Almost a decade ago I wrote an article describing Israel’s “matrix of control” over the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It consisted then of three interlocking systems: military administration of much of the West Bank and incessant army and air force intrusions elsewhere; a skein of “facts on the ground,” notably settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but also bypass roads connecting the settlements to Israel proper; and administrative measures like house demolitions and deportations. I argued in 2000 that unless this matrix was dismantled, the occupation would not be ended and a two-state solution could not be achieved.

Since then the occupation has grown immeasurably stronger and more entrenched. The first decade of the twenty-first century has so far seen the steady constricting and fragmentation of Palestinian territory through still more wholesale expropriation of Palestinian land, checkpoints and other physical restrictions on freedom of movement, settlement construction, more and more massive highways intended for Israeli settlers, control over natural resources and, most visibly of all, the erection of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since December 2000, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, the settler population of the West Bank has grown by 86,000 and that of East Jerusalem by 50,000. Gaza was evacuated of settlers and soldiers in 2005, but Israel retains near complete control over egress and exit of people and goods to and from the coastal strip, regularly cuts supplies of fuel and other necessities to punish the residents and mounts military incursions at will. All the Palestinian territories are subject, to one degree or another, to the measures of house demolitions, “closures” that halt economic activity, administrative restrictions on movement, deportation, induced out-migration and much more.

Indeed, the matrix has reconfigured the country to such an extent that today it seems impossible to detach a truly sovereign and viable Palestinian state from an Israel that has expanded all the way to the Jordan River. Anyone familiar with Israel’s “facts on the ground,” perhaps first and foremost the settlers, would reach the conclusion that, in fact, the matrix cannot be taken apart in a piecemeal fashion, leaving a few settlements here, a road there and an Israel “greater” Jerusalem in the middle. The matrix has become far too intricate. Dismantling it piece by piece, with Israel stalling by arguing for the security function of each “fact on the ground,” would be a frustrating series of confrontations that would eventually exhaust itself. The only way to a genuine two-state solution and not a cosmetic form of apartheid is to cut the Gordian knot. The international community, led by the United States, must tell Israel that the occupation must be ended entirely. Israel must leave every inch of the Occupied Territories. Period.

And now, at this critical juncture, as the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian impasse disappears under the weight of Israeli settlements, there is a great imponderable: Is President Barack Obama genuinely serious about reaching such a solution or is he merely going through the motions familiar from previous administrations?

The Tea Leaves

Many Palestinian, Israeli and international proponents of a just peace took heart in Obama’s early gestures. Beginning with the appointment of former Sen. George Mitchell as special envoy and continuing through the president’s June 4 speech in Cairo, these proponents allowed themselves, after years of disappointment and struggle, a cautious hopefulness. Some of the speech’s formulations, like the nods to the “pain of dislocation” felt by Palestinians and the “daily humiliations” of occupation, had been heard before. But one sentence had not been: Obama said that a two-state solution “is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest.” Obama seemed to “get it,” that is, he seemed to understand that the US is isolated politically by its unquestioning backing of Israel, which is seen as obstructing a solution to the conflict. And, for the first time, a US president actually said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the vital national interest, not just a nice thing to do. These words significantly raise the bar. Framing the conflict in this way makes it easier for the administration to win Congressional support for tougher demands upon Israel while undermining the ability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to mount an effective resistance, given American Jewish sensibilities about suspicions of dual loyalty.

Since the Cairo speech, however, fundamental doubts about US efforts have resurfaced. The only demand made by Obama upon Israel has been for a settlement “freeze,” a welcome symbolic gesture, to be sure, yet irrelevant to any peace process. Israel has enough settlement-cities in strategic “blocs” that it could in fact freeze all construction without compromising its control over the West Bank and “greater” Jerusalem, the Arab areas to the north, south and east of the city where Israel has planted its flag. Focusing on this one issue—which, months later, is still being haggled over—has provided Israel with a smokescreen behind which it can actively and freely pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible. It is rushing to complete the separation barrier, which is already being presented as the new border, replacing the “Green Line,” the pre-June 1967 boundary to which Israel is supposed to withdraw, by the terms of UN Security Council resolutions, but on which even the most ardent two-staters have long since given up. Israel is demolishing homes, expelling Palestinian residents and permitting Jewish settlement throughout East Jerusalem, measurably advancing the “judaization” of the city. It is confiscating vast tracts of land in the West Bank and “greater” Jerusalem and pouring bypass road asphalt at a feverish pace so as to permanently redraw the map. It is laying track on Palestinian land for a light-rail line connecting the West Bank settlement-city of Pisgat Ze’ev to Israel. It is drying up the main agricultural areas of the West Bank, forcing thousands of people off their lands, while instituting visa restrictions that either keep visiting Palestinians and internationals out of the country altogether, or limit their movement to the truncated Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank.

