MIDDLE EAST MARCH 11, 2013
One Friday evening last November, Mahmoud Abbas made a rare appearance on the popular Israeli TV station, Channel 2. In his boxy suit and tie, the Palestinian president looked every bit his 77 years, his olive skin tinged with gray, his voice soft and whispery. He shifted in his seat with every answer. But when the interviewer, Udi Segal, asked him about his vision for the future of his people, Abbas offered a reminder of why this man was once, and perhaps remains, the great hope of the two-state solution.
“Palestine for me is ’67 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he said. “This is now and forever.” Abbas had been born in the town of Safed, which his family fled during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and which is now a part of Israel. Segal asked, did he wish to visit? Abbas raised his eyebrows. “I want to see Safed,” he replied quietly. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there.”
Every Israeli viewer would have immediately grasped the significance of that statement. For years, one of the top obstacles to a peace deal has been the “right of return”—the Palestinian demand that some five million refugees and descendants be allowed to go back to their former homes. In Israel, whose population of eight million already includes 1.5 million Arab citizens, the phrase signals nothing less than the demographic destruction of the Jewish state. Among Palestinians, the right of return is sacrosanct. And yet, here was Abbas waving away the idea altogether. With Israeli elections only a couple of months away, it seemed that the Palestinian president had just eliminated one of the longest-standing impediments to a peace deal.
In Israel, left-of-center politicians like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Shimon Peres praised Abbas’s remarks. But in the West Bank and Gaza, the interview caused mayhem. Hamas leaders called Abbas a traitor; some in his own Fatah Party attacked his judgment. In Gaza, Hamas supporters burned photos of the president and marched with banners that read, “Pioneer of concessions: it’s time to quit.” By Sunday, Abbas had walked back the refugee comment, saying he was only speaking for himself. Right-wing Israelis pounced, calling Abbas two-faced, and within days, the election returned to its fixation with the onerous cost of living.
The Abbas interview could be seen as confirmation that, with the right ascendant in Israeli politics and Hamas firmly entrenched in Gaza, peace is a very remote prospect. But looked at another way, his remarks were a sign that the peace process lingers in a phase that is not altogether hopeless.
Until the late ’80s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Until 2000, no Israeli prime minister, including those on the left, would consider withdrawing to the country’s pre-1967 borders, let alone dividing Jerusalem. But over the course of a generation, a unique confluence of circumstances gave rise to the flawed, torturous, obstacle-ridden soap opera we know as the peace process. Over the decades, participants on both sides have edged closer, in a series of breakthroughs and setbacks and near-misses, to the dream of a two-state solution.
Today, the essential conditions for a peace process remain. Majorities of Israelis and Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution. It remains possible to draw a border that would give the Palestinians the territorial equivalent of the entire West Bank, while allowing Israel to incorporate the vast majority of its settlers. So far, the number of settlers living in communities that would need to be evacuated has not passed the point of irreversibility. Jerusalem is still dividable. Hamas is confined to its Gaza fortress. And Abbas, a Palestinian leader like no other before and perhaps no other to come, remains in office. By the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, however, every one of these circumstances could vanish—and if that happens, the two-state solution will vanish along with them.
In December 2012, a month before the Israeli election, two of the country’s top pollsters surveyed popular opinion on the peace process. The polls produced near-identical results that, on their face, made no sense at all. On Election Day, Likud and other right-wing parties kept their Knesset majority, following a campaign in which Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that he would not evacuate any settlements. But in the survey, two-thirds of Israelis said they would support a peace deal creating a Palestinian state the size of the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in East Jerusalem. The proposal was supported across the political spectrum—including by majorities of voters for Netanyahu’s Likud, the more hard-line Jewish Home Party, and the ultraorthodox Shas.
The great paradox of the current moment in Israeli politics is that, even as the right has consolidated its power, the people have drifted to the left when it comes to the concessions they would make for peace. For decades after the Six-Day War, the contours of Israeli politics were relatively simple. Right-wing leaders believed Israel should settle the West Bank and Gaza. Left-wing leaders acquiesced to some settlement activity, but argued that Israel should trade the territories for peace. After the Camp David summit failed in 2000 and the second intifada began, the right gained the upper hand. As suicide bombings forced cafés and restaurants all over the country to install armed guards and metal detectors, Israelis turned to Ariel Sharon, a hard-line former general and patron saint of the settlement movement. Sharon launched a series of bruising military operations that, over the course of three years, returned Israel to normalcy.
