A New Israel Law Makes Peace Even More Difficult

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Daniel Bar-On / AFP / Getty Images

Israelis gather in front of the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem as they take part in a march marking Jerusalem Day

Israel's new law requiring that any withdrawal from East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights be approved either by two-thirds of the legislature or in a popular referendum has lengthened the odds against the country's conflicts being settled by negotiation. The 120-seat Knesset passed the law — initiated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party — late Monday, by a vote of 65-33, raising further obstacles to Washington's long-standing efforts to broker peace through territorial compromise.

East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in the war of 1967, and its annexation of those territories is not recognized by any country, including the U.S. The U.N. deems Israeli settlement in both places as a violation of international law. Still, it's hard to imagine an Israeli electorate that has moved steadily to the right over the past two decades voting to approve withdrawal from the Golan Heights to make peace with Syria, or from East Jerusalem in order to complete a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

The Knesset vote was roundly condemned by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday and by the Syrian government, and its passage was criticized by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said the law "won't do anybody any good." Opposition Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni said the move was a sign of weak leadership on the part of Netanyahu. Restoring Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights has long been recognized as the only basis for a peace agreement with Damascus, while the Palestinians and their Arab backers insist that any Palestinian state must have its capital in East Jerusalem.

But for Israelis, 1967 is ancient history. The demographics of the country today are such that a majority of its Jewish population was not yet born or had not yet emigrated to Israel at the time East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were conquered, and they have never known those territories as anything other than Israel's own — a conception reinforced by Israel's claim to have annexed them. Nor have Israel's neighbors made any attempt to recover them by means of war in the past 37 years. It may have no standing in international law, but as a fact on the ground, Israel's annexation of those territories has become intractable in the minds of many Israelis.

Asked in an interview last year why Israel should hang on to the Golan Heights, Netanyahu security adviser Uzi Arad answered, "For strategic, military and land-settlement reasons. Needs of water, wine and view." Water, wine and view, then, trump the requirement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 — oft cited as one of the bases of the U.S.-led peacemaking effort — that peace would be based on "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the [1967] conflict."

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton recently ruffled feathers in Israel by publicly declaring that one of the major obstacles to Israel's agreeing to peace was the million Russian immigrants who settled there in the 1990s. "They've just got there, it's their country, they've made a commitment to the future there," Clinton said. "They can't imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it."

Absent any significant immediate downside to maintaining the status quo — remember, these are "peace" talks in the absence of war, and Israel faces no pressure from abroad to relinquish its grip on occupied territories — it becomes increasingly difficult for Israeli leaders to sell their electorate on the need to withdraw.

The Knesset vote can't be said to have set back the peace process, however, because that process is already stalled. U.S. officials are struggling to persuade Israel to renew a partial settlement freeze in order to get Palestinians back to the table, but even if they succeed in that, few expect Netanyahu and Abbas to reach an agreement on terms for Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinians — who have raised the possibility of holding a referendum of their own to ratify any peace deal, which would face similar risks particularly if Hamas were not involved in the negotiation process — have lately begun talking about taking the matter to the U.N., where the application of international law would grant recognition, if not possession, of more territory than they'll be offered by Netanyahu. The latest Israeli law will probably amplify the growing appeal to the Palestinians of seeking an imposed solution.