A well-known aphorism states simply “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”. That door has been built. It has taken years of labor, care and fortitude and along the way there have been many setbacks.
Skeptics, cynics, bystanders and naysayers are having their field day hurling abuse at Kerry, Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas. While they may call for “gradually creating a climate of mutual respect and …a desire for peace” in the same breath they place both the blame and the onus on the other side thereby creating a schedule of dithering procrastination. Fortunately there are people out there on both sides who are consistently and proactively working towards real solutions. They have built the door while others sit on the sidelines imperviously embroiled in discussion between us and us. In this atmosphere of no-need-to-rush the question arises as to whether anyone will recognize the real opportunity when it presents itself.
At the beginning of this week, the Geneva Initiative (GI) facilitated a meeting of senior party members of the Likud and Shas together with Palestinian leadership at the offices of the PLO in Ramallah.
Hosting the meeting on the Palestinian side were Yasser Abed Rabbo, Nabil Shaath, Minister (ret.) Ashraf al-Ajarmi and others.The next day a conference was held at the Knesset, also facilitated by the GI together with a wide range of Knesset members including several cabinet ministers from the current government of Israel together with Palestinian guest speakers.
Having been present at these two significant events I shall attempt to bring some insights and review the current status of a peace initiative which is in the process of maturing into an imminent and very real opportunity.
Getting real in Ramallah
Nabil Shaath and Yasser Abed Rabbo presented a clear unambiguous outreach for peace to the Israeli delegation present. The PLO made it categorically and unequivocally clear that now is the time and that the parties absolutely must move forward. The guidelines have been put in place and cover all the four main areas of negotiation: Security, Borders, Refugees, Jerusalem. At one point during the presentation and the consequent discussion that took place with those present, my observation was that a sense of urgency and willingness to seriously take this to the next level was clearly the underlying common denominator by speakers for the PLO executive committee. There are several issues that are driving the current initiative from the PLO side. One is that today there are some 250,000 young men who are unemployed, educated and wired into Facebook and Twitter. Events in the Arab world will precipitate unrest and this generation is interested in finding personal fulfillment, financial independence and freedom of choice and movement as much if not more than their need for national identity or religious expression. The Palestinian Authority (PA), by having chosen a path of unequivocal non-violence must produce results to relieve this pressure. Thus a successful peace process presents an opportunity rather than a threat for this generation and consequently for us as neighbors and partners.
With respect to serious questions and challenges presented by the audience at Ramallah I shall outline below some common notions that abound with clear answers presented at this meeting and later at the Knesset the following day, however the most impressive aspect of this encounter was the dynamic in the room. As the discussion progressed and as argument and resolution presented themselves I observed a passion from Israel’s traditional hard line right to find solutions, to work on continual discussion and to get the peace process in place.
Conference at the Knesset
For those who believe we have time to sit around and wait for the right atmosphere for peace, both MK Yaakov Peri and Palestinian representative Ashraf al-Ajarmi outlined the perilous situation that awaits if agreement is not reached. In contrast to this Ajarmi pointed out the Palestinian willingness to accept equitable land swaps so that the larger settlement blocs can remain. He pointed to flexibility on the issue of refugees, agreement that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and acceptance of Israel’s rights regarding the Western wall and holy sites and of creative solutions in Jerusalem. In Palestine today, the ground is burning. Youth is restless and sees no measurable benefits from the non-violent track adopted by the PA since Abbas took control. On the contrary: they see encroaching settlement and Israeli capitulation to Hamas on prisoner release by violent abduction rather than negotiation. The situation with Hamas, having lost its patron in Syria, Iran and now Egypt brings a possibly volatile situation. For the wider Palestinian public the non-violent approach taken by the Abbas government must produce results.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki presented updated statistics of opinion polls within the West Bank and Gaza. A majority still supports the two-state solution. However Dr. Shikaki warns that in the event that this falls away, the goal of the new generation will be towards one state. In this he corroborates what we heard at Ramallah that Palestinian youth seek human rights and financial opportunities. Both of these are not accessible under occupation. At the heart of Palestinian concerns says Shikaki is personal security, fear of settler violence, encroaching settlement and an impending sense that the Government of Israel intends annexing the West Bank.
Ashraf al-Ajarmi was challenged on the question of Palestinian demands for preconditions rather than to enter directly into negotiations. He answered clearly, producing breaking news of the day: Yasser Abed Rabbo and Netanyahu have been meeting secretly and at least one of those meetings was at Netanyahu’s home. The basic issue of borders was broached and the Palestinians were promised an answer. No such answer has yet been forthcoming.
