Sunday, January 09, 2011

Hamsters and peace

Back in August I attended a couple of seminars in Jerusalem on security and border issues between Israel and a future Palestinian state, which I’ve blogged about previously. The central challenge among the (Israeli) presenters was how to ensure security for Israel without any direct form of control.

It’s not a new question. I was struck by this as I was digging through the journal section in the LSE library this week (research for an entirely unrelated paper) and came across the first edition of The Jerusalem Journal of International Relations and an article entitled ‘A Proposal for Peace in the Middle East’ by Morton Kaplan.

Leave aside the rather dated fears that some Israelis were concerned that an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank would become a client Soviet state, what is striking is Kaplan’s comments about Israel’s determination that the West Bank be demilitarised. Kaplan suggests that,

This does produce a problem for a future West Bank government, but not an insoluble one. Israel will be deterred from attach by knowing that this would set off a reaction by the Arab states. The Arab states would be deterred from attach by the knowledge that it would invite Israeli military involvement in the area.
How much times have changed – and yet have not. On the one hand, the notion that a demilitarised Palestinian state could be buttressed by the mutual deterrence between Arabs and Israelis is long gone. Israel’s military superiority not only outweighs any other Arab state, but Arab unity and material support for the Palestinians has all but disappeared.

On the other hand, Israeli concern with a demilitarised West Bank has never disappeared. Presenters at the August seminars suggested that even if Israel were to withdraw from the territory, it must be allowed to maintain control of the Jordan Valley, to prevent infiltration (for Soviets, read ‘terrorists’). And yet the situation is undoubtedly more complicated now as a result of more than 30 years of Jewish Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The idea that Israeli armed forces can and would pack up and leave tomorrow is impossible.

Kaplan argues that a ‘West Bank’ government (I assume he means a Palestinian one) could reduce the guerrilla threat, regardless of whether it was demilitarised or not. While it would initially be a marginal gain, it could prove substantially helpful in the future:

The present posture of Israel places it in the unenviable position of ruling a subject people, which, as time passes, as development occurs, and as education increases, is going to become increasingly nationalistic and antagonistic to Israel unless the occupation ceases. Other costs of the present policy include the loss of international support resulting from the indefensible Israeli negotiating stance.
On several counts, Kaplan has been proved right. Yet on one key point his analysis is off. Of course with the benefit of hindsight he wasn’t to know that Israel would be able to coopt parts of the Palestinian leadership to create a quasi-state in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA provided Israel with a way of ensuring Palestinian administration over parts (but not all) of the West Bank and maintaining its military control of the territory. But the fact that Israeli policymakers are still worrying about whether the West Bank could be demilitarised under complete Palestinian control only goes to show that while its possible to delay the day of reckoning, it can’t be put off forever.

In many respects I find that reading such pieces and comparing them to the present is rather like watching a hamster on its wheel. It may be running in circles, but it’s not really getting anywhere: hamsters and their wheels are usually confined to their cages.

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