On May 22, the Center for Middle East Development hosted Congressman Robert Wexler for a lecture on the feasibility of a two state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Congressman Wexler is currently the President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. He served as a Democratic member of Congress for seven terms, representing Florida’s 19th district at the House of Representatives before retiring in January 2010 to lead the Center.
With support from the United States Department of State, Congressman Wexler and other experts at the S. Daniel Abraham Center have created a robust presentation that analyzes Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the four core issues (security, borders, Jerusalem, refugees) with the intention of creating an objective narrative of the conflict for the American public.
All too often, the American public is presented with mixed or biased narratives that result in an incomplete or misinformed understanding of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In order to bolster popular support for the peace negotiations, there needs to be a common understanding of the actual factors that shape the conflict and tenable solutions.
The core issue of borders was the central focus of the presentation. Ultimately, ending the conflict will require drawing borders that result in an independent Israeli Jewish State and a Palestinian State. The challenge, he believes, is to find a solution that effectively addresses the respective needs, values, and considerations of the Palestinian and Israeli leadership and public.
There are significant impediments on both sides of the conflict that prevent negotiators from moving forward.
The recent attempt at rapprochement between rivals Fatah and Hamas have major implications for the peace process and the future of the Palestinian State. A Fatah agreement with Hamas, a recognized terrorist organization whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, is not particularly a confidence building measure from the eyes of the Israeli government. Further, some Israelis are concerned that if relations between the West Bank and Gaza are normalized, elections in the Palestinian territories could result in the election of Hamas officials as the leaders of the Palestinian people.
Congressman Wexler reminded an audience member who voiced concern about the potential of Hamas leadership that, in order for a Palestinian election to take place, you need the agreement of three parties—Fatah, Hamas, and Israel. Without an agreement of all parties, it’s impossible to hold a legitimate election. Just because Fatah and Hamas are seemingly on better terms does not imply a complete and immediate honeymoon between the two parties.
For the Israeli side, the conflict has also moved far beyond issues of contested percentages of land. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence for the recognition of a Jewish State also serves as a major impediment to the success of the peace negotiations. This insistence has effectively shifted the struggle to reconcile historical narratives as one of the biggest point of contention.
Whether intentional or not, the need for recognition of Israel as a Jewish State has turned into a mechanism to stall negotiations. Presidents Arafat and Abbas have independently acknowledged the existence of the Jewish State. In the Palestinian Authority’s charter and government guidelines, there are acknowledgements to Israel’s right to exist. Abbas will not repeat it again. Without a Palestinian recognition of the Jewish State, not as an amorphous idea but rather as real nation, Prime Minister Netanyahu will not budge.
This issue of conflicting narratives goes beyond the as yet undetermined borders of Israel and Palestine. In one example, Congressman Wexler told the audience how his Jewish constituents repeatedly told him how they are strongly for the two-state solution… as long as Jerusalem is the eternal unified capital of Israel and that the US best not support any policy that touches Jerusalem. For Palestinians, he argued, a two state solution is not feasible if it does not include East Jerusalem in some manner.
Despite these impediments, Congressman Wexler still has hope for a solution. Both the left wing and right wing within Israel have come up with alternatives if the peace negotiations fall through.
On the left, there is a recent push for unilateral action. In an Ariel Sharon-like move, the Israeli government can unilaterally withdraw (force settlers) from contested pockets within the West Bank given that 75% of Jewish settlers live close to the Green Line. While the withdrawal from Gaza prompted more rocket attacks than before, the upside might be the creation of more defensible borders.
For some Israelis, this is not a reasonable plan as Israel does not get the benefit of a bargain: Israel gives up something quantifiable (land) and Palestinians give a promise (peace).
On the other end of the spectrum is the Minister of Knesset Naftali Bennet’s plan to tear down the security fence. From this right wing Israeli perspective, Palestinians can resettle in many places in the region, so Israelis deserve the whole of historic Palestine. Despite the controversial nature of the security fence (called a separation wall by pro-Palestinian groups), it effectively defined Israel’s immediate jurisdiction. MK Bennet may want to knock down the security barrier that was erected around Gaza and claim more land for broader Israel. Congressman Wexler warned that this plan will be very controversial both outside and inside Israel.
Toward the end of the lecture, one audience member questioned whether peace negotiations are as urgent as they were in the past. Congressman Wexler said that despite the cosmopolitanism and vibrancy of cities like Tel Aviv, the conflict is still just a stone’s throw away. While there has been economic progress on the Palestinian side, Congressman Wexler argued that the peace process is needed as urgently as ever. As long as the conflict persists, both sides will continue to suffer.