Anyone who’s ever spent time in a casino knows that the most important thing to know isn’t whether or not to hit on 17, call the bluff of the nervous guy in the corner, or bet on black. Critical above all else is knowing when to walk away, no matter if you’re way up or way down. After last week’s surprise move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to submit applications for recognition to 15 international agencies, it is getting close to the time for the Americans and Israelis to get up from the table and walk away.
In exchange for the release of 104 prisoners, most of whom were convicted of murder and all of whom have been in Israeli jails since before the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians agreed to not seek recognition by any international organization. Since July, both sides have seemingly been abiding to the ground rules set at the onset of this latest round of talks and Israel has released several groups of these prisoners according to a preapproved timeline. The hitch came last week, as Israel balked at releasing the final tranche of murderers, arguing no headway has been made in the negotiations since November and that the Palestinians were just trying to wait out the clock to go to the international community.
With this latest round of peace teetering on collapse, it could be time “to let it all ride” on a risky bet. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to at his cabinet meeting earlier this week , Israel should begin taking unilateral steps.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren has pointed out that unilateralism has a “lousy reputation.” Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005, which was met with thousands of rockets being fired at Israelis, a Hamas takeover of the local government, and several bloody confrontations. The 2000 unilateral pullout from Lebanon likewise involved rockets and Hezbollah. Nonetheless, if these latest talks fail, the lion’s share of the failure to reach an accord will be placed on the Israelis. This will lead to more international isolation making an already precarious situation downright dangerous.
The situation has reached this point because there are no good alternatives. There are three possibilities resulting from Abbas’s move. In the first scenario, the Palestinians could get statehood from the UN; though this is unlikely given the U.S. veto on the Security Council, a peace deal could then be produced under inordinate international pressure on both sides. Secondly, peace talks might break down completely, leading to a rapidly deteriorating security situation. And finally, Israel could decide to unilaterally withdraw to approximately the 1967 borders while keeping the continuous settlements with the widely accepted land swaps.
On the outside, we can only speculate what the initial “framework” document included. It seems safe to assume that Prime Minister Netanyahu (as good a poker player as any to have occupied his office) has pushed as far as he could and gotten many things – including the possibility of an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley – deemed impossible only a few months ago. Netanyahu’s demand for Abbas to recognize Israel as the Jewish State caused some problems, but it is unlikely that a rhetorical issue alone created the stagnation seen in the last two weeks.
Netanyahu does not get a pass either. He may have been talking the peace talk and walking the peace walk, but looking at his already shaky governing coalition, it’s unclear if he is really ready to sign on the dotted line. However, his promise to bring any deal to a countrywide referendum is a good sign. Support for a two-state solution is high, and there is a strong public desire in Israel to end the conflict for good and begin cultivating the overdue recognition by the world-community. All of this suggests that any peace deal satisfactory to Netanyahu would also pass a nationwide vote.
A betting man would likely place the onus on Abbas, who is now faced with a reality his predecessor walked away from and he himself has walked away from previously. Can he bring himself to end this conflict through negotiation?
It is time for the Palestinians to have a country of their own and determine the future of that country for themselves – more importantly, it is time to end this conflict. If borders cannot be agreed to through negotiations, it falls to Israel – the party with de facto control of the borders – to decide what that future state will look like. Israel cannot afford to put off a possibility for an end to the conflict any longer. To rephrase one of President Reagan’s most famous aphorisms in foreign policy: Mr. Netanyahu, build up those walls.