But as prime minister, Sharon underwent an unexpected transformation. Suddenly, he began referring to the “occupation”—a right-wing taboo—and came out for a Palestinian state. He enraged many settlers by building a barrier along the West Bank that ultimately left more than 90 percent of the occupied territory on the other side. In 2004, he declared that Israel would unilaterally evacuate all 17 settlements (and all military forces) from Gaza, as well as four more in the West Bank. And before suffering a stroke in 2005, he intended to do more. “I had a conversation with Sharon on his farm that he wanted to keep going after Gaza,” then–Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me. Ehud Olmert, his deputy prime minister at that time, confirmed that Sharon had had further West Bank withdrawals in mind: “There’s no question,” he told me.1
Sharon had not turned leftist overnight: “Sharon did not really believe that a real comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians was possible,” his national security adviser, Giora Eiland, said. But he had also decided that the status quo was untenable. Every terrorist attack reminded him of the costs of ruling over a hostile population—a population that was growing faster than the Jewish one. Elliott Abrams, the former George W. Bush administration official, recalled that Sharon’s political adviser, Dov Weisglass, was fond of remarking: “[H]e needs to explain the withdrawal from Gaza in a language that you do not speak: Likudish. And in that language, you have to say, ... ‘We’re not doing this for the Palestinians, we’re not doing this with them. We’re doing it as part of our general hatred of them.’”
By selling the policies of the left in the language of the right, Sharon managed to bring a good chunk of the public, including many rightists, along with him. The words “Palestinian state”—used in the 1970s and 1980s only by the far left and rejected in the 1990s by even Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres—went mainstream.
Meanwhile, the security establishment, which for decades saw a Palestinian state as a mortal threat, arrived at the same conclusion. Or, as former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin put it to me, “Having a border is the best security arrangement.” Settling the conflict, the logic went, would give Israel greater international legitimacy to fight terrorism and enable it to deal with the more serious emerging threat from Iran.
Significantly, Yadlin favored making the necessary compromises for a deal while still maintaining there was no trustworthy partner on the Palestinian side. I asked him what the results would be if he and other current and former heads of major security agencies were polled on the peace question. Yadlin answered that, as long as there were adequate security provisions in place—such as a demilitarized Palestinian state, early-warning stations, Israeli control of the West Bank’s air space and electro-magnetic spectrum, and an effective international force in the Jordan Valley—his colleagues would support an agreement in “the same proportion” as the rest of the population: that is, by a solid majority. “Maybe more,” he said, “because they have served in the territories and they understand the fact that, if you want a Jewish and democratic state, you should not control 2.5 million Palestinians.”2
Most Israelis have come to a similarly conflicted conclusion, convinced that their country cannot indefinitely occupy the West Bank and just as convinced that a peace deal is impossible. The calm of the past seven years has afforded the country the luxury of not having to resolve the contradiction. The January election was the first since the Six-Day War that wasn’t consumed by the Palestinian question. Netanyahu, obsessed with Iran, ignored it. The Labor Party, Israel’s traditional peace vanguard, focused on the economy: One of the few times its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, addressed the conflict was to note its impact on Israel’s credit rating.
And so, for as long as the security situation remains stable—hardly a given considering the growing boldness of protesters in the West Bank and the increasing range of rockets fired from Gaza—Israel has arrived at a strange moment of opportunity. Beneath the apathy and the rising enthusiasm for the right lies a latent but very real desire for peace, waiting to be mobilized. In fact, what many Palestinians don’t understand is that Israelis will never be more open to a peace agreement than they are now. But what many Israelis don’t understand is that they will never have a better partner than Mahmoud Abbas.
Among the billboards that have sprouted in downtown Ramallah, advertising BlackBerrys and high-rise apartment buildings, are many featuring the two men who have defined Palestinian politics for the past 50 years: Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen. One banner on the side of the Muqata, the Palestinian presidential compound, shows Arafat in military fatigues and Abbas in suit and tie. That Arafat the guerrilla was succeeded by Abbas the technocrat was a remarkable historical accident, one that is unlikely to be repeated.
In 1961, Arafat asked Abbas, then a civil servant in his mid-twenties working in Qatar, to join a new Palestinian political movement, Fatah, which would become part of the PLO. Back then, the West Bank and Gaza were still controlled by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, and Fatah was committed to liberating the rest of “historic Palestine” by force.
