The Tyranny of Geography

The Tyranny of Geography


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced he will not run again for president. Of course, with the apparent cancellation of Palestinian Authority elections in January it's clear that no one will run against him either. And so we are left with two Palestinian governments, in Ramallah and Gaza, both illegal under Palestinian law and running two competing and opposing non-states. It might be tempting for Israel's supporters to conclude these developments are good for Israel. Think again.

The parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have always faced the challenge of walking a path between the stark, seductive tyranny of geography, the temptation to what psychologists call homeostasis (the way things are, the security of the unchanged), and the hope for peace based upon trust.

To review what we know but sometimes fail to recall: The Land of Israel is elongated and narrow, dominated by a mountain range running up the middle. From those mountains, one can identify with the naked eye Israeli cities and strategic installations up and down the coastal plain that is home to most of the Jewish population centers. On the other hand, the West Bank, as defined by the pre-1967 armistice lines, is only about the size of Delaware. In a peace accord along the commonly-discussed lines (major settlement blocks annexed to Israel in return for comparable land swaps of pre-1967 Israeli territory), both Israel and the West Bank will be less than 20 miles wide at their narrowest points, while the Gaza Strip narrows to five miles.

Many Palestinians look at the map and ask how Palestine can be maintained as a state if the West Bank is physically cut off from Gaza and the northern and southern regions of the West Bank are nearly cut from each other by the narrow waist at Jerusalem. That Israel faces a similar challenge at Netanya is small comfort.

Studied in isolation, geography would seem to suggest that Israelis should leave the strategic situation as it is, with its known risks and advantages, while the Palestinians should refuse to accept such a tiny state. So far, geography has been triumphant over peace.

The key to defeating the argument of geography is trust. Webster's Dictionary defines trust as "reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence," and elsewhere, "hope."

Across the border in Gaza, Israelis see little more than destructive Hamas bigotry. In the West Bank, they see nearly the same levels of Palestinian delegitimization of Israel and Jews, coupled with a senior leadership whose incompetence (apart from Prime Minister Fayyad, whom this column has praised) is staggering. So they ask themselves: To what degree can we rely on Palestinian leaders to build a Palestine that will not threaten its neighbors?

Meanwhile, the Palestinians look at the settlement project in the West Bank with a population that has doubled since the start of the Oslo negotiations, and ask themselves the same question of trust. Granted, the Jews have shown they can withdraw when they decide to (Sinai, Gaza), but can Palestinians place their hopes in the certainty and completeness of further withdrawal? Why would Israel continue to build in small scattered settlements on the West Bank if it plan on withdrawing from the area to make room for a very small Palestinian state?

The calculations of geography have triumphed because neither side can afford to underestimate the other. But at the same time, both sides know that they cannot afford to continue for another generation with the same conflict-drenched status quo.

That is why some world leaders, exemplified recently by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, have so completely misunderstood the psychology that has stalled the negotiations. "Before, there was a great peace movement" among Israelis, Kouchner told France-Inter radio last week. "It seems to me that this aspiration has disappeared."

But aspirations for a peaceful life do not disappear, not when your children's lives depend on them. According to recent polls, majorities of Israelis and Palestinians continue to support a two-state solution despite the failures and obstacles. How could it be any different? How could any serious observer believe that Israelis and Palestinians relish the prospect of unending conflict?

Most of the shortcomings of the peace process were not failures of negotiation—this conflict has probably enjoyed more interlocutors than any in history—but failures of trust and empathy. Each community faces the unpleasant choice of surrendering some of its security and compromising on its founding national narrative in order to allow space for the other to achieve its own aspirations.

When the Palestinian national movement resorted to terrorism against civilians that increased in tempo as Israeli offers increased in generosity, the Israeli public concluded that the Palestinians cannot be trusted. And as the settlement movement expanded over decades even in the midst of high-level negotiations, most Palestinians concluded that the negotiations themselves were a ploy meant to distract attention from Israeli "facts on the ground." We are still suffering from the aftershocks of that decade-long implosion of trust.

To move forward, Israel will have to reach agreement with the United States and the Palestinians on some kind of visible settlement freeze. Even more importantly, the Palestinians will have to overcome the crisis of governance that has cost them a generation of economic growth and state-building. Only a strong Palestinian government will be able to give Israelis the kind of security that can build trust and lead to the far-reaching compromises peace demands.

So there is nothing good about the political crisis that threatens to destabilize the government in Ramallah. In the absence of competent leadership in Palestine, the tyranny of geography will continue, Israel will have no peace, and Palestine will not find its freedom.