Israel/Palestine,  Your View

In Praise of Liberal Incrementalism

This a guest-post by Alex Stein of

Last week I was called a ‘Liberal Incrementalist’. Type the two words into Google and you’ll find that it’s not a widely used term. On reflection, though, it’s a useful term, especially when not used derogatively, and it needs to be insisted upon in opposition to those who think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved tomorrow. Purveyors of this fantasy think that President Obama can just force Israel to unilaterally withdraw from the Occupied Territories and then everything will be ok. But Obama himself is a bit of a Liberal Incrementalist, and this is all to the good, especially if he gets his priorities right. 

Bilateralism is hardwired into the international consensus for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UN Resolution 242, still the definitive prescriptive document of the dispute, is driven by the notion of ‘land for peace’. In other words, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would not solve the problem. It would have to be accompanied by a Palestinian agreement that the conflict is over. This is why all the Hamas talk about a ten-year truce (a ploy to avoid ever having to recognize Israel) is a non-starter. As for the current Israeli government’s rejectionism, it may be less genocidal than that of Hamas, but given the power imbalance, it is far more threatening to hopes of making a deal. At the moment, then, land-for-peace is not on the horizon.

Despite this reality, Obama is already shaping up to be the most activist president yet on Israel-Palestine. He has set out his stall by declaring absolute opposition to all settlement expansion. As a staunch Tel Avivi, my opposition to the settlement movement, whether in Efrat or Yizhar, cannot be overstated. At the same time, though, I think Obama may be making a tactical error by focusing on the settlements when there are other important areas in which to make progress.

As any cursory look over a West Bank hilltop will show you, settlements are demonstrably one of the greatest obstacles to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. If there is to be peace, the territory they take up must not be expanded. The Israeli government will also have to look the country’s citizens in the eyes and tell them that the settlement enterprise has come to an end. ‘Natural growth’ is a lie: recent growth in the settlement population has been far greater than the Israeli average, even when one takes into account that settlers tend to have more children than other Israelis.

The settlement blocs, however, aren’t the greatest obstacle to a peace agreement. Right or wrong, negotiations have frequently come to agreement over some kind of land-swap for the land covered by the blocs (8 per cent of the West Bank). Jerusalem and the Right of Return have been far more contested final-status issues, not to mention disputes surrounding topics such as resources and sovereignty. Why, then, is Obama focusing on the settlements?

Like Hector fiddling with his pupils’ balls in The History Boys, ongoing Israeli settlement expansion provides Obama with a tangible issue through which to demonstrate his seriousness to the Arab world. He has made less effort, for example, at getting Netanyahu to sign up to the two-state solution, and has even told Abbas that Bibi’s reticence is no excuse not to continue negotiations. And besides, even if Bibi were to suddenly declare himself a two-stater, it doesn’t mean he’d be able to meet minimum Palestinian demands.

American pressure on Israel vis-à-vis the settlements has been accompanied by pressure on the Arab world vis-à-vis normalization, although this has been surprisingly underreported in the media. If Obama can get Israel to stop building in the territories, he wants the Arab world to take concrete steps to demonstrate the seriousness of the Arab Peace initiative: El Al planes flying over Arab countries (which would cut the journey to India), Israeli consulates in Arab capitals, perhaps even allowing Israeli tourists in. These are lovely ideas, but Obama is mistaken if he thinks they would capture the Israeli public’s imagination. Most of the country does not seem that desperate (myself excluded) to eat hummus in Damascus.

Obama is using his nearly-unprecedented power to try and make the sides take incremental steps that are achievable even without a dedication to the two-state solution. The problem is that the political realities may still be too delicate for progress to be made, at least without the fall of Netanyahu’s government and the inevitable chaos that would bring. In the meantime, Obama’s is the way forward, and we can only hope that he brings this strategy to bear in other, perhaps more important areas, for example Gaza and Jerusalem. With patience and steadfastness, Obama’s forceful Liberal Incrementalism may yet be the catalyst that brings peace to the Middle East.