But Abbas was “not a man of armed struggle,” says Nabil Shaath, an early Fatah colleague. Bookish and introspective, he undertook what he later described as a “programme of reading and research into the intricacies and hidden aspects of Israeli society.” 3 In the ’70s, Abbas urged the PLO to start talking to the Israelis. “I was keen to meet any Israelis willing to meet me,” he wrote in his memoir of the peace process, Through Secret Channels. His efforts were met with ridicule. “I suffered much criticism from the people closest to me in Fatah,” he continued. “They were often sarcastic, asking, ‘Can you change Israeli society through these simpletons you are meeting?’” Several PLO activists involved in these early dialogues were assassinated.
Over time, however, the PLO came to realize that it could not defeat its enemy, and in 1988, it resignedly recognized Israel. This epiphany paved the way for the secret talks that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993. Abbas, who led the Palestinian negotiating team, quickly became Israel’s favorite peace partner.4 “[He] was seen as the one who—unlike Arafat—was genuinely committed to resolving the conflict,” says Dennis Ross, then Bill Clinton’s chief Middle East envoy.
But it was Arafat who continued to define Palestinian politics. He had formally renounced terrorism in 1988, but could never truly bring himself to abandon armed struggle. He condemned suicide bombers in English and praised them as martyrs in Arabic. According to a recent French TV interview with his widow, he even planned the second intifada. Records confiscated from his compound show that he sent funds to the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which carried out attacks in Israel. Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar has said that Arafat encouraged his militant group to launch its own.
In private, Abbas warned that militarizing the intifada would set the Palestinian cause back by decades. “He understood that the balance of power is in favor of Israel militarily, and the more we militarize our struggle, the more Israel will use excessive force against us—and the more they will feel justified,” says the PLO’s chief representative to Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, who was Abbas’s deputy at the time.
In the end, Abbas was vindicated. The intifada would cost the Palestinians more than 4,000 lives and valuable international support. In April 2002, following a string of suicide bombings, Israel invaded and destroyed much of the Muqata. Cornered, Arafat accepted a U.S. plan to appoint a prime minister and chose his longtime deputy, Abbas. At a summit in Jordan convened by President George W. Bush in 2003, Abbas appeared alongside Sharon and called terrorism “inconsistent with our religious and moral traditions.” This was a dramatic break with the Palestinian public, which supported suicide attacks by large majorities.
When Arafat died, in late 2004, Abbas was elected with 63 percent of the vote on a platform of nonviolence and ending the conflict through negotiations. It was a hopeful moment, but fleeting. In the 2006 legislative elections, looking to bolster his legitimacy, Abbas allowed Hamas to run. He hadn’t anticipated that Hamas would capture 74 of the 132 parliamentary seats. “I was shocked because all the intelligence was telling us that Fatah was going to pull it out,” Rice said. “I think Hamas was shocked.” After a short-lived unity government with Fatah, Hamas forces seized the Gaza Strip. Abbas retaliated by dismissing the Hamas prime minister and appointing a technocratic government led by Salam Fayyad, another Western-backed moderate, for the West Bank. Abbas and Fayyad cracked down on Hamas and launched reforms to prepare Palestinians for statehood.
The schism between Hamas and Fatah opened up a window for negotiations with Sharon’s centrist successor, Olmert. The Abbas-Olmert talks, 36 meetings in all, were perhaps the closest the two sides have ever come to an agreement. In September 2008, the two men met in Olmert’s study, where the Israeli leader showed Abbas a map of a Palestinian state comprising the territorial equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. “He looked at it and he said, ‘This is quite serious. I have to admit, this is very serious,’” Olmert recalled. Then Abbas said he would have to think about it. Olmert told me that he retorted: “Don’t think about it. Sign it now. I want to tell you one thing: In the next fifty years, there will be no prime minister in Israel who will propose to you something similar to this.”
Over the course of their talks, the two men agreed to divide Jerusalem largely along ethnic lines. Abbas accepted in principle Olmert’s plan to place the most sensitive part of the capital, the Holy Basin, under the control of a five-nation consortium. The pair also sought to identify a mutually agreeable set of land swaps, in which Israel would annex certain settlements and give the Palestinians equivalent chunks of land in exchange.
