Hussein Agha and Robert Malley have a long article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, "Who's Afraid of the Palestinians?" Agha has an academic position at Oxford University and has been an adviser to the Palestinian Authority. Malley is a former State Department official and member of Bill Clinton's advisory team on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; of that group, Malley was the most understanding of, and sympathetic to, the Palestinian position. Since leaving the government, Malley has become one of the best known analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he and Agha have co-authored many prominent and persuasive articles on the conflict.
In that light, it is very surprising the latest Agha/Malley effort is so weak--at best, in Phil Weiss's terrific characterization, "lame and narcotized;" at worse, infuriating. Moreover, given the prominence of the NYRB and the reputation of its authors, the article is certain to attract wide attention and could have disastrous consequences in terms of public and perhaps even US government understanding of why all efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed.
To begin, the article has no clear argument-- as one reads it, it is hard to know its point or where it is going. Still, the underlying theme seems to be that the situation is hopeless: no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--two-state, one-state, unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood, whatever--is going to work. There are certainly grounds for pessimism; however, the problem is that the Agha-Malley (hereafter, A/M) analysis on what has gone wrong and who is responsible is misleading or demonstrably wrong.
Even more surprising, the article is poorly written. In its obvious striving for style points as well as for analytical "balance," the article is replete with empty rhetoric, strawmen, and false symmetries. Moreover, it affects a kind of world-weary, above-it-all, plague-on-all-your-houses tone that is inappropriate and grating, beginning with its annoyingly light-hearted title.
At one level, A/M seem to be arguing that everyone is to blame for the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including not only the protagonists themselves but also the United States, the Arab states, and the international community. However, in the course of the analysis, it is the Palestinians that get the bulk of the criticisms, and Israel the least.
The article's criticisms of US, Arab, and UN policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are brief, undeveloped, and unimpressive.
US Policies. Obama is first criticized because of his supposed inconsistency: his relationship with Netanyahu has gone from being "excessively cold" to being "excessively warm." Since A/M do not point to any consequences of Obama's "excessively cold" personal relationship with Netanyahu, it is hard to know what they have in mind. Still, what could the implication be-- that because Netanyahu was angry at Obama he was driven to even harder line policies than he otherwise would have pursued? If so, it is unpersuasive.
A/M are pleased that recently the US-Israeli relationship has improved: the administration "has learned its lessons...it was wiser to work with Netanyahu than against him... [because] there is only limited strategic utility in...repetitive skirmishes with Israel." They do not specify how the new just-right temperature of US-Israeli relations has been helpful--except to Netanyahu, of course.
The Arabs. In passing, A/M accuse the Arab states of being "as feckless as ever." Since they don't develop the point, it is not clear what they mean: surely they would not have the Arabs join forces to attack Israel and liberate the Palestinians from Israeli rule? To be sure, elsewhere in the article the authors seem to hint at what they have in mind, for they note that the Israelis would like "collective normalization" with the Arab world. However, A/M fail to point out that collective normalization is precisely what nearly all the Arab states for a number of years have been formally and repeatedly offering (especially in the 2002 and 2007 Arab League proposals, adopted by twenty-two Arab states), if Israel ends its occupation of the Palestinians and accepts a two-state peace settlement.
The International Community. A/M write:
"The international community's treatment of the PA as a quasi state has not brought Palestinians closer to statehood....Throwing money at the Palestinians has not ended the occupation but made it more palatable: it has reduced Israeli costs and created a Palestinian culture of dependency, diverting Palestinian energy from addressing their predicament....The illusions helped perpetuate the status quo."
For several reasons, this is a particularly bad passage. First, the implied argument is unpersuasive, since A/M do not specify any effective things that the Palestinians could do, if only their energy was not being diverted by the money thrown at them by the international community. Second, some of the language is startlingly callous: what possessed Agha and Malley to borrow Tea Party-type rhetoric about foreign aid?
Third, the argument is an empty exercise in strawmanship: to my knowledge, no one thinks that international assistance will bring about an end of the Israeli occupation, or even make it more "palatable." Finally, there have been a number of international economic studies that have shown that international humanitarian aid ("throwing money") has often been the difference, especially in Gaza, between the mere impoverishment of the Palestinian people, deliberately brought about by Israel, and an outright economic and societal collapse.
Israel. One would think the starting point of any serious analysis of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a discussion of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people. Even leaving aside (though one shouldn't) the pre-1967 history of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, any assessment of the conflict that does not focus on forty-four years of Israeli occupation, repression, killings, military attacks, and economic siege is useless--or worse.
Rather than focusing on the crucial and obvious facts of the matter, A/M barely mention them: in a single sentence, they write: "Israel controls Palestinian land, natural resources, and lives." The implications of this passing and anodyne observation are not worked out, presumably because A/M's balancing act precludes them from making Israeli behavior the center of their argument. If they had, the alleged shortcomings or errors of the Palestinians and other actors would be of marginal significance at most, leaving the authors with nothing original to say.
To be sure, A/M do criticize "the growing loss of interest in negotiations" by Israel--though they immediately balance this by making the same criticism of the Palestinian leaders. And even the criticism of Israel is full of sympathetic understanding: "Whether Israelis wish for a resolution is not the central issue; one can assume they do and still question why they would want to take risks and provoke deep internal rifts when there is no apparent urgency to do so."
As for the egregious Netanyahu, more understanding: "The more time elapses, the greater Netanyahu's fear of alienating his right-wing coalition partner...Nothing concentrates the mind of a canny politician like electoral arithmetic." An odd observation, even on its own terms: since Netanyahu has no concern for moral justice or understanding of his country's true national security, he doesn't have to be all that "canny" to know he has to--wants to, is more like it--cater to the Israeli rightwing.
