IN his speech last week at the conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his call for “peace between two nation-states – a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, and Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
At every opportunity, since his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, Netanyahu has stated his willingness to negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas, without preconditions. As we look at the continuing impasse, and the reality that there has been less than a month of tentative negotiation in the three years since this government came to office, Israeli officials have been telling anyone who’ll listen that the Palestinians are wholly to blame for the absence of peace talks. The Prime Minister, they say, has been waiting for Mahmoud Abbas to join him for peace talks; instead the Palestinian Authority President has tried to circumvent negotiations and unilaterally force the issue at the UN.
For their part the Palestinians claim that negotiating with Netanyahu would be a waste of time. And it is the case that, in a fashion familiar to observers of the Prime Minister’s first term in office, he has rhetorically supported moderate positions while giving a nod and a wink to hardliners in his government and the settlement movement. For instance following his announcement of the ten-month settlement freeze in 2009, he quickly moved to reassure settler leaders that this was a one-off event and that building would resume in the West Bank once the period of the moratorium had elapsed.
More recently of course, he has been praised for his boldness in standing up to the usual suspects in his own Likud Party and in parties further to the right in his decision to abide by the ruling of the High Court of Justice that the five homes in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El, built on private Palestinian land, must be evacuated.
One wonders though how much credit he should get for simply for accepting the rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court. As Dan Meridor, the most outspoken advocate of the Likud’s liberal tradition still in the party, has said, to retroactively legalize the confiscation of private land by the state is simply not permissible in a serious democracy governed by the rule of law. What is of concern is that, in typical Netanyahu fashion, one step away from the settlers has been coupled with a few steps in their direction. Hence, his announcement immediately following the defeat of the right-wing rebels’ ‘Settlement Regulation’ bill, that 851 new homes would be built in the West Bank, including in Beit El and Kiryat Arba – neither of which are located in the consensus ‘settlement blocs’ that will become part of Israel in any two-state deal.
One could give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt and say that he is trying to keep the right-wing off his back for reasons of political stability and, when the time comes, he would act to evacuate settlements to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state. But with the statement: “We are a government that respects the rule of law and strengthens settlement, and there is no contradiction between the two things.”, one has to ask: but aren’t you also supposed to be a government committed to a two-state solution? And doesn’t that contradict strengthening the settlements?
Netanyahu is, unfortunately, giving Abbas reason to suspect that negotiations would not be fruitful. However, there is at least as much evidence that Abbas is not the leader who will end decades of Palestinian rejectionism, as there is disproving Netanyahu’s peacemaker pretentions.
Ehud Olmert’s premiership ended with the whimper of failed peace talks, and that failure can be laid squarely at the door of the Palestinian President who rejected an unprecedented offer of a Palestinian State on Gaza and 93 percent of the West Bank, with land swaps making up the remaining seven percent, a capital in East Jerusalem and even shared sovereignty of the holy sites in the Old City.
Since Netanyahu’s election not only has Abbas refused to negotiate, he has continued the dishonorable tradition of historical revisionism that was so characteristic of his predecessor Yasser Arafat.
See for example Abbas’s New York Times op-ed published last year, ahead of the UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood:
“…the last time the question of Palestinian statehood took center stage at the General Assembly, the question posed to the international community was whether our homeland should be partitioned into two states. In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.”
America’s ‘paper of record’ should be embarrassed that it printed such an absurdly counter-factual re-telling of a well-documented historical event. Abbas neglects to mention that the General Assembly’s partition decision was accepted by the Zionists and rejected by the Arabs. The reason why the 1947 UN vote did not lead to Palestinian statehood was because the Arabs said no to it. And, of course, the “Zionist forces” did not initially attack Palestinian Arabs with the intention of ensuring a Jewish majority – though that was the result – but for the very simple and most justifiable reason imaginable: self-defense; first against local Palestinians led by Hitler’s confidante Haj Amin al-Husseini, and then against the Arab states fighting under the genocidal banner of driving the Jews into the sea.
It was also under Abbas’s leadership that the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Information (truly an Orwellian title under the circumstances) published a report in 2010, authoritatively stating that the Western Wall has nothing to do with any Jewish Temple and is, in fact, Muslim property belonging to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Netanyahu is correct in his insistence that peace will require a Palestinian acknowledgment that Israel is the State of the Jewish people. As long as the Palestinian leadership rejects this notion, and talks vaguely about two states, one for the Palestinians and one “called Israel”, the more suspicion will grow among Israelis that ultimately the Palestinians intend to implement their “right of return” and overturn Israel’s Jewish majority with 4 million Palestinian refugees.
THE irony is that while a two-state solution is almost universally regarded as the optimum way to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; and the leaders of the two protagonists are formally signed up to this solution, it’s not actually clear that either of them have the will and/or inclination to seriously pursue it. Both men claim that the other is to blame for the absence of negotiations, but if either one wished to, he could act unilaterally to change the status quo.
For his part, Abbas could respond positively to Netanyahu’s long-standing invitation to negotiate. At worst, he would be calling the Israeli leader’s bluff and the world would see that it was Israel that was the obstacle to peace. More importantly, so would the Israeli public.
In Israel today you have a clear majority of the population that believes two truths to be self-evident: 1) that ultimately peace will be achieved only through the concession of most of the West Bank to the Palestinians and their realization of an independent state of their own; and 2) that the Palestinians are not reliable peace partners and would turn the West Bank into a launching-pad for rockets, a’ la Gaza, with the whole of Israel within range. There is, therefore, only minority support for right-wing parties which categorically reject the two-state solution as a matter of principle (the National Union and the Jewish Home), and for left-wing parties which are perceived to have too much faith in the noble intentions of the Palestinian leadership (Meretz). The Likud has become the most popular party through presenting a pragmatic acceptance of the need for eventual territorial compromise coupled with a clearly articulated wariness of Palestinian intentions and repeated reminders that Israel’s security concerns will necessarily affect both the borders, and certain limitations on the sovereignty, of the putative Palestinian state.
Were a committed and serious Abbas to expose a dogmatically intransigent Netanyahu at negotiations, the Israeli electorate would turn against the Likud and vote in a more genuinely peace-oriented government.
And if Netanyahu decided to stop making Abbas the excuse for the continued stalemate? In his new, sprawling ‘unity coalition’, he has room to maneuver away from the right-wing ideologues in his own party and elsewhere. More than that, Ehud Barak recently stated his support for unilateral action in the absence of a Palestinian partner, while Shaul Mofaz is a declared advocate of evacuating outlying settlements and establishing a Palestinian state with temporary borders ahead of a final peace agreement.
Netanyahu now has support from senior figures in his government for a slow, careful, but irrevocable separation from the Palestinians and a long-overdue end to the occupation that threatens Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. The question remains: does he really want it?