When it came to the right of return, according to Olmert, Abbas said, “I can tell you one thing: We are not aspiring to change the nature of your country.” 5 Olmert proposed a “symbolic” number of refugees: 5,000 allowed into Israel over the course of five years, while offering compensation and resettlement for the rest. (“I would’ve compromised a little,” he told me.) 6 According to highly knowledgeable sources, Abbas signaled to Rice that he might accept something between 40,000 and 60,000.7 “Our reading was that there was a deal to be done on [the refugee issue],” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, told me. Although differences remained on all the key issues, the gaps seemed surmountable.
But Abbas didn’t sign. His refusal to do so has become twinned in the Israeli public imagination with Arafat’s outright rejection of Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David. But according to senior Israeli, Palestinian, and American officials involved, the reason was more complex. Abbas feared that Olmert, who had announced that he planned to resign in order to fight corruption allegations, wouldn’t be able to deliver on his promises. Aides to then–Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had been nominated to replace Olmert as head of the Kadima Party before the upcoming elections, had sent messages telling Abbas not to sign. “The message was, ‘Wait for me,’” Abrams recalled. “Now, I think it was a historic mistake for him not to have signed, but it’s not crazy for him not to have signed.”
According to Hadley, President Bush met Livni on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in 2008. At that point, Hadley said, Bush had concluded that an agreement between Olmert and Abbas was impossible, and he urged Livni to strike a deal with Abbas and run on it in the campaign: “The argument [was] the same for both sides: It’s, ‘Tzipi, you’ll never get to the right of Netanyahu, so you might as well run to his left with something to run on.’ And to Abbas, it’s: ‘Look, Hamas is gonna to kill you. You can’t be tougher on this process than Hamas, so you ought to do what actually the Palestinian people want you to do, which is to reach an agreement, and you each ought to run on that agreement, and if you do and show leadership and boldness, you’ll win.’” (Livni, however, was reluctant to make commitments on sensitive issues like Jerusalem before the election.)
Since Benjamin Netanyahu’s election in 2009, Abbas has refused to enter negotiations without a settlement freeze and other preconditions. “Abu Mazen was convinced that there was no deal with Bibi, and if he went into negotiations and there was no deal, it would hurt him,” said Ross, who later served as Obama’s chief Middle East envoy. Instead, he has sought recognition of Palestinian statehood from the United Nations. But that move, according to Palestinian insiders, has always been aimed at compelling Netanyahu to pick up negotiations where they left off under Olmert.
In January, Hamas and Fatah renewed long-stalled negotiations on a reconciliation pact that would pave the way for new elections. Abbas has said that he will not run again, and many observers doubt he’ll last that long. He is a prostate cancer survivor and a heavy smoker; in 2010, according to a report in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, he was admitted six times over the course of a few weeks to a Jordanian hospital for an unspecified illness. There is no one in Fatah ready to assume his singular stature in the peace process. Abbas has not only failed to groom a successor, he has at times actively undermined potential heirs.
Abbas must sometimes wonder what his long career as a peacemaker has yielded. A December poll showed Palestinians preferred Hamas’s approach to ending the Israeli occupation over that of Abbas by a two-to-one margin. As he exits, so will an entire generation of Palestinian leaders who grew up alongside Jews, fought them for decades, and then made a strategic decision to work for rapprochement. “We’re not sustainable anymore,” Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told me. Not just unsustainable, but unlikely ever to be replicated: “This is your dream leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad,” he said. “This is a dream team! Do you think Palestinians will agree to another leadership like this in the next six hundred years?”
Any serious discussion of the two-state solution inevitably leads to someone pulling out a map. Recently, I met with Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli negotiator involved in nongovernmental efforts to devise borders that could win the approval of both sides. What this entails, cartographically speaking, is figuring out how to draw around the settlements.
During the 2008 talks, Olmert proposed that Israel annex the equivalent of 6.3 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and compensate the Palestinians with a corresponding 5.8 percent of land from Israel, plus a corridor linking the two territories. (Olmert indicated to me he would have brought the Israeli total down to 5.8 percent if necessary.) The Palestinians, meanwhile, suggested a 1.9 percent land swap. This gap should be bridgeable, at least in theory: “The 1.9 percent is not Koranic or Biblical, and the 6.3 percent ... is not Talmudic,” Erekat told me. “So what’s between?” However, Olmert’s offer would require Israel to evacuate 70,000 Israeli settlers, while the Palestinian proposal would mean the evacuation of some 160,000 people.
