The resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not four weeks old and it seems to have already been reduced to the realm of a Gilbert and Sullivan farce. Utilizing the issue of the West Bank settlement construction freeze as a point of contention, the two sides now appear to be negotiating over whether to negotiate, with U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, acting as a harried go-between, frantically seeking a breakthrough, just on the issue of whether the two sides can be coerced to meet face to face again.
The reasons for the impasse are ostensibly clear: neither the Israeli leadership nor the Palestinian wishes to be seen as weak by bowing to the others’ demands on settlements. But a more incisive observation would be that progress in talks will not occur because the results might actually shatter the peace.
This might sound like an absurdity to some, but the facts are on the ground: Besides the murderous assault on an Israeli family near Hebron on September 5, violence on the West Bank has been so minimal over the past two years that Israel has willingly reduced the strength of its security apparatus there. Palestinians can now travel more freely between the territories and Israel proper. In fact, not since the mid-1980s has there been such freedom of movement on both sides.
This is set in the context of the unprecedented economic boom occurring on the West Bank and Gaza. Housing prices in Ramallah have risen nearly 30% in the past twelve months and housing starts are the envy of any Western country. The Nablus stock market, after Shanghai, was the second best-performing in the world in 2009. Both Nablus and Ramallah boast gleaming new cinemas, where the latest Hollywood hits are played and the Nablus venue even hosted a film festival in June of last year.
On September 6, Dr. Oussama Kanaan, the International Monetary Fund’s chief of mission and resident representative for the West Bank and Gaza, reported that West Bank growth in the first quarter of 2010 was a staggering 11%.
Even more astounding are the figures for Gaza. According to Kanaan, the Gaza Strip is undergoing a similar boom with a 14% growth for the first quarter. Contrary to media reports of destitution and mass starvation, the urban areas of Gaza are bustling with life, with new restaurants and hotels opening and over the summer, the coast filled with beach goers. No one has produced credible evidence of mass shortages of anything.
In June 2009, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl related how Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a moment of rare candor, had told him why he had turned down Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2007 to create a Palestinian state on 97% of the West Bank. “In the West Bank we have a good reality,” Abbas explained. “The people are living a normal life.”
He might have also added that the maintenance of the conflict is good for business. The new housing boom benefits mostly not ordinary Palestinians (the Palestinian jobless rate still hovers around 25% and is supported by foreign aid) but rather elite leaders who own the major Palestinian trucking, cement and construction companies in the region. The reinvigorated construction industry in the Jewish settlements, dormant now for ten months, is also a harbinger of business for the Palestinians who provide sizable construction supplies and labor for these projects.
It is clear then that the Palestinians have entered into a comfortable, if less than open modus vivendi with their Israeli adversaries. It is only the guileless Obama Administration that fails to appreciate this reality. Insisting that the two sides work out their political differences, only serves to irritate open wounds and harden entrenched positions from which neither side, for domestic political reasons, is ever likely to retreat.
With the threat of a nuclear Iran giving rise to tacit military cooperation between Israel and other moderate Arab states, Hamas hemmed in and the West Bank Palestinian leadership in thrall to their new found prosperity, the Arab-Israeli conflict is beginning to look more manageable – and even more harmonious – than at any time in recent memory.
Is that peace? Perhaps not. But it is a long way from open conflict. And in a region of the world where the dogs of war are ever ready to tear each other to shreds, these sleeping dogs might be best left to lie.