One of the reasons I have avoided discussing Israel and Palestine in the blogosphere is that I have feared becoming bogged down in airy, quasi-mythological discussions of the history of the region over the past 100 years. The level of abstraction in many online discussions of the region has often appeared extreme and replete with a range of irreconcilable interpretations on a series of events beginning with British promises of Arab independence during World War One and continuing straight through the second intifada and contemporary Israeli retrenchment in the West Bank. As long as the discussion was focused on airy, historical abstractions about legitimacy, culture, democracy and victimization over the past century, achieving any sort of progress in the discussion appeared hopeless. Such abstraction is the path toward disempowerment and wholesale rejection of contemporary agency, since the focus is on who deserves what based on the unalterable actions of previous generations, rather than on what is to be, and can be, realistically accomplished in the here and now.
Fortunately, over the past two days, my experience has been quite a bit different from what I have glanced in online discussions of the region. Rather than focusing on historical abstractions, the reading and conversation in which I have engaged has been mainly focused on policy and negotiation specifics. This has been quite a relief, since once the focus turns toward policy and negotiation specifics instead of broad, manifesto type statements born out of events 20, 40, 60 or even 90 years in the past, the hope for solutions emerges. Consider the following passage from Dennis Ross's The Missing Peace, and 800-page tome on the subject written by the American perhaps most closely involved in the process. It describes the final "yes or no" meeting between President Clinton and Yasir Arafat on a permanent settlement status deal on January 2, 2001 (more in the extended entry)
My hopes were raised further when Arafat told the President that he "accepted [your] ideas." Then my fears materialized. He was accepting the ideas, but he had reservations. And the reservations, unfortunately, revealed his real answer.
On Jerusalem, he said when it came to the religious holy sites the Israelis could have sovereignty over the Western Wall... Similarly, he had basic problems with the security provisions, declaring that the Israelis could not operate in Palestinian airspace. The Arab League, he claimed, would never accept this. And on refugees, he simply rejected our formula, stating that there was a need to come up with a different, although unspecified, formula. (p. 11)
This is a very hopeful and specific passage. Seven years ago, a final peace deal was narrowly missed because of three issues: the Western Wall, Israeli use of Palestinian airspace and disagreement over the formula for the return of refugees to Israel. At least according to Ross's report on Arafat, that was it. Settlements and territory had been solved. The issue of one state versus two state solutions had been solved. Jerusalem and control over the holy sites had been solved, save for the Western Wall. Whether or not there would be a right of return for refugees had been solved, leaving only the specific parameters to be settled. Leaving out the issue of airspace use and actual implementation, security issues had been settled. Rather than a series of irreconcilable historical abstractions based on competing, quasi-mythological interpretations of the last 100 years of history, what remaining were three specific points of negotiation where there was no common ground at the time.
While the 1991-2000 process collapsed because of a relatively narrow range of issues that Yasar Arafat could not accept, and because the Clinton and Barack administrations ended before a permanent settlement agreement could be reached, the narrow miss on a permanent deal should still serve as a sign of hope. Once we are dealing with specific points of negotiation, rather than abstract arguments that negate the entire existence of Israel as a legitimate state or the Palestinians as a legitimate people, then organizing can begin to find common ground on the specific issues in question. In a discussion tonight with Dr. Naomi Chazen, a former member of the Knesset, current party chair of the progressive Meretz Party, and longtime leading figure in the peace movement in Israel, she indicated significant new optimism on reaching a final, permanent settlement peace agreement. And by "significant optimism," she indicated that because of the breakthrough at Annapolis meeting a few months ago, just such an agreement could be achieved before the end of 2008, and be supported the majority of the populations in both Israel and Palestine.
The outlines of a final agreement would be a two-state solution, which is now supported at least in theory by a majority of the populations in both Israel and Palestine. It would include a new formula on refugees and right of return, pre-1967 boundaries for a Palestine, the end of all new settlements, security guarantees and a final agreement on dividing Jerusalem. While the right of return for refugees was the major sticking point in the 2000 negotiations, in 2008 she argued that Jerusalem would be largest sticking point, especially given strong Israeli sentiment to not divide the city. Like in 2000, there is also a looming deadline, with a elections to be held in America in November, in Palestine in January, and in Israel anytime after an agreement is reached. Reaching an agreement before the end of the existing administrations in Palestine and America was seen as key, since new administrations are loathe to immediately spend their political capital on reaching a final agreement.
Unfortunately, this means we are probably stuck with the Bush administration for the duration of the current attempt to reach of final, permanent settlement and status agreement. The specific worries are that the Bush administration will not do enough ground work to make an agreement possible before the end of the year, and that they might be more interested in imposing the terms of the agreement from the outside than was the Clinton administration. Fortunately, the terms of the discussion are over nitty-gritty specifics like the exact formula to use on refugees returning to Israel, and on the exact divisions of Jerusalem. At the very least, there is hope for an agreement, and it will turn based on the political will and organizational ability to find common ground on some very specific policy points. That is a helluva lot better than arguing about, say, who was more to blame for the start of war and the refugee crisis in 1948.
Overall, in addition to being exhausted from travel and jet lag, the past 48 hours have made me far more hopeful and interested in the political situation in the region that I have been, well, ever. Rather than bogging down in abstract rejectionism and being unable to wakeup from the nightmere of history, we are faced with policy specifics and the organizational details surrounding negotiations. That is the sort of context in which progress can be made, and the hope for a final, permanent settlement agreement can be reached. With the existence of Israel as a democratic, Jewish majority state at stake (a democracy cannot permanently occupy another people against their will), and the existence of a Palestinian state possible (those of you in favor of a one state solution might note that we currently have a one state situation, and it isn't working), that is a good place to be. I look forward to an extremely busy day tomorrow.