JERUSALEM — The traditional diplomatic formulation for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the slogan “Two states for two peoples.”
Let’s revise that for the current political situation and posit a solution based on “Four states for two peoples.” Because it’s the only way just now of drawing lines on a map between the feuding parties.
Why not stick with two peoples? Well, the Palestinians are divided in almost every way possible — geographically, politically, financially and with hatred and violence — between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the parts of the West Bank under the sway of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority.
Israel is doing its best to emulate that self-destructive division. Late last month Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a 10-month freeze on construction in the country’s settlements in the West Bank. With his customary ability to try placating everyone only to end up displeasing them all, Netanyahu pledged that the freeze wouldn’t apply to synagogues and schools in the settlements. Nor would it hold for Israeli neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which are viewed by international diplomats as settlements.
The U.S. agreed to bite its tongue about this brush-off of President Barack Obama’s push for a total freeze on settlements. Israeli settlers, however, bit Netanyahu instead. They promise to block major road junctions inside Israel in the coming week and have already started to refuse entry to building inspectors come to determine if construction work is being carried out in their settlements.
Within Israeli politics, the ire isn’t just a matter of geography. At least five ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party are opposed to the construction freeze. Three met with Netanyahu to complain that under his plan important sewerage projects wouldn’t be completed. Translation: We’ll have a lot of waste lying about and we’ll just have to throw it at you.
Some Israeli political observers believe that’s just what Netanyahu wants now. They contend that he realizes he can’t make a deal that’d please the settlers, the Palestinians and the U.S. — and certainly not one that’d get by his right-wing Likud activists.
In this reading, Netanyahu wants to push the most right-wing members of his party out, forging an alliance with political blocs tied more directly to the settlement movement. That would leave Netanyahu free to take the somewhat less right-wing elements of his party and to form either a new party or an alliance with the Labor Party. Historically the most powerful of Israel’s parties, Labor has gradually diminished and now is merely the fourth-biggest party.
Oh, and guess what: It’s divided. There are five, sometimes six, of the 13 Labor parliamentary members who oppose the government of which their party is a part.
That might change if a new Likud and Labor joined forces — particularly as some of those “Labor rebels” would be aware that in the next election their party’s showing is likely to be even worse, leaving them out of a job.
When Netanyahu isn’t figuring out how not to be held hostage to Israel’s extremist right, he’s focused on cutting a deal to free the Israeli held hostage by people even more extreme: Hamas. Though a deal to swap hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier held captive in Gaza was said to be imminent a week ago, it remains only imminent.
Hamas officials say they’ve narrowed the gap with Israel over the prisoner swap. Of the 450 prisoners Hamas wants released, Israel is believed to have agreed so far to all but 15. Those include some prisoners that most Israelis will find it hard to stomach releasing — several were behind lethal suicide bombings, and another was the woman whose email flirtation with an Israeli youth was designed to lure him to a sexy assignation at which he was murdered. There are a number of cabinet ministers who continue to oppose the deal.
Which is one point of agreement between those rightist Israeli ministers and a man they deride — Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian president maintains that a prisoner release like this would be a gift to Hamas, making the Islamist group more popular before elections scheduled for January.
Of course, Abbas doesn’t really intend to hold those elections. Still he has to show that he’s as tough on Israel as Hamas. That’s why he’s refusing to go back to peace talks, despite urging from his paymasters in Washington.
In the absence of four corners in which to send all these recalcitrant kids to stand with their faces to the walls, four states might be the only way to keep them from fighting in the playground.