This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 04/03/2011
Political leaders all over the world indulgently believe they can convince Israel's politicians to end the occupation of Palestinian territory with doomsday scenarios and clever arguments, despite decades of experience to the contrary. It is more prudent to reason, however, that the determination to end Israel's occupation will be based on the same factors that all politicians consider when coming to a decision. How does the status quo affect me? What will it take politically to carry out long-term change? The unfortunate reality is that Israeli leaders today have little immediate incentive to confront the challenge of bringing the occupation to an end, despite the dire long-term implications of failing to do so. Therefore, instead of waiting for the day that a visionary Israeli statesman comes along, the world must take a stand and change the current cost-benefit analysis of occupation that Israeli politicians have thus far determined to be agreeable.
It is important to understand that the occupation of Palestinian land following the war of 1967 posed an immediate and irreconcilable dilemma for Israeli leaders. More than any other territory, Israel sought to keep the West Bank; however, it did not wish to incorporate the substantial Palestinian population already living there. It was a clear case of Israel wanting the dowry but not the bride, and today's situation is a direct manifestation of that dilemma.
During the proceeding decades, the occupation of Palestinian territory was a fairly low-cost enterprise. Israel's military directly administered all aspects of daily life for the Palestinian population and provided minimal services as part of its responsibility as an occupying power. Then, during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, the political and military cost of controlling a civilly disobedient Palestinian population proved too much for Israel. For the first time, Israel was forced to deal with the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, the ultimate outcome of which was the Oslo Accords signed in 1993 on the White House lawn.
This interim agreement was intended to gradually draw back the occupation and replace it with Palestinian institutions, culminating in Israel's recognition of the Palestinian state. The actual result, however, was nearly the opposite: The newly created Palestinian National Authority gained relative control over direct population centers while the Israeli military deepened its occupation everywhere else. In essence, Israel relinquished direct responsibility over the people while continuing to claim the benefit reaped from the land. The interim phase of Oslo gave Israeli leaders the status quo they always desired and the illusion of an answer to the long-standing dilemma of their occupation. Today, not only does Israel not pay for the occupation, but the country actually turns a profit from keeping it in place and the incentive to bring it to an end has largely faded from Israeli public consciousness.
Indeed, commercial profiteering from the Israeli settlement enterprise spans every sector of the economy and has become -- what many would term -- big business. For example, Israel maintains complete military and administrative control over the Jordan Valley, the area of land directly west of the Jordan River that comprises approximately 30 percent of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley not only has significant natural resources; it is also the agricultural breadbasket of the West Bank and includes the Dead Sea, another major source of income. Israel operates an entire agribusiness industry out of the Jordan Valley whose products make their way to markets all over the world.
Israel also maintains control over, and free access to, Palestine's natural resources, including its electromagnetic sphere and vital water aquifers, not to mention Israel's decades-long reliance on Palestinian cheap labor. In fact, of the 800 million cubic meters of water drawn annually from aquifers in the occupied West Bank, Israel takes 688 million cubic meters and sells much of it back to Palestinians for commercial profit.
Moreover, Israel currently operates several major stone quarries on occupied land that it uses to produce cut stone and cement. While denying Palestinians the right to build their own cement factories, Israel exports 2 million tons of cement annually to Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has prohibited Palestinians from building their own electric power plants, although they remain able and have been offered assistance in that endeavor from third parties for years. Consequently, Palestinians buy 97.7 percent of their electricity from the Israel Electricity Corporation. Essentially, Israel is preventing Palestinians from building capacity so that, unable to provide for themselves, they can continue to exploit their markets.
The most blatant and well-known offense, however, is the restriction regime imposed by Israel on movement for Palestinians in the occupied territory. This regime raises the cost of doing business for Palestinians, giving Israeli companies a distinct competitive advantage in the Palestinian marketplace. Go to any Palestinian grocery store, and you will find it full of Israeli products because Palestinians have little viable alternative. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The list of commercial profiteering goes on and on; from tourism to construction to defense, Israel is making money from the occupation.
