Monday 7 March 2011

Everything is Permanent Until it is Changed

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced last week that he was changing his tactics with regard to the negotiations with the Palestinians. Until now, his position on the peace talks was that he was not prepared to enter into any "interim" agreement. Instead, he wanted to strike a "permanent" agreement which includes agreement on all the so-called final status issues. Now, he has changed his approach and says that he is willing to come to an agreement with the Palestinians on the basis of "temporary" borders. Despite the different language being used, has anything really changed in his approach?

It is not entirely clear what was driving Netanyahu’s original position to prefer a permanent solution rather than a temporary one. My interpretation is that he was trying to delay the declaration of the Palestinian state by position himself to reach agreement on all the most difficult issues before the state is established. The unresolved issues with the Palestinians have been dividend into issues that can be solved in the near-term, and others which should be delayed until later to be resolved (more contentious and difficult). From the outset when late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin initiated the dialogue with the Palestinians, he believed that it would be better to show initial success in getting some of the easier points agreed before tackling the more difficult issues at a later date. This approach gave rise to the so-called “final status issues” which referred to the more difficult points such as the status of Jerusalem, refugees etc. which were to be delayed until later. There are those who believe that Netanyahu was employing a tactic to look like he was making progress, while not really making progress at all. Netanyahu is actually on record as saying that he thought that the final status issues could be resolved within a year. I am not sure that there were many who believed him when he said it, and the lack of progress more than a year later has proved their scepticism to be well founded. Was Netanyahu really saying that he did not want to come to any agreement with the Palestinians at all? I am not sure, but I believe it would be difficult to prove this.

The difference between what is temporary and what is permanent is a matter of interpretation. Everything is temporary, even whatever is permanent, because things change all the time. By the same token, everything is permanent until it is changed. So the terms temporary and permanent are really used simply to invoke some sort of human emotion and expectation about the direction and speed of how things will evolve. The truth about Middle Eastern politics is that it is enormously difficult to change anything. So even the so-called temporary agreements prove to be somewhat permanent because they are often difficult to change afterwards. I think that it is the last point which may have contributed to Netanyahu’s change of approach over the past few weeks.

If he decides to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with “temporary” borders, not a great deal changes from today’s situation. He is not forced to compromise on the difficult issues such as the status of Jerusalem, West Bank construction and the possibility of having to give up towns and settlements with substantial Jewish populations. Instead, he can agree to the establishment of the new state in the current configuration, by sending out the message that it is "temporary". Although agreement to the formal establishment of a Palestinian state will have dramatic political ramifications, the situation on the ground is unlikely to change much. The Palestinian Authority already rules over this land, so this aspect does not change. What changes is the level of international representation and recognition that such a state will have. Most importantly, such an act will serve to substantially reduce the international pressure that Netanyahu is currently under to agree to this state being established.

As soon as the temporary agreement is reached and the international pressure recedes, the daily reality of relations between Israel and the Palestinian state will probably continue along the same lines as today. The interdependencies between the two entities will not change dramatically and the security cooperation will continue as it does today. The unresolved final status issues will probably remain open for some time, as the pressure to agree these will decrease due to the fact that the Palestinians will have a state of their own. This temporary situation may, in fact, continue for tens or even hundreds of years in the current climate of the Middle Eastern politics.

What is likely to change once a Palestinian state comes into existence is the accountability of the Palestinian government. Today, it is a corrupt government that is not accountable to anybody except itself. Palestinain government officials frequently hide behind the fact that they do not have the same responsibilities as other countries as they are not an independent country. Their change of status will hopefully also mean that the international community will require certain standards of behaviour in the same way that these are demanded of other countries in the international community.

Netanyahu’s change of tactic superficially appears to change things substantially and, in some respects, it does bring about a big change in substance. I believe, however, that it reinforces the current status quo in more ways. It seems to me that the momentum towards the establishment of a Palestinian state is now unstoppable. Netanyahu recognises this, and will want to be seen to be supporting this process now that it is inevitable. At the same time, will wish to preserve as much of what he has at the moment without having to agree to give a great many things up. His idea of agreeing to the establishment of a state based on “temporary” borders is likely to satisfy the international community while not changing much on the ground.

The "temporary" solution seems to be Netanyahu's best chance of getting what he wants on both sides of the fence. This goes a long way to explaining his sudden change of heart.

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