Five large settlements have come to be “red lines” for both sides: Maale Adumim, Har Homa, Givat Zeev, Efrat, and Ariel.8 Red lines, of course, have a way of moving during negotiations. Arieli showed me a map, which, he said coyly, had come from “the Palestinian side.” It was identical to the Palestinian Authority’s known position with one surprising exception: Givat Zeev was now on Israel’s side of the border. According to Arieli, Abbas and other Palestinian leaders wouldn’t “hold up a deal” for any of the five settlements except for Ariel. “For Ariel, yes,” he said. Olmert told me he believed he could’ve gotten Abbas to accept the annexation of Ariel only with great difficulty: “You ask me whether I could feel that, in the end, the still-main point of controversy would remain Ariel. The answer is yes, not the other places.”
To understand why, all you need to do is make the drive to Ariel. The other four settlements in question are relatively close to the Green Line—Israel’s de-facto border before the Six-Day War. Ariel is nearly halfway into the West Bank, and to annex it, Israel would also have to keep a long finger of territory that would bisect a large chunk of the northern West Bank. But any visitor to Ariel can see why the Israelis are unwilling to let it go. It is the third-largest settlement, with a population of about 20,000—most of them secular Israelis who moved there for the cheaper housing. It has a university of 13,000 students and a 500-seat performing arts center.
Even if a solution could be found for Ariel, Israel would still have to contend with the people on the other side of the line. Under any reasonable land swap plan, around 120,000 people would need to be evacuated, mostly religious Israelis who believe themselves to be fulfilling the work of God. The task won’t get any easier with time. Last year, the settler population grew at more than double the average rate of the rest of the country. In 2005, it took 14,000 soldiers and police officers to evacuate the last 4,000 settlers from Gaza.
The two sides would also have to create a viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem; no Palestinian leader could accept less. Since 1967, Israel has built twelve neighborhoods that turned East Jerusalem into a messy collage of Jewish and Arab enclaves. In 2000, President Clinton suggested a simple formula—Jewish neighborhoods remain Israeli; Arab neighborhood become Palestinian—that has formed the basis of all serious discussions of the city’s future ever since.
Dan Rothem, an Israeli map expert, has illustrated how Israel could actually create a functioning border using a combination of natural and manmade barriers. As settlers increase their presence in predominantly Arab neighborhoods, that solution is becoming obsolete. Tractors are at work on Givat Hamatos, a Jewish neighborhood that would sever Beit Safafa, one of the largest Arab enclaves, from the rest of Arab East Jerusalem. Givat Hamatos, Rothem said, “drives a dagger” into the possibility of drawing a border through Jerusalem. (The only remaining option, to make Jerusalem an open city, would be a security nightmare.) The plan to place the Old City under a five-nation consortium, agreed upon in principle by Abbas and Olmert, is similarly at risk, as Israel continues to encircle the area with settler outposts and national parks.
And then there is E1—administrative shorthand for a stretch of land between Jerusalem and the settlement suburb of Maale Adumim that successive Israeli prime ministers have tried to settle. Netanyahu approved planning and zoning for E1 last fall but backed down under international pressure. E1 is the last open patch of land adjacent to Arab East Jerusalem. If inhabited, it would effectively suffocate the Palestinian capital from future growth. Like Givat Hamatos, it would create a fact on the ground that future Israeli prime ministers would find nearly impossible to relinquish and that future Palestinian leaders would find nearly impossible to accept. “There are already enough Palestinians who are saying that it’s too late already—that these settlements have done enough damage to prevent a viable, contiguous Palestinian state,” longtime Palestinian Authority (P.A.) spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told me. “I’m getting to the borderline, to the edge of saying it’s no longer possible.” Ahmed Qurei, who led the Palestinian negotiating team in 2008, recently argued that Palestinians should consider abandoning the two-state solution and instead push for a single state that combines the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. Such a state would have an Arab majority by around 2020.9
On the day that I visited Ariel, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, was in town. It was three weeks before the election, and around the time of his visit, polls were suggesting that Jewish Home could overtake the Labor Party as Israel’s second-largest political force. Students crowded the auditorium at the university to hear him speak.
Bald and clean-shaven, the sleeves of his pink button-down rolled up Obama-style, Bennett took a swipe at Netanyahu for endorsing the two-state solution and imposing a settlement freeze. “The Likud went against our values,” he said. “I think that anyone who wanders in this city, in this university, sees that Judea and Samaria and the land of Israel will remain in the hands of the state of Israel.” This line got a loud cheer.