All of this distracts Israeli leaders from the reality that the occupation of Palestine is becoming a new form of apartheid. The moment Israel began transferring its civilian population to occupied territory was the moment this tragic process began. In so doing, Israel has created an entire system that facilitates the process of separation for the benefit of one people over another. Separate laws, roads, infrastructure, and the settlements are the living, breathing reality of the occupied Palestinian territory. Unless all of this can be dismantled, the two-state compromise will be an empty slogan with no future, and as many are beginning to forecast, it could help shape an uglier result to the dramatic regional shifts now in motion. But taking the initiative to prevent this outcome will not happen without incentive because the short-term costs and benefits remain in Israel's favor.
Unfortunately, the diplomatic process that was meant to achieve a permanent agreement in five years in the mid-1990s has been perpetuated for over 15, with the Palestinians being told they have no other recourse to freedom outside of negotiations. One only has to read the documents released by Al Jazeera and the Guardian to see for themselves that, even in negotiations, Israel has not been interested in reaching a final settlement that does not satisfy the aim of retaining its presence in the occupied territory. The United States has been complicit in this effort by blocking any initiative to resolve the Palestinian question outside of endless bilateral negotiations. The decision by the United States to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming Israeli settlements as illegal is the most recent and illuminating example of this policy.
On the other hand, many Israeli leaders, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- who actually lives in an illegal settlement in the West Bank -- have argued that a two-state solution cannot be reached anytime in the near future. Instead, Lieberman proposes a solution of interim borders. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pushing the initiative of a so-called "economic peace." Both of these are forms of maintaining the status quo that only serve to destroy the possibility of two states by allowing the settlement enterprise to further entrench itself. However, the time for half measures and interim agreements is over. The answer to political immobility lies in affecting the decision-making process by essentially altering the cost-benefit balance of continued occupation.
There are several ways to produce this desired result. First and foremost, the international community must make it clear to Israel that there will be a political and economic price tag to its continued occupation. Simply scolding the Israelis is not enough to get them to act -- the international community must respond with economic and political pressure. Third states should act on their obligations as defined by the International Court of Justice and ban Israel's settlement goods from their markets. The United Nations Security Council should reinforce these bans with practical steps to identify and prevent third parties from doing business with, or in, the settlements. The Palestinian government has already adopted this approach and has taken the initiative to differentiate and boycott products coming from settlements. This policy does not deviate from international consensus on settlements, but rather provides a practical way for states to implement their declared positions in order to increase the political and financial costs of occupation.
A golden opportunity has also presented itself to the Palestinians, and they must seize this moment or risk losing it forever. Far from hurting or limiting their abilities, the end of negotiations has freed the Palestinians to act in their own best interests. The twin pillars of Palestinian national liberation, armed struggle and bilateral negotiations, have both been discredited for a failure to produce positive results. Yet all around them change is sweeping across the region through the force of "people power" being won on the hard work and sacrifice of their Arab neighbors. Although Palestinians have not been ruled for decades under the iron fist of a homegrown dictator, they have been oppressed and continually dispossessed by the strong arm of occupation. The exercise of popular nonviolent struggle against the instruments of occupation and the settlements should become the modus operandi of a neo-Palestinian liberation movement. In the same vein as Palestinians already peacefully protesting against Israel's wall in places like Budrus and Bilin, Palestinians across the territories must confront such instruments anywhere and everywhere they exist with vast, organized, and peaceful demonstrations. This includes the borders, beyond which large communities of refugees have been waiting in vain for 62 years for a resolution to their awful predicament.
As long as Israel is benefiting from the present state of affairs, it is unreasonable to expect Israeli politicians to dramatically alter the current situation in exchange for what may likely be large-scale upheaval. Moreover, the nature of Israel's fragmented political structure, where small parties wield disproportionate leverage, does not allow change to come easy. The best way to overcome this is through exerting pressure on the Israeli center by making it politically and economically inconvenient to support the status quo. Such action will have a dramatic impact on the way Israeli politicians perceive the settlement enterprise and the future of occupation. The era when Israel's occupation pays dividends must come to an end. Only then will we see a change.
Omar H. Rahman is an at-large journalist covering sociopolitical issues in the Middle East region. He is a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team and is currently based in Ramallah.