Peace may be at standstill but West Bank economy on the move

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–Two recent articles is the New York Times provide an accurate picture of our surroundings.

A description of Gaza provides all we need to produce a mood of hopeless despair. There is plenty to eat, but no work, and no hope for the the growing population of young people who can neither work nor leave. The Hamas regime is strong, but not loved by the population. If there is tinder smoldering to an explosion, the damage is likely to be greatest internally. Both Egypt and Israel can protect themselves. Meanwhile, the area is a poisonous addition to the problems that keep Israel and Palestine (West Bank) from meaningful concessions.

The second article describes the hopes articulated under the influence of the Obama White House, and the reality of the distance between the parties. Going beyond what the article says, it appears that the American president is the last one to get the message. Israeli and Palestinian leaders cannot say “No” to whoever is in the White House, but the positive remarks that each makes are different enough to be  irreconcilable. 

The glass is pretty damn empty, but not entirely. Things are moving in the West Bank. Palestinian security forces are increasingly credible, and winning concessions from Israel. The economy is growing, providing jobs, new housing and roads, and attracting investment. An article in Ha’aretz describes automobile showrooms in West Bank cities now displaying really new cars, rather than vehicles stolen from Israel. 
George Mitchell continues to show up, but his arrival generates snide comments by media personalities. “Mitchell? Who’s that?” Or “Mitchell. Him again?”
President Obama has been guarded in his latest comments about the prospects for peace. However, the White House is like a supertanker. It cannot change course on a dime, or even something much larger. The apparatus includes advisors plus supporters in Congress and the public committed to existing mantras of “two-states” and “peace in the Middle East before the end of . . . ” The presidential ego can describe problems and fudge deadlines, but may not admit failure.  Political coalitions are built on the principles of reliability and stability. We all know that politicians lie, or distort, or do not tell all the truth, and change their minds. However, if there is too much waffling the process does not work. 
Stability is Washington is more important to the White House that discomfort in Jerusalem, Ramallah, or Gaza, so the Israelis and Palestinians must go along with the show. However, they, too, have their politics and principles. Netanyahu and Abbas do what they must. Both are using the device of blaming the other for the lack of progress in talks which few Palestinians or Israelis ever gave a chance of succeeding. 
Perhaps the most certain of political rules is “Never say never.” If the Germans and French could do it, the Israelis and Palestinians might do it someday. However, the time is not ripe. 
One can guess that the generation of 1948 refugees will have to die off in order to remove that thorny issue from the Palestinian agenda. And maybe the children and grandchildren of the refugees will also have to die off, insofar as there has already been 60 years of inculcating the narrative. 
Something will have to give in Gaza to make it possible for “Palestine” to be more than the mini-mini-state of the West Bank.  
It helped that the Soviet Union disappeared along with its spiritual and material support for Palestinian aggression. Still alive, however, are sources in Iran, Syria, Libya, and now Turkey.
It will take a while for the trust of Israelis for Palestinians, and Palestinians for Israelis to develop in a way to facilitate agreements that will not be so draconian and “iron clad” as to be impossible for one or another side to accept. That may take years and even decades of relative peace, continued economic progress in the West Bank, and something positive to emerge in Gaza.
By insisting on progress that is not tenable, the White House can make things worse. It already did that by flubbing the issue of construction in Jerusalem. That misstep angered Israelis and led Palestinians to increase their price for negotiations. Now is the time for Washington to desist, and admit that some future president will get the credit for peace in the Middle East. The admission will be subdued, or completely quiet and apparent only by what is not said.
Who wants to vote that a miracle is more likely to occur in Gaza, or in Washington?
 Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
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