“Quiet,” behind-the-scenes diplomacy is surely taking place, but the few details that have emerged are far from reassuring. The State Department has mocked as “fiction” a ten-point document given to the Arab press by Fatah figure Hasan Khreisheh that promises an “international presence” in parts of the West Bank and US backing for a Palestinian state by 2011. The component of this alleged plan that seems more likely is that the US wants a partial freeze on settlement activity from Israel in exchange for a pledge from Washington to push for more stringent sanctions upon Iran for its nuclear research. On August 25, the Guardian quoted “an official close to the negotiations” saying: “The message is: Iran is an existential threat to Israel; settlements are not.” By all indications, if the Obama administration does present a regional peace plan, which it is expected by many to do around the time of the UN General Assembly meeting on September 20, it will be nothing more than a “rough draft.” It is no exaggeration to say a two-state solution will rise or fall on the outlines of this draft—and may perhaps fall forever if no concrete plan is presented at all, which is also possible. Although the two-state solution has been eulogized many times in the past, Obama represents a best-case scenario. If he presents, in the end, a disappointing peace plan that offers no genuine breakthrough, then the shift to a one-state solution on the part of the Palestinian people and their international supporters will be inescapable.

Sovereignty and Viability

So how can Obama’s plan be judged if and when it is unveiled? Its chance of success can be predicted by how well it addresses the fundamental needs, grievances and aspirations of the peoples involved. An effective approach to ending the conflict, as opposed to shopworn posturing, rests on at least six elements: national expression for both peoples; economic viability for Palestine; a genuine addressing of the refugee issue; a regional approach; security guarantees; and conformity with human rights norms, international law and UN resolutions.

Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs are not simply ethnic groups, like, for example, American Jews or Arab-Americans. They are two peoples who, like national groups everywhere, demand self-determination. This reality actually lends credence to a two-state solution, but only if the Palestinian state is truly sovereign and economically viable. One should not forget that, in the days of apartheid, South Africa established ten “bantustans,” small and impoverished “homelands” on 11 percent of South African land, seemingly to address the demand of the black population for self-determination but actually to ensure a “democracy” for the white population on 89 percent of the country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s notion that the Palestinians should get “autonomy with certain characteristics of a state” on about 15 percent of historic Palestine—“autonomy plus-independence minus,” as he called it—is reminiscent of apartheid.

If the Obama administration’s plan does not cut the Gordian knot that is Israel’s matrix of control—something no plan or initiative has yet succeeded in doing—it will simply fail to achieve an equitable two-state solution. Only a complete withdrawal of Israel from all the Occupied Territories and the sharing of Jerusalem with no restrictions on movement can avert a Palestinian bantustan.

Obama’s plan, like its predecessors, seems destined to leave the major Israeli settlement blocs intact, including those in Palestinian East and “greater” Jerusalem. Even with so-called territorial “swaps,” this measure would significantly compromise the sovereignty and economic viability of a Palestinian state. The area designated on Israeli maps for future expansion of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement reaches to the outskirts of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, while the Ariel bloc already extends between the northern West Bank town of Nablus and points south. Taken together, settlements and the highways that interlink them displace Palestinian passenger and commercial vehicles onto a few narrow routes, while the checkpoints intended to protect the settlers snarl traffic on a predictably unpredictable schedule. And then there is the towering wall. It is not a landscape made for easy economic integration.

Why, then, leave these massive settlements intact? The argument is that their residents would object to the point of a civil war in Israel. This is patent nonsense. True, these settlement blocs contain 85 percent of Israelis living in the Occupied Territories, but these are not the ideological settlers who claim the entire Land of Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Instead, they are “normal” Israelis who have been attracted to the settlements by high-quality, affordable housing. They would have no objection to resettling inside Israel on the condition that their living standards do not fall, while the Israeli economy, assisted by international donors, would have no problem footing the bill for this population, about 200,000 in number. Settlements in “greater” Jerusalem, housing another 190,000 Israeli Jews, present no problem whatsoever. Residents are free to stay where they are in a shared and integrated Jerusalem.

