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Review: The Burden of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 2010 Report, Adva Center

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The Adva Center, an Israeli think tank dedicated to studying equality and social justice, recently published its second issue of a bi-annual report entitled, The Burden of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The report seeks to examine the costs of occupation on Israel in economic, social, military, political, and diplomatic terms and concludes that Israel would be richer socially and economically if it ended the occupation. In its own words, 

The prolonged conflict with the Palestinians undermines sustainable economic growth, burdens the budget, limits social development, absorbs most of the energies of the political leadership, calls into question the legitimacy of the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces and isolates Israel internationally. 

Significantly, while the report seeks to reach Israelis otherwise unconcerned with Palestinians, the report acknowledges that the occupation's greatest cost is borne by Palestinians. Upon reading the Report, I have three key observations: 1) the document’s frame; 2) the absence of a counterfactual; and 3) the failure to consider relevant historical precedents.

The document uses a political-economic frame to discuss the conflict. It identifies the optimal national interests using a discourse of costs and benefits. In doing so, the report does what the school of law and economics in US legal tradition does—which is to assess the value of laws and policies based on their efficiency or their lack thereof. This is indeed a unique approach to the conflict in general. The conflict is most commonly discussed in legal terms (the laws of occupation, the laws of war, human rights, etc); strictly political terms (security, colonial-settler movements, regional stability, geo-political access, etc); and in the most daunting cases this is discussed as a moral matter (religion, culture, right/wrong, a battle of grievances, and so on and so forth). I think that especially for Washington, where international law is dismissively labeled “foreign law” and where political discussions are rarely had without moral overtones, and in fact have only recently become bifurcated from moral, read as existential arguments that a political-economy discourse is quite useful. Moreover, in a political environment where the first and last consideration regarding the Middle East is what is best for Israel, a report that examines the costs burden of the occupation on Israel can be very compelling as well.

Additionally, pursuant to a law and economics approach, the underlying premise is that there is a Pareto optimum available to the stakeholders in the conflict, meaning that Palestinians can live free of occupation without making Israelis less secure, and in fact, perhaps even make Israeli society more healthy, strengthen its economy, and bolster its global legal standing. However, this is a very loaded assumption because nowhere in the report is the counterfactual of an Israel that does not occupy Palestinian territories or subject Palestinians to apartheid policies demonstrated. One can imagine that the cost of ending the occupation, losing access to key water sources like the three water aquifers in the West Bank or dismantling a productive settlement-based economy or losing exclusive access to a captive market in the Territories, or diluting the strength of Israel’s military-industrial complex are more costly to an Israeli economy and society. This has been the case in most colonial-settler occupations historically. (Apparently Adva has conducted at least part of this analysis in another report entitled, Is There an Israel Business Incentive?) 

Perhaps more difficult than convincing Israeli corporate interests that the occupation is not as profitable as they imagine is convincing Israeli society is that it can live securely without an occupation. Israeli identity, by and large a socio-political construct of the enduring pioneer who is accepted nowhere and by no one sincerely, is imbued with an entitlement to particular and heightened security measures. As ADVA mentions early on in the report, “most Israelis will have trouble thinking in terms of costs, or in terms of a policy that has alternatives.” Therefore, it seems to me that being able to have a discussion about the cost of occupation to Israelis means being able to deconstruct Israeli identity, to unlearn nationalist myths, to conceive of a Green Line, and of Palestinians who resort to violence not because of hate or cultural malaise but because of environmental conditions wrought by unjustified structural inequality and discrimination based on religion and national origin. Therefore, Adva’s ability to generate a national discussion on the costs of occupation to Israel will depend on its success in broaching more difficult themes.

