Out of sheer Sunday boredom, I watched Benjamin Netanyahu deliver his much-hyped 'peace' speech live, and I must admit I was genuinely surprised. Netanyahu's people didn't manage to fill the room! For a speech that was expected to put the peace process back on track, the least they could have done is lure a few students into what was after all a small room. Never mind, everyone knew that Netanyahu was merely going through the motions of responding to Barack Obama's pressure without actually conceding anything, a tough exercise in semantics but hardly a gripping spectacle.
But on a serious note, many 'observers' had been filled with optimism now that Obama has decided to apply his magic touch to the thorny issue of the Palestinian question. We've been hearing this sort of talk from all sides of the conflict for a while now: only if America can be more of an 'honest broker', only if it applied friendly pressure on Israel, only if the international community took a tougher stance with Israel, and the rest of that cliche-laden litany, then compromises would be obtained and a two-state solution would magically materialise. Many people seem to think that all the elements of this two-state solution are quite obvious and it's only 'difficult' leaders on both sides that are preventing this from happening.
Wishful thinking, and careful what you wish for while we're at it. Remember what happened the last time America decided to solve the Palestinian issue by pressuring the leaders on both sides? Camp David, July 2000, Clinton gets tough and tries to negotiate a 'final status settlement' between the Israelis and the Palestinians only for the process to fail miserably leading to the third Intifada within the space of two decades and the bloodiest so far. The Palestinians are still suffering the consequences, and it had a big impact on Israeli politics as well. Arafat heroically resisted all the pressure to sign a peace deal that would have been seen as catastrophic by the Palestinian people.
But American policymakers don't seem to have learned the lesson of that episode. What didn't work with Arafat in 2000 will not work with Netanyahu today. Firstly, the 'solutions' that American technocrats have been coming up with are the result of abstract intellectual exercises that are far removed from the actual situation on the ground and do not take into consideration the political aspirations of either side. What may appear as a worthy compromise to someone sitting in an office in Washington means something entirely different to a Palestinian refugee. Secondly, the principle of active intervention itself assumes that the Americans know better than the Palestinians and the Israelis themselves what is in their best interest. But without the principle of self-determination the two parties will be locked in a relationship of dependence on America and the international community, which has in fact been put in place for a while now only to complicate the situation even further.
Any possible compromise and eventual solution would have to be accepted by both sides of the conflict and come as an expression of their aspirations, fully acknowledging that the power balance between them is extremely skewed in favour of Israel. In the wake of Zionism's demise, Israel is still searching for an alternative political project that could shape its future, but such a project remains elusive. Many Arab commentators and politicians misinterpreted Netanyahu's speech as standard Zionist rhetoric, but in reality it was an exercise in evasion and pragmatism. Crucially, Netanyahu did utter the words nobody thought he would ever say, and accepted a future Palestinian state, albeit with a number of caveats that would render it meaningless. This in no way shows Netanyahu's commitment to peace but it clearly illustrates that he and his chums on the 'right' do not have the political will-power to oppose the Americans on what should be a matter of principle and self-determination.
The Israeli obsession with 'security' clearly illustrates the lack of ideological commitment, and Netanyahu expressed that quite clearly by coming back again and again to this subject in his speech. But here is the contradiction at the heart of Zionism that has been magnified after its decline: from the Jewish perspective, Israel did not provide security for Jews everywhere but on the contrary has demanded that every Jew in the world should take an interest in defending it and become a potential citizen. The foundation of Israel in 1948 meant leaving the post-war stable and secure Europe and creating a new troubled state and acquiring a few million enemies in the process. From the Jewish security perspective, Israel did not make sense in 1948 and makes even less sense today. Zionism had overcome this problem historically by turning its attention to nation-building, but today there is little appetite for that among Israelis themselves and Jews everywhere else.
Netanyahu represents this dilemma, his generation grew up on those Zionist 'ideals' but now they find themselves in power and capable only of paying lip service to those ideals, while having no real political project. Pressuring them to make political concessions under those conditions is unwise, without a clear idea about the direction that Israel should take any concession will only muddle the issues and create even bigger problems. American pressure is attempting to relieve the Israelis of the responsibility for their future, but that could only lead to further instability.
The Americans have to realise that any solution to the conflict have to come from the parties involved. They have succeeded so far in making the Palestinians accept the principle of a two-state solution instead of their original demand for a secular state for Jews and Arabs, reducing their cause in the process from a progressive project of change to one of dealing with occupation. Hamas exploited this retreat to offer its own solution, and the Americans achieved the exact opposite of what they intended. Pressure on the Israelis for immediate concessions will also complicate the situation further, America certainly needs to re-examine its relationship with Israel, but the current urgency for a final settlement is misguided and may usher in yet another round of violence. History should not be ignored.