 years ago.
But neither situation is comparable to what would happen in the West Bank. Egypt and Syria are both sovereign nations and however much antipathy they may have for Israel, their national identity is not bound up in rejection of the legitimacy of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn, as is the case with the Palestinians. The main Palestinian forces, both in Hamas-controlled Gaza and in the Fatah-led West Bank, aren’t merely hostile to Israel; their legitimacy is predicated on a struggle not to evict Israel from a particular piece of land but to its eventual destruction. That’s why even the moderates of the Palestinian Authority who wish to go on talking with Israel still refuse to recognize it as the Jewish state or give up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees: because doing so would end the conflict for all time.
Writing in Haaretz, Steven Klein argues the better comparison would be to the success of peacekeepers in Bosnia and Kosovo where the existence of those two nations was guaranteed by the presence of NATO peacekeepers that ensured that their Serb foes would have to give up claims to their territory. But as nasty as the conflicts between Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovars against the Serbs were, it should be remembered that unlike the long history of Palestinian Arab rejection of Israel, neither group sought Serbia’s annihilation, merely the right to break away from the largest of the post-Yugoslav states and determine their own future.
If Mahmoud Abbas rejected Kerry’s scheme saying that it “looked like a plan drafted by Israel,” it is because however much it might constrain Israeli self-defense, its premise remains a future in which the Palestinian state would be essentially demilitarized and prevented from allowing foreign forces hostile to Israel to enter its territory (the very acts that set off the 1967 Six-Day War that led to the current situation).
As for the Israelis, as Klein notes, the very notion of placing Israel’s security in foreign hands is anathema to Israel’s government. Klein is wrong to think of Netanyahu’s Likud as being uniquely hostile to such ideas because of the writings of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the movement from which the Israeli nationalist camp sprung, since Labor Zionist icons like David Ben Gurion were just as leery of such schemes. While the “American bayonets” that Klein envisages as the solution to the Middle East conflict are not as likely to behave as badly as the UN forces currently in Lebanon or be as feckless as their predecessors that fled the border with Egypt in 1967 when that country’s dictator Gamel Abdul Nasser told them to leave, Israelis are right to worry about placing so much reliance on even as friendly an ally as the U.S.
But the key to the problem isn’t so much the technical difficulties of a scheme or the fact that a war-weary American public isn’t likely to be enthusiastic about placing U.S. troops in harm’s way in the West Bank or to be more pro-active about keeping the peace there than are peacekeepers elsewhere in the region. Rather, it is the same basic problem that has always been the greatest obstacle to peace: the Palestinian refusal to give up their war on Israel rather than merely accepting a temporary truce that would allow them to continue the conflict on more favorable terms in the future. Until a sea change in Palestinian political culture occurs that enables leaders like Abbas to sign a peace deal without fear of losing power to more radical factions like Hamas, Kerry’s plans will remain irrelevant details.