Israeli-Palestinian talks look dead

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The visit to Pittsburgh last week of Michael Sfard, the top human rights lawyer in Israel, to present the University of Pittsburgh Law School's annual "Lawyering for Social Change" lecture, raised probing questions about the future of Israel and the Middle East.

Mr. Sfard, 40, born in Israel, works from an office in Tel Aviv on human-rights and land-use cases, some 500 over the past eight years, largely involving Palestinians in the West Bank.

He dropped a large rock on my foot early in his talk when he said flatly that the Israelis are not interested in negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which he sees as their only route out of the mess they are in. Among the evidence he cited was that negotiations -- toward a two-state or any other kind of resolution -- or even Israel's worsening regional situation were not even at issue in the January elections. He noted that the parties and leaders in the post-election governing coalition not only do not favor negotiations, they do not even have a coherent policy position on the subject.

This indifference is quite remarkable, given, first, that Israel's regional position, surrounded by Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank, is clearly deteriorating as each of those places writhes to varying degrees in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, or as it has become fashionable to call it, the Second Arab Awakening. (The first was that with which T. E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," was associated at the time of World War I.) Developments in each of Israel's surrounding neighbors have made them more unstable and their governments, increasingly responsive to popular opinion, more anti-Israel. How Israel can not take notice of this and have it affect elections and policies is truly remarkable.

The second fact that makes Israeli indifference to negotiations curious is the fact that one of the society's central goals, the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state, is increasingly at risk. In Israel itself, the Arab population is growing at an annual rate, 2.4 percent, that exceeds the Jewish growth rate, 1.8 percent. Thus, Israel is becoming more Arab by the day. The wild proposition, favored by the now half-million settlers in the West Bank, that one day all of Palestine will be ruled without dispute by Israelis becomes simply silly in terms of numbers given that 2.6 million Palestinians live in the West Bank.

So, what happens next, assuming that neither President Barack Obama nor the Israelis who want serious negotiations can get them going? Mr. Sfard points out that some Israelis like negotiations because they provide a shield behind which the Israeli government can take even harsher measures to keep the Palestinians under control.

First, seen from the point of view of a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, how is Israel reacting to the growing number of trade and cultural boycotts against it? It is worth recalling that South African whites, another group in history allegedly immune to entreaties, finally saw the writing on the wall when boycotts, starting with sports and advancing into other cultural, economic and financial areas, began to bite into their lifestyle and prospects for the future. (Remember when wine sellers in the United States were afraid to stock and promote South African wines?) Mr. Sfard said that Israelis really hate boycott efforts and fight hard against them.

Second, what are the chances of another Palestinian uprising, an intifada with stone-throwing, arrests, et al? The first two started in 1987 and 2000. The Israelis continue to pound on the Palestinians and encroach on their land in the West Bank, with a growing number of settlers deeply entrenched there. The answer from Mr. Sfard was that a third intifada was not "if," but "when."

The predictably tough Israeli response to a third intifada will add fuel to the flames of the boycott movement, pushing Israelis more inward on themselves, increasing their isolation. All of this will make Israel a difficult partner for the United States in the Middle East. The conservative Arab governments that are now U.S. allies -- Egypt, Jordan, the Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia -- will find it increasingly difficult to look the other way when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Finally, there is the question of where are the great men and women who could potentially lead Israel out of the wilderness into a new, safer status quo where its fate as a Jewish state was no longer in question, its neighbors weren't baying for its blood, and it could concentrate on developing a new relationship of economic interdependence with a Palestinian state that was interested most of all in improving the standard of living of its population.

It was generally considered at my table during the Sfard lecture that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who emerged on top of the latest electoral free-for-all, is not that leader. Nor are new "stars" Naftali Bennett and Yaiv Lapid. Nor is Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, although she does seem to understand the situation.

There used to be Ariel Sharon, who pulled the Israelis out of Gaza, but he is still in a coma. There also was Yitzhak Rabin, whom a religious Zionist assassinated in 1995. The Palestinians may be hopelessly divided between Fatah and Hamas, so expect nothing from them.

Barack Obama? We doubt it. His Nobel Peace Prize gathers dust.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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