During these two days of intense dialogue it became apparent that the PA has made errors in getting its message to the Israeli public, however we in Israel and in the Jewish world tend to hold a discourse between us and ourselves. Listening to the other side and understanding those messages is a challenge we tend to avoid. As a Jew and as an Israeli it is exigent to work for the Jewish state however keeping that state sustainable makes it exigent to find the route to Palestinian statehood within the two-state solution. Common notions, falsities and myths abound regarding current Palestinian objectives, intransigence and unwillingness to negotiate. Many of these were raised for discussion in Ramallah and I will try to outline several of these issues in order to present a clearer picture of the current status.
Common Notions, Hard Facts
Notion: Kerry won’t succeed because Abbas is not a partner and Palestinians don’t want peace.
Fact: The PA has made a massive turnaround with Abbas at its head, and pledges and executes a policy of non-violence. As recently as last week during a visit to Lebanon, when asked, Abbas refused to support a violent struggle of any nature. A majority of Palestinians including from Gaza support a two-state solution but the longer it takes, the more people see it as a pipe dream.
Notion: The Palestinians are raising unacceptable demands such as freeing prisoners with blood on their hands.
Fact: The request to free prisoners is based on the logic that the PA needs to produce and show results to its public for its non-violent program as opposed to Hamas who achieved the same results by terror and war.
Notion: Palestinian leadership refuses to negotiate with Netanyahu
Fact: Palestinian leadership has met with Netanyahu several times in order to lay the groundwork for negotiations. Netanyahu denies this.
Notion: Settlements are not the issue. Why not come to the negotiating table without preconditions?
Fact: In the same way that Israelis and Jews nurture their narrative of loss and terror against them, Palestinians view loss of land assets and homes as their narrative. Thus continuing settlement in the land designated for a future Palestine is considered provocative and unacceptable during negotiation. In addition, Israel was obligated by the Bush Roadmap to cease settlement while the PA was required to bring an end to the second intifada and provide security. Palestinians have met that demand. Israel has not met the requirement, so settlement is perceived as an ongoing Israeli precondition.
Notion: The Palestinian idea of negotiation in advance in order to lay the groundwork for final status negotiations with Israel is a manipulation to stall the process.
Fact: Ashraf al-Ajarmi explained at the Knesset that the situation is volatile and as MK Peri indicated, a failure to bring results from negotiation would very likely set off a wave of violence – something that could occur also if it is delayed for too long. Ajarmi believes that it is better to do your homework before full scale negotiation with some clear parameters and a clear direction than have the negotiations fail as they begin and precipitate another intifada.
Notion: Palestinians do not want to recognize Israel as a Jewish state because they plan to flood Israel with refugees and create a state with a Palestinian majority.
Fact: Palestinian leadership accepts that Israel as a democracy has a right to define itself any way it wishes. It is not within the jurisdiction of PA to define Israel as the Jewish state. Following a peace agreement which will define final borders there will be no further issues open.
Notion: Palestinians don’t accept compromise on refugees.
Fact: Palestinian leadership states openly that they recognize Israel’s fears of losing its identity by a flood of refugees, thus the solution proposed is a symbolic figure of refugees which will have zero impact on Israeli demography.
Notion: Time is on our side. There is no need to rush into an agreement at this time.
Fact: We are all sleeping comfortably in our beds at night and discussing over coffee why there is no rush to negotiate largely due to tight-knit cooperation and coordination with Palestinian security that routs out potential terror organizations and suspects before they can get to Israel’s cities. Likewise there is a clear policy of non-violence in practice. This entire enterprise can collapse from grass roots dissatisfaction if the PA does not produce a viable path to statehood in the near future.
Notion: Olmert offered the Palestinians a fair deal but Abbas refused it.
Fact: Palestinian leadership states that the sides were extremely close – two weeks away from a comprehensive solution – but while processes were in place Olmert was indicted. Livni who was supposed to take Olmert’s position did not become prime minister and the rest is history.
If the Government of Israel picks up negotiations from where Olmert exited office, with a few adjustments and some minor tweaking, it appears that an agreement can be signed within a short time.
The peace process has evolved through a myriad of stages since Camp David, through to Taba, the Geneva Accords, Olmert’s premiership and has matured into a viable program. Since then further creative ideas have been put into place and the Arab Peace Initiative has been readjusted to incorporate those changes.
Rather than leaving Palestinian youth to emulate the unrest of the Arab world, rather than finding ourselves as a minority within a land without recognized borders, rather trying to explain our way out of the moral deficit we create by interminably ruling another nation and arrogating their land, a viable process now presents itself at bringing an end to conflict and to embrace national coexistence and mutual creation of prosperity. Peace is knocking on the door.
One question remains. Are we willing to open that door?