Five days later, I interviewed Bennett at Hebrew University, another campus where his youth following was in attendance. “If the elections were done among people between eighteen and thirty-five, we’d be the biggest party in Israel,” he boasted. One reason Bennett is so popular with Israeli youth is that they are, on average, more hard-line than older generations on the Palestinian question. This is in part a matter of demography: Right-wing religious Israelis have higher birthrates than their secular counterparts; decades of immigration from the Arab world and the former Soviet Union have diluted the influence of traditionally left-wing European Jews. But it reflects a generational shift, too. Raised in the age of suicide bombings, younger Israelis have had little contact with Palestinians; their parents’ dream of a “New Middle East” doesn’t resonate. During the campaign, Bennett drew even the condemnation of Likud when he declared that, as an Israeli Defense Forces reservist, he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements. But 48 percent of Israeli high schoolers in a 2010 poll said they would do the same.
Bennett has a simple solution for the mapmakers. Israel, he contends, should annex an area comprising 60 percent of the West Bank that includes all settlements and few Palestinians. The remaining scattered patches of land could remain under Palestinian autonomy. Such a policy would slam the door on Palestinian independence and almost certainly set in motion the fall of Abbas, if not the entire P.A. Bennett did not seem troubled by this prospect.
“I don’t desire Abu Mazen to fall,” he said. “My point is that it’s sort of being used now as a stick against us. ‘Ooh, if you don’t give up the heart of your land, there’ll be a vacuum there.’ So I just don’t buy that claim. There’s always a new excuse why Israel has to give up the big mountain that controls and dominates Israel called Judea and Samaria, aka ‘the West Bank.’ It used to be we were promised peace. No one buys that. It used to be we were promised security. No one buys that. It used to be we were promised international support. No one buys that. So the new claim in town is, ‘If you don’t do it, he’s gonna go.’ So if he goes, he goes. Someone else will replace him. The graveyards are filled with people who had no replacement.”
In November, following escalating attacks on Israeli cities, Netanyahu launched an eight-day offensive in Gaza that began with the killing of Hamas’s top military commander and ended with the destruction of most of its long-range missile arsenal. Three weeks later, I went to Gaza, where green flags were everywhere and the mood was strangely triumphant. A local perfume shop was offering a buy-two-get-one-free sale on M75, a fragrance named after the missile Hamas launched against Tel Aviv.
For now, the schism between the West Bank and Gaza means that Abbas is free to negotiate a peace agreement without input from Hamas. But if there is a single consensus in Palestinian politics today, it is on the need for a unity government—an arrangement that would give Hamas a de facto veto over any deal. If Abbas retires, or dies in office, the constitution stipulates that the speaker of parliament (currently a Hamas member) would become president and elections would be held within 60 days. During my visit, a poll showed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh winning a hypothetical contest with Abbas.
Some have argued that a unity government might advance the peace process. As now–Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a 2009 address to the pro-peace Israel lobby J Street, “No peace will be possible nor sustainable as long as the Palestinians remain a house divided.” The idea is based on the increasingly widespread notion that there are moderates in Hamas who secretly are ready for peace with Israel. In Gaza, I went looking for them.
One was Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser to Haniyeh who runs a think tank called the “House of Wisdom.” By the standards of Hamas leaders, most of whom have never lived outside Gaza, Yousef is cosmopolitan: He spent nearly two decades in the United States. We sat in his darkened office—the Hamas government rations the electricity that Israel provides free of charge—and in perfect English, Yousef walked me through an elegant solution to the conflict he’d devised after spending some time in Switzerland. In this Swiss model, Jews and Arabs would live with equal rights in a loose federation. “We’ve lived together for centuries,” Yousef told me. “There’s no reason we can’t do it again.”
Once we got into the details, however, it wasn’t clear there would be many Jews living in this Switzerland. “I don’t understand how in the world people can accept that every Jew around the world who are coming from Russia or America or Europe has the right to go back to Palestine, when they’ve never been there, and the Palestinian who has been in Palestine, and [was] kicked out, doesn’t have the right to go back,” Yousef said. I responded that the world believed the Jews needed somewhere to go after the Holocaust. “Go to Germany,” he replied curtly. “All the Jews of Europe should go back to their countries. Jews of the Arab world should go back to their towns and cities in the Arab world. We are ready to help them even, to prepare ships.”