As for the “ideological” settlers of the West Bank, only about 40,000 in number (out of almost six million Jews altogether), they can easily be relocated inside Israel, just as were their counterparts in Gaza. Their relocation will be a test of international assertiveness, of course, because the settlers are able to mobilize the support of the right-wing parties in Israel. Since Israel can make no cogent argument as to the security necessity of these tiny settlements, however, internal opposition will simply have to be overruled; the international community cannot allow such frivolous ideological matters to destabilize the entire global system. If the legitimate concerns of the Israeli public over its security are addressed by the international community, which they can be, there is no compelling reason why Israel should not return to the pre-June 1967 border. In fact, if the Gaza episode indicates anything, it is that the Israeli public is willing to remove settlements if it is convinced that doing so will enhance its security. Reminding Israelis that leaving every inch of the Occupied Territories will still leave them sovereign over a full 78 percent of the country—not a bad deal for what will soon become a minority Jewish population—should seal the deal.


The Obama platform, should it see the light of day, will probably also adopt the Israeli position that Palestinian refugees can only be repatriated to the Palestinian state itself, not to their former homes inside Israel. This plank would place a weighty economic burden on that tiny prospective state, since the refugees are, by and large, a traumatized and impoverished population with minimal education and professional skills. Add to that another significant fact: Some 60 percent of the Palestinian population is under the age of 18. A Palestinian state without the ability to employ its people and offer a future to its youth is simply a prison-state.

Now the need for a viable Palestinian state is recognized and embodied in the “road map,” the peace initiative propagated by President George W. Bush in 2003, and will probably be acknowledged in a plan from Obama as well. Despite its limited size, a RAND Corporation study concluded that such a state is possible, but only if it controls its territory, borders, resources and movement of people and goods. Israel must be made to understand that while it will remain the hegemonic power in the region, its own long-term security depends upon the economic wellbeing of its Palestinian neighbors.

Eighty percent of the Palestinians are refugees, and half of the Palestinians still live in refugee camps within and around their homeland. Any sustainable peace is dependent upon the just resolution of the refugee issue. Technically, resolving the refugee issue is not especially difficult. The Palestinian negotiators, backed up by the Arab League, have agreed to a “package,” to be mutually agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinians, involving a combination of repatriation in Israel and the Palestinian state, resettlement elsewhere and compensation.

The “package” must contain, however, two other elements, without which the issue will not be resolved and reconciliation cannot take place. First, Israel must acknowledge the refugees’ right of return; a resolution of the issue cannot depend solely on humanitarian gestures. And Israel must acknowledge its responsibility for driving the refugees from their country. Just as Jews expected Germany to accept responsibility for what it did in the Holocaust (and Israelis criticized the Pope during his summer 2009 visit for not apologizing enough), just as China and South Korea will not close the book on World War II until Japan acknowledges its war crimes, so, too, will the refugee issue continue to fester and frustrate attempts to bring peace to the region until Israel admits its role and asks forgiveness. Genuine peacemaking cannot be confined to technical solutions alone; it must also deal with the wounds caused by the conflict.

Regional Approach, Security and International Law

Obama’s edge over his predecessors lies in his understanding that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of—and in some ways the symbolic epicenter of—a wider regional problem that extends from the neighboring countries to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and, indeed, throughout the entire Muslim world and beyond. This understanding lies behind his framing of the conflict’s persistence as being antithetical to vital US interests, and behind his chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s statements making a solution for the conflict a virtual precondition for addressing the Iran issue. It is precisely this linkage, long denied by Israel, which insists that the Palestinian issue be handled separately, that the Obama administration seems finally to have embraced. Indeed, even in the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, the key issues – refugees, security, water, economic development and others—are regional in scope. A perfect peace between Israel and Palestine, in which both countries flourish, is not a viable solution for either if they exist as prosperous islands in an impoverished, unstable region.

Israel, of course, has fundamental and legitimate security needs, as do the Palestinians and the other peoples of the region. Unlike Israeli governments, the Israeli peace camp believes that security cannot be addressed in isolation, that Israel will not find peace and security unless it enters into a lasting peace with the Palestinians and achieves a measure of integration into the Middle East region. It certainly rejects the notion that security can be achieved through military means. Israel’s assertion that the security issue be resolved before any political progress can be made is as illogical as it is self-serving. Everyone, the Israeli political establishment and the military together with the peace movement and the Palestinians themselves, knows that terrorism is a symptom that can only be addressed as part of a broader approach to the grievances underlying the conflict. Israel, which also must be held accountable for its use of state terror, cannot be allowed to exploit legitimate security concerns to advance a political agenda of permanent control.