Most significantly, the report fails to consider a historical precedent wherein the cost of occupation drove Israeli leaders to enter into peace talks in the early nineties. While it discusses the impact of the occupation on Israel’s budget—namely that it was not until nearly two decades after occupying the Territories that the cost of maintaining the occupation became significantly higher—the report seems to stop there in terms of making the connection between this peak in costs and the initiation of the peace process. However this connection cannot be taken for granted. According to Professor Joel Beinin, as well as other scholars, by the early nineties, the peak in cost coupled with the fear of radical Islamic organizations as well as the horrible press Israel received during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, compelled Israeli leaders to “follow the path paved by Shimon Peres’s vision of a “new middle east” based on opening Arab markets to Israeli goods and services. The problems […] were to be resolved by enhanced capital investment, access to regional markets, and expanded opportunities for profit” —all of which required a settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians. This suggests that Israel decided to enter into peace negotiations precisely because of the costs of occupation in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

However, rather than end the occupation this initiative signaled a new phase of Israeli domination—one in which Israel maintained its occupation regime while outsourcing its day-to-day security needs to the Palestinians and footing the bill to the U.S. thereby reducing its costs. 

Consider that far from being a peace plan, the Oslo Accords merely expressed a commitment to engage in negotiations in the interest of establishing peace. Central to that arrangement then and now has been Israeli security irrespective of its impact on Palestinian self-determination. For example, subsequent peace agreements stipulated that Israel’s commitment to increasing security, namely, withdrawing its forces, relinquishing its control, and ending the confiscation of Palestnian homes and destruction of property is conditioned and the complete cessation of Palestinian violence and incitement. And sadly that logic of conditioning an end to occupation on the cessation of all Palestinian resistance to occupation has been accepted and internalized by the US, the peace broker, as well as the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.  Whereas these policies have long existed as evidenced by Arafat’s security forces who targeted Hamas operatives in the late 1990s, today they constitute the centerpiece of US foreign policy in the region in the form of the Dayton Forces.

The Dayton Forces, is the name given to the US Security Coordinator (USSC) created by Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005, which Lieutenant General Keith Dayton has been heading. While the Forces were originally intended to reform, train, and equip PA security forces who had been personally loyal to Arafat and his political allies, since Hamas’s ouster of Fatah from Gaza, the Forces have been dedicated to eliminating Hamas. Consider how Lieutenant-General Dayton describes the success himself when recounting the role of his Forces during Israel’s 22-day offensive against Gaza:

The IDF also felt—after the first week or so—that the Palestinians were there and they could trust them. As a matter of fact, a good portion of the Israeli army went off to Gaza from the West Bank—think about that for a minute—and the commander was absent for eight straight days. That shows the kind of trust they were putting in these people now.

During the Operation, the Security forces quelled popular protests in the WB fearing that it would escalate into a similar Hamas coup and in fact, in Hebron, PA forces killed one Palestinian and injured several others. It would seem that rather than move closer to an end to the occupation, the Dayton Forces may have reinforced it or at the very least reinforced the notion that the problem is Palestinian violence and not environmental conditions wrought by prolonged occupation.

Significantly, the US has financed the Dayton Forces. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has allocated approximately $395 million for these purposes to date. In FY 2010 alone, the DOS allocated $100 million to the PA for these purposes, placing the PA as the fifth highest recipient of such funds after Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, and Pakistan, but before Iraq.

In retrospect, one can see that rather than reduce the costs of occupation by ending the occupation, Israel chose to maintain the occupation regime and simultaneously reduce its costs by outsourcing its security needs to the Palestinian Authority. This precedent creates a third option for Israeli society when considering the burden of the occupation, (i.e., in addition to either ending the occupation or maintaining it), which is to find  ways to make it cheaper. In light of Israeli society’s socio-political construction of an enduring and inherent insecurity, unfortunately this third outcome may be the most popular among Israeli audiences.

On a more positive note, because the U.S. is the main financier of the PA’s security infrastructure as well as of Israel in general, consider that it has provided $109 billion to Israel since 1949 and will increase its aid to Israel over the next ten years by $150 million in Foreign Military Financing, the role of the U.S., and specifically of civil society located in the US, becomes more critical and central to resolving the conflict by holding the U.S. to account for its role in maintaining the occupation. 

*This is based on comments I made during a presentation of Adva's Report in Washington, D.C. 




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