In a detailed speech last week, negotiator Martin Indyk gave the most revealing account of the nine months of Israeli-Palestinian talks – and the response to his speech is exactly what you'd expect it to be: the usual critics are critical, the usual cheerleaders are cheering, the usual grumblers are grumbling. Indyk's was a long speech, but the media zeroed in mostly on one paragraph, or maybe two: the one in which he hinted that Israel shares a larger share of the blame – having built settlements during negotiations – and the one in which he warned about the developing reality of a binational state.
I also worry about a more subtle threat to the character of the Jewish state. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has made clear, the fundamental purpose of these negotiations is to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state − not a de facto bi-national state. The settlement movement on the other hand may well drive Israel into an irreversible binational reality. If you care about Israel’s future, as I know so many of you do and as I do, you should understand that rampant settlement activity – especially in the midst of negotiations – doesn’t just undermine Palestinian trust in the purpose of the negotiations; it can undermine Israel’s Jewish future. If this continues, it could mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state – and that would be a tragedy of historic proportions.
Critics, including some bigmouthed Israeli politicians, were quick to denounce Indyk's "lies". But by saying that they were mixing apples and oranges. The critics might have been right - I think they were right - to argue that making the issue of settlements the main reason for the breakdown of negotiations is hardly convincing. Talking about the settlements is a clumsy way for the American team to shift the blame away from itself and put it on Israel's shoulders. Settlement activity was not helpful in the process of negotiations, but it was not the reason for the negotiations' collapse. The collapse was predestined, because no one wanted the talks to succeed except for John Kerry.
Still, many of Indyk's critics were wrong to ignore the fact that he also has a point. For those who still believe in a two state solution – whether next week or fifty years down the road – the building of settlements makes no sense. At least not when it comes to settlements deep in what is supposed to ultimately become part of the Palestinian State.
What I found revealing, even if mystifying, about Indyk's speech was the public realization of the lack of "urgency", as he called it, on the part of Israelis and Palestinians. No urgency? And the Secretary of State did not see that as he entered this round of negotiations? In the article I wrote for The New York Times last weekend I addressed the same point. Only in my own retelling of it, there was no surprise involved: Israelis and Palestinians knew all along that the talks are going nowhere. Here's one paragraph from my article:
There are two false perceptions that repeatedly distort discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. First is the misguided idea that everybody knows what a final deal will look like, and that the inability to reach it is basically a diplomatic technicality. And second is the unfounded belief that Israelis and Palestinians want peace more than anything else.
The current Israeli coalition seems to prefer to keep building in the settlements. And they want to do it because they don't accept the two main tenets of Indyk's premise:
1. They don't want a two state solution – at least not the type of such solution that the Palestinians seem to want.
2. They don't think that the result of the rejection of such a solution will necessarily lead to terrible consequences.
The reasons for the first point are clear and understandable. Israelis have little faith in the Palestinians’ ability to build and manage a state that will not be a threat to Israel's security and have little faith that the Palestinians truly want to put an "end" to the "conflict".
The second point is trickier and more troubling. Last week, a leading writer of the religious right (Uri Elitzur, you can find the Hebrew article here) published an article in which he basically preached for the annexation of the West Bank and giving the Palestinians who live there equal rights and citizenship - claiming that an Israel with a 40% Arab-Palestinian population is an acceptable outcome. Not ideal, but better than the other options. Such an approach is gaining ground with members the Israeli right, and might become the watershed separating the "right" from the "center".
On the one hand, this is a positive development as it clearly reveals how the right intends to solve the conflict. For many years, the leaders of the settlement movement and its supporters were rightly accused that they have no plan for the future, that their ideology doesn't add up to something coherent. So now it does: A greater Israel with a smaller Jewish majority (that is, if the numbers add up as they claim – but I'm willing to assume for the sake of argument that they do). In other words, what Indyk warns against is what the Israeli hardcore ideological right seems to gradually be embracing. Soon, we might have an Israeli President – Reuven Rivlin – who also supports such a solution to the conflict.
Will Israelis eventually come around and prefer a binational state to a two state solution? It is somewhat puzzling that they don’t prefer it already – according to all the indications we have, an overwhelming majority doesn't support such a solution – seeing that they voted for a coalition in which a growing number of members do.
This could mean that there might be a growing discrepancy between the beliefs of the leaders of the coalition and those of the public, one that will eventually erode the power of the current coalition; it could also mean that the current trend on the right will gradually get to the larger public and make it change its view and be less apprehensive about the prospect of annexation with equal rights for Palestinians; and of course, it might mean that the leadership of the right is going to have to keep balancing its true beliefs against the beliefs of the majority – that is, to drag the public toward a reality that it does not support. That is the option that Indyk's speech addressed. Alas, America’s current lack of credibility with Israelis makes him an unlikely candidate to drive this important message home.