To the degree that negotiations are entered into, they must have as their terms of reference international law and UN resolutions if the Palestinians are to enjoy even minimal parity with their Israeli interlocutors. The lack of grounding in such principles was the fatal shortcoming of all the preceding attempts to reach an agreement. Once negotiations are based solely on power, the Palestinians lose, the differential being so heavily weighted on the Israeli side, which totally controls Palestinian life and territory. Indeed, a peace agreement rooted in international law and human rights—in short, a just peace—would offer the best prospect of working.

Trump Cards

Put simply, any plan, proposal or initiative for peace in Israel-Palestine must be filtered through the following set of critical questions: Will this plan really end the occupation, or is it merely a subtle cover for control? Does this plan offer a just and sustainable peace or merely an imposed and false quiet? Does this plan offer a Palestinian state that is territorially, politically and economically viable, or merely a prison-state? Does this plan genuinely and justly address the refugee issue? And does this plan offer regional security and development?

While one may glean optimism from the fact that a US president finally comprehends the need for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, even if solely for the sake of US interests, it is difficult to be optimistic over the prospects of such a peace. No matter what the plan, Israel will neither cooperate nor negotiate in good faith. A solution will have to be imposed, if not overtly, then in ways that make Israel’s continued hold on the Occupied Territories too costly to sustain. Simply withholding Israel’s privileged access to American military technology and markets, for example, would have that effect.

Any attempt to pressure Israel, however, will run into a familiar obstacle: Congress, Israel’s trump card in its encounters with the administration. In the case of Obama, Israeli leaders know well that his own party has always been far more “pro-Israel” than the Republicans. Already his loss of momentum after the Cairo address (perhaps related to his difficulties over his health care plan) has emboldened the temporarily cowed AIPAC. In early August, the vaunted lobby produced a letter signed by 71 senators from both parties—led by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Jim Risch (R-ID)—telling the president to lay off Israel and place more pressures on the Arab states to “normalize” relations with Israel. Obama had already, in his comments introducing Mitchell as special envoy and subsequently, called for “normalization” simultaneous with Israeli moves to lessen the burdens of occupation, in contravention of the 2002 Arab League peace plan, which proposed that the Arab states establish ties with Israel after withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines. Now AIPAC and its backers in Congress want the administration to push for “normalization” before any Israeli overtures whatsoever. The Netanyahu government has played its part, as well. In August, its ministers, standing on the strategically crucial site of “E-1” between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, vowed that Israel would continue building settlements anywhere it pleases. On September 7, Israel announced it was beginning work on 500 new apartments in Pisgat Ze’ev and 455 in other West Bank locales. These actions essentially tell Obama to go to hell mere weeks before he is projected to launch his peace initiative. The US replied with an expression of “regret.”

Any plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that has a hope of succeeding requires both an effective marketing strategy and a level of assertiveness as yet unseen in a US president, excepting, perhaps, Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter. Obama’s only hope of breaking through the wall of Israeli and Democratic Party resistance is to articulate an approach to peace based on clear and accepted principles anchored in human rights and justice and then framed in terms of US interests. A cold, calculating assessment of US interests would certainly push Obama in this direction. Time will tell, though the limp response to the new settlement construction does not bode well.

In the meantime, growing opposition to the occupation on the part of the international grassroots is making it increasingly difficult for governments to support Israeli policies. The movement targeting Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions gains strength by the day, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict begins to assume the dimensions of the anti-apartheid struggle. But the Palestinians, exhausted and suffering as they may be, possess a trump card of their own. They are the gatekeepers. Until the majority of Palestinians, and not merely political leaders, declare that the conflict is over, the conflict is not over. Until most Palestinians believe it is time to normalize relations with Israel, there will be no normalization. Israel cannot “win”—though it believes it can, which is why it presses ahead to complete the matrix and foreclose the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. The failure of yet another peace initiative will only galvanize international efforts to achieve justice for the Palestinians. Only this time the demand is likely to be for a single binational state, the only alternative that fits the single-state, binational reality that Israel itself has forged in its futile attempt to impose an apartheid regime.

How to cite this article:

Jeff Halper "Dismantling the Matrix of Control," Middle East Report Online, September 11, 2009.

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