Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Demographics Likely to Loom Large In Peace Efforts

Israelis and Palestinians going at each other at regular intervals has become a fixture of the Middle East. Israelis can live with that as long as they maintain military superiority, American backing and are able to install the fear of God in their opponents. Israeli leaders take Hizbollah's domestic political calculations leading it not to broaden the last Gaza war with rocket attacks on Israel as evidence that their strategy is still valid. They hope the same will prove true in Gaza.

Yet, as Israelis go to the polls in three weeks time in which Binjamin Nethanyahu, a hard line believer in Israel's strategy of overwhelming capability and force, is the front runner, that strategy may well have run its course in much the same way that military technological advances made the geographic depth that occupation in 1967 of the West Bank and the Golan Heights obsolete in terms of security.

If there is a sliver of hope, demography may be it for many Palestinians and Arabs who have lost faith in the feasibility of the two-state solution involving a Palestinian state alongside Israel despair in the wake of the Gaza war and 21 years of failed peacemaking based on Palestinian concessions to Israel, Many Palestinians do not see an alternative to the two-state solution beyond notions of continued resistance and steadfastness that offer little prospect for building normal, prosperous lives, amid Palestinian

If the Israeli Palestinian conflict is turning existentialist in Palestinian perceptions, it is doing so for Israelis too even if Palestinians are unlikely to pose a military existentialist threat to Israel any time soon. Demographics could constitute a far greater threat to Israel than Palestinian rockets or terrorism and may be the monkey wrench that will break the cycle of death and destruction. It is what already has motivated Israel's partial withdrawals from occupied territory even if it refused to surrender control and empower Palestinian government and persuaded it to pay lip service to the two-state solution although it was unwilling to demonstrate the boldness and vision needed to make that happen.

The figures speak for themselves. Although Jews will remain a majority within sovereign Israel for the foreseeable future, they are projected to become a minority in the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea within the next decade. As long as Israel remains in the West Bank and Gaza, this demographic forecast will pose a threat to the country's Jewish identity. Nethanyahu has warned that if the Palestinians living inside Israel's pre-1967 border cross the 20% threshold, the Jewish nature of the state would be in danger. Fear of the demographic threats persist despite some studies that the demographic threat may be less imminent. Demographics leaves Israel with a choice: encourage Palestinian immigration, pursue a policy of attempting to break Palestinian will or seek a political accommodation that gives both parties a sufficient modicum of their aspirations. While Israel retains all three options, the memory of the images of the Gaza war are likely to focus the spotlight to a greater extent on the human rights aspects of Israel's military conduct as well its policies in the occupied territories. That may contribute to sparking debate in Israel on whether accommodation may in the end be its best bet.

Discussions mediated by Egypt throughout the Gulf war offer a sliver of hope. Israel has professed throughout its history that it seeks full-fledged peace with its Arab neighbors. Ceasefires were agreed after violent confrontation in a bid to give peacemaking a chance. In the Cairo talks, Israel appeared willing to settle for less. For more than a decade it rejected Hamas' call for a ten-year truce, its way of seeking accommodation with Israel without surrendering its refusal to recognize Israel or drop its insistence on the Palestinian right to armed resistance. In Cairo, Israel was gunning for such a truce while, Hamas emboldened by its survival in Gaza, dropped its proposal in favor of a one-year truce at best. For the Obama administration, the question is whether it should lower the sights of immediate peacemaking and seek to negotiate a long-term truce rather than definitive peace in the expectation that an end to violence and repression over a longer period of time will generate the vested interests needed to negotiate a final settlement.

Seeking more limited goals would allow the Obama peacemaking effort to give the dynamics of an armed truce time to do their work. The nature of the questions peacemakers need to answer would than in due course probably be different and no longer be as complex at those they confront now. Currently, peacemaking means trying to bring parties together who either don't want to talk to one another or whose goals are mutually exclusive. That would likely change if a long-term truce would prove to Israelis that non-violent coexistence and security is possible and demonstrate to Palestinians that they are being allowed to build a national existence of their own with a promise of political, economic and social development. That would reduce their urge to risk quiet and prosperity for violence, and nurture a majority that no longer would see militant confrontation as the only way of achieving moderated national goals.

Chances of achieving even the more limited goal of a long-term truce are waning in the wake of the Gaza war. Hamas recognizes that getting humanitarian aid and kick starting reconstruction in Gaza are a priority. In a bid not to appear as an obstacle to Gaza picking up the pieces, Hamas has said it will cooperate with the Palestine Authority headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Hamas describes as a traitor, to ensure the needed funding. As Hamas hardens its attitude toward Israel in the belief that the war solidified its position as the primary Palestinian representative even if much of the international community refuses to deal with it, international assistance becomes the key to attempting to bring the Islamist group back to entertaining a long-term arrangement with Israel. Early indications are that the international community will attempt to use assistance to strengthen Abbas and weaken Hamas, a strategy that since 2006 has failed and is unlikely to prove more successful now. In the meantime, is back to its rejectionist rhetoric. “After the ceasefire, if the Israelis pull out, maybe we will sign a one-year truce with them. Maybe we will sign a truce and after that we will continue to liberate all the Palestinians lands, from the river to the sea, including the 1948 lands….There can be no accommodation with Israel. Anyone who signs such an accommodation is a traitor,” said Hamas’ spokesman in Syria, Talal Nassar.

The hardening of positions is not just among militants. Pro-western Arab leaders are finding that they have to take public opinion in account where Hamas has gained in popularity. Speaking in Kuwait at the Arab economic summit, Saudi King Abdullah cautioned: "Israel has to understand that the choice between war and peace will not always stay open and that the Arab peace initiative that is on the table today will not stay on the table," Abdullah said during a speech at the summit.” Abdullah fathered a peace plan in 2002 that has twice been endorsed by the Arab League calling for peace with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israelis officials have said the plan could serve as a basis for negotiations. Saudi Arabia is among Arab states that pledged $2 billion in Kuwait but are reluctant to see cash flow directly to Hamas.

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