The follies of US policy in Palestine

The follies of US policy in Palestine

Jeffrey D. Sachs

American foreign policy in the Middle East experienced yet another major setback this month, when Hamas, whose Palestinian government the United States had tried to isolate, routed the rival Fateh movement in Gaza. In response, Israel sealed Gaza’s borders, making life even more unbearable in a place wracked by violence, poverty and despair.

It is important that we recognise the source of America’s failure, because it keeps recurring, making peace between Israel and Palestine more difficult. The roots of failure lie in the US and Israeli governments’ belief that military force and financial repression can lead to peace on their terms, rather than accepting a compromise on terms that the Middle East, the rest of the world and, crucially, most Israelis and Palestinians, accepted long ago.

For 40 years, since the Six-Day War of 1967, there has been one realistic possibility for peace: Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders, combined with viable economic conditions for a Palestinian state, including access to trade routes, water supplies and other essential needs.

With small and mutually acceptable adjustments to those borders, these terms would enable peaceful co-existence of two states side by side. Perhaps three-fourths of both Israelis and Palestinians support this “land for peace” compromise, while one-fourth holds out for complete victory over the other side.

Rejectionists on both sides repeatedly undermined efforts to realise that compromise. Starting in the early 1970s, religious Israeli settlers and hardline Israeli nationalists pushed Israel into a disastrous policy of creating and expanding settlements on Arab lands in the West Bank, in violation of common sense and international diplomacy. That policy blocked peace ever since, setting the stage for decades of bloodshed.

Nor have extremists on either side shrunk from political murder. Islamic militants killed Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian peacemaker, while a Jewish militant killed Yitzhak Rabin, the would-be Israeli peacemaker. Violent extremists on both sides have ratcheted up their actions whenever the majority succeeded in getting closer to peace.

For the past 10 years, the greatest practical barrier to peace has been Israel’s failure to carry out any true withdrawal to its 1967 borders, owing to the political weight of hundreds of thousands of settlers in the West Bank and the religious and secular communities that support them. This remains the crucial truth; the rest follows as tragedy.

Even when the US or Israel have tabled peace offers, such as at Camp David in 2000, they have included convoluted ways to sustain the West Bank settlements and large settler populations, while denying an economically viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

The most recent debacle began when President George W. Bush called for Palestinian democracy in 2004, but then refused to honour the democratic process.

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