It is the Palestinians who are most severely criticized for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: they are accused of various "illusions" and "delusions," starting with their apparent naivite: "For seventeen years, the peace process has been fueled by illusions. Bilateral negotiations have cultivated the pretense that Israelis and Palestinians are equal parties when they are not."
Who, precisely, believes that the Israelis and Palestinians are "equal parties"--hardly, one assumes, the Palestinians--and what is the implication? It would be one thing if the point of this strawmanship was to address the obvious imbalance of power and emphasize the need for the U.S. or the international community to right the imbalance by supporting the Palestinian position. However, that is not where A/M are going, since (as I have shown) they are dismissive of US or other international involvement in trying to settle the conflict.
Since Israel isn't interested in a negotiated two-state settlement and nobody can effectively intervene, what strategy do A/M recommend to the Palestinians? They have a lot to say about what they shouldn't do, but hardly anything about what they should.
A return to armed struggle is certainly--and rightly--ruled out by A/M. First, it wouldn't work: "sheltered behind a separation barrier" and "protected by an aggressive force," the Israelis "feel less threatened by Palestinians than at any recent time." Moreover, "the Palestinians are exhausted, in search of a respite, not a fight." Still further, "violence would compromise the foreign support upon which the Palestinian Authority has become dependent."
What, then, of nonviolent Palestinian resistance and protest? This is also given short shrift by A/M, presumably because if the Israelis feel immune from armed resistance, they will be even less moved by nonviolent protest. Not content with arguing that nonviolent resistance won't work, A/M appear to be further suggesting that by pointlessly annoying Israel, the Palestinians make things even worse for themselves: "nonviolent forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation...are incompatible with a West Bank strategy that hinges on Israeli goodwill."
What about other peaceful strategies? A/M also treat most of them with disdain:
"Palestinians have looked for other nonviolent options. It's a curious list: unilaterally declaring statehood, obtaining UN recognition, dissolving the PA, or walking away from the idea of negotiated partition altogether and calling for a single, binational state. Not one of these ides has been well thought out, debated, or genuinely considered as a strategic choice, which, of course, is not their point. They are essentially attempts to show that the Palestinians have alternatives to negotiation with Israel even as the proposals' lack of seriousness demonstrably establishes that they currently have none."
Similarly, A/M dismiss the alleged Palestinian "excessive faith in Washington....However vehemently they deny it, Palestinians secretly latch on to the belief that the U.S. will someday save them." For the Palestinians to depend on the US to force Israel to relinquish the Palestinian territories "is not a political strategy [but]... a pointless exercise," they go on.
The problem with this argument is that A/M offer no evidence that the Palestinians have "secretly latched on" to an obviously blind faith in the United States. In any case, the argument is yet another strawman: there is no evidence that a supposed dependence on American goodwill has prevented the Palestinians from doing things that would be more effective in ending the Israeli occupation.
What's wrong with all this is not the A/M analysis of how few real options the Palestinians have--in fact, I share their assessments that nonviolence isn't working, that unilateral declarations of statehood won't change the reality of the continued Israeli occupation, and that there are no prospects for a binational state. What is wrong with the A/M argument is that it places most of the blame for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Palestinians, whose efforts are repeatedly treated with patronizing disdain.
Moreover, A/M offer no alternatives, other than to counsel the Palestinians "to reclaim the initiative," lest they "lose the ability to shape events." What in heaven's name are they talking about? Imagine that a large thug has assaulted and robbed a small man, and is now standing on his neck. Instead of coming to his rescue, passersby criticize the victim: Get up! Rid yourself of illusions! Get a strategy! Reclaim the initiative and start shaping events!
Don't try to resist by force, though, that would be hopeless; besides which, we disapprove of violence. But don't cry out in protest, either--it will irritate the brute standing on your neck, on whose goodwill you depend. And don't be so foolish as to seek our help, a pointless exercise that demonstrates your lack of seriousness.
Above all, no one is afraid of you, so stop annoying us.
Is There Any Hope for the Palestinians?
While clucking at the Palestinians' supposed failure to adopt useful strategies to "address their predicament," A/M come close to arguing, in effect, that there are none: no strategy has worked and neither will any that are presently being contemplated.
In the only exception to this counsel of despair, A/M initially appear to argue that an international effort to delegitimize Israeli policies might work: unlike all the other strategies, they suggest, such a focused delegitimization campaign would genuinely concern the Israelis: "The conflict Israelis have come to care about is not with the Palestinians; it is with the rest of the world.....If it is delegitimization that Israelis fear, then it must be delegitimization that will make them budge."
Yet, hardly have A/M pointed to the potential effectiveness of an international delegitimization strategy when they quickly pull the rug out from under it, warning against "the temptation" to adopt such a strategy, on the grounds that when pressures are "exercised on a people convinced by the calamities of their own history of the inveterate hostility of much of the outside world," the Israelis might "opt to hunker down rather than reach out."
A/M are far too quick to dismiss the delegitimization strategy, which of course means the delegitimization only of the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinians, not of the "existence of Israel," as the obtuse and/or disingenuous rhetoric of many Israelis and "pro-Israeli" Americans would have it.
The only potentially more effective strategy than rhetorical delegitimization would be for the United States to condition its continued political, economic, and military support of Israel on the end of the occupation, but there's no chance of that happening. Moreover, if delegitimization risks an Israeli backlash (Jeremiah Haber has challenged this, here), so might US sanctions, for it cannot be ruled out that the Israelis have become so immune not only to moral considerations but to their own rational self-interest that nothing can penetrate their intransigence.
Consequently, there are real risks that any pressures, whether merely rhetorical or those with real teeth, could trigger dangerous Israeli irrationality. Nonetheless, for those concerned with both justice for the Palestinians and the true interests of Israel, no other course is available.