Many Hamas officials have called for an independent Palestinian state to be established according to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. But this proposal is seen as an interim step, not a means to bring the conflict to an end. When I met with Fawzi Barhoum, one of Hamas’s top spokesmen, at his office in a gray slab building in Gaza City, he would not use the word “Israel,” but referred only to “the occupation.” If “the occupation” were to agree on a Palestinian state within pre-1967 lines, along with the right of return for all Palestinian refugees, he told me, “we will give them a long period of a truce—fifteen, twenty years.” His office décor provided a less-than-subtle clue of what he hoped would come next. On one wall was a panorama of the skyline of West Jerusalem, the part of the city internationally recognized to be Israeli territory. Next to the bathroom was a map of historic Palestine, which encompassed the West Bank, Gaza—and all of Israel.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad is another reputed moderate. Like most Hamas officials, he wears a suit, sports a well-kept beard, and has a bump on his forehead of the sort pious Muslims get from kneeling to the ground five times a day. When Hamad called for the 1967 version of a Palestinian state in 2011, NPR reported that he had endorsed the two-state solution, although he didn’t use those words in the interview. I was curious to know whether he’d be content with the 1967 borders. “Yes, I want this,” he answered. I asked if that was all he wanted, to which he would only reply, “Look, you are talking about the unseen future.”
“I think it’s very difficult to talk about coexistence between the Palestinians and the Israelis after sixty-three years of hatred, confrontation, of bloodshed, massacres. It’s a black history,” Hamad told me. “For me, I don’t expect that there will be peace between us and the Israelis.” But, I asked, did he want peace? Hamad did not consider the question for very long. “No.”
If the two-state solution dies, Israel will only be left with ugly options. It could ride out the status quo as the world continues to turn against it. It could unilaterally create a Palestinian state by withdrawing to the line of the barrier, incurring most of the costs of a two-state solution with few of the benefits. It could annex the West Bank and give all Palestinians citizenship, making Israel a binational state. Or it could annex the entire West Bank without giving Palestinians citizenship, embracing apartheid.
Netanyahu is putting the finishing touches on a wide governing coalition, likely to include Bennett on the right and Livni on the left, and what he will do remains a mystery. Based on his historical aversion to the peace process, many believe he’ll opt for the status quo. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, predicted that Netanyahu would embark on unilateral withdrawal before the end of his term. (“He’s not stupid,” Erekat said.) Others think he may do more. “I’m convinced that, if the circumstances are right, he will go much farther than people think,” Dennis Ross told me. “Abu Mazen told me he thought there was no way Bibi could do a deal. I said, ‘How do you know? You haven’t tested him.’”
But one thing is clear: No Israeli would be better positioned to sell and implement a deal than Bibi. Ami Ayalon, a former chief of Shin Bet and a leading peace activist, told me Netanyahu needs to envision his grandson 40 years from now reading a newspaper about the three great Zionist leaders: Theodor Herzl, who dreamt the state; David Ben Gurion, who built it; and Benjamin Netanyahu, who secured its future as a Jewish democracy.
On my way back from Gaza, I entered Israel through Erez crossing and walked up a dusty path leading to the highway, hoping to hitchhike to the nearest bus stop. A navy blue station wagon pulled over. The driver turned out to be a 48-year-old Israeli peace activist named Naomi who lived in a nearby kibbutz that had been badly hit by rocket fire. She told me that her organization, “Other Voice,” was planning an event the following week and invited me to come along.
The event took place in an auditorium that had been decorated with a large banner with the words, “HELLO GAZA, ISRAEL SPEAKING,” written in misspelled Arabic script. Representatives of various left-wing parties implored the attendees to keep the dream of peace alive; a folk singer performed the popular ’80s Israeli peace ballad “Salaam.”
As the evening wore on, I began to notice something about the gathering: Nearly everyone present was more than 40 years old. Looking around for someone younger, I found one woman who appeared to be in her twenties. “At the demonstrations, you do see some of the new blood,” she told me. “But things like this—sitting and talking—it’s the people who don’t have the energy to fight anymore.” Before the end of the night, I ran into Naomi and she welcomed me with a huge smile and introduced me to her children, a 13-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. “My children think I’m crazy,” she confided. “They don’t understand why I want to help people who are shooting at us.”
Ben Birnbaum is a writer based in Jerusalem. He can be reached at BenBirnbaumTNR@gmail.com. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.