Time for Pressure on the Palestinians

Secretary of State John Kerry has begun once again to promote a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), despite the repeated failure of earlier rounds of negotiations. Many observers have long argued that such negotiations are doomed to failure because of the large gap between what Israel can offer and what the PA is willing to accept.

American strategy, especially since the onset of the Obama Administration, has been to try to close this gap by putting heavy pressure on Israel. This pressure has often been harsh and very public. In contrast, the U.S. has hardly ever puts any public pressure on PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, even though the PA’s positions simply preclude the possibility of a reasonable solution.

The obstructionist Palestinian positions include: No recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people; no long-term presence of Israeli troops along the Jordan Valley or within the West Bank; not one Israeli to remain in the Palestinian state; the June 4, 1967 lines as the border, possibly with mutually agreed land swaps; division of Jerusalem; a right of return to Israel of millions of Palestinian “refugees”; and no end-of-the-conflict agreement.

Of course, the extremism of these positions may be by design, because it seems that the PA does not really want a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank and Gaza as the end of the conflict. Indeed, the PA media and its educational curricula generally depict all of Israel as part of Palestine and reject Israel’s legitimacy (as they did earlier this month, as reported by TOI”s Lazar Berman on October 21, 2014.) And the Palestinians’ hard line stance has paid off well over the last 20 years as they have received numerous Israeli concessions without making any meaningful concessions of their own. Why stop a good thing?

The US practice (and the EU follows it even more so) of hardly every uttering a word of criticism of Abbas and PA positions and statements has had predictable negative consequences. Those positions have not been modified and, if anything, have become more extreme. In March 2014, during the last stage of the previous round of negotiations, Abbas went to Washington to discuss the draft framework paper. At the time, Jackson Diehl, a well-known Washington Post commentator, wrote an article criticizing the lack of public warnings or threats aimed at the Palestinians by senior administration figures to match those they publicly aimed at Israel. Rather, President Barack Obama went out of his way in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg to praise Abbas as “a partner on the other side willing to negotiate seriously” and to depict Netanyahu, in Diehl’s words, “as the potential spoiler”. But, Abbas emphatically rejected key provisions of Washington’s proposed framework document. Why did he do so? Diehl approvingly quoted the explanation of Khaled Abu Toameh, a seasoned Arab Israeli journalist: “Abbas believes he can say no to Obama because the U.S. administration will not take any retaliatory measures against the Palestinian Authority.” For the PA, there is no price to pay for their obduracy.

The time has come for heavy public pressure to be applied to the Palestinians – a decidedly novel idea – if there is to be any hope of an agreement. To try to force Israel to give more is the wrong approach; Israel can’t give more than it has offered without either endangering itself or giving up vital assets it cannot relinquish. Moreover, such pressure is futile, since Israel will not commit suicide, either physically or spiritually. On the other hand, the Palestinians can afford to accept less than their stated “minimum,” particularly if they’re compensated by means of a regional land swap that will give them a swath of Sinai adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Unfortunately, Kerry’s renewed push for negotiations involves the old recipe: heavy pressure on Israel, not on the Palestinians. On October 14, Barak Ravid reported as follows in Haaretz: “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is seeking to advance a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that would forestall the Palestinians’ application to the UN Security Council to mandate an end to the occupation. To this end, senior Israeli officials say, Kerry has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whether he would be willing to resume negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines with territorial swaps.”

Such a basis for negotiations would support the Palestinians on three vital final status issues: borders, security arrangements, and Jerusalem. It endorses the June 4, 1967 lines, long demanded by the PA, is silent on security arrangements for Israel, and splits Jerusalem, leaving the Old City, Western Wall and the neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967 on the Palestinian side of the lines as the starting point of negotiations about minor land swaps. The silence on security is especially glaring in light of the heightened danger that rockets and mortars on the West Bank would pose to Israel’s heartland. Unless other Palestinian concessions are demanded, their sole concession would be to defer making a motion in the UN and other unilateral steps that they have been threatening – as it were, to put down the “gun” they have been waving in recent weeks. No doubt Israel would say, “No, thank you, Mr. Kerry.”

Even without the misguided idea of using the June 4, 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations, the difficult truth is that a durable “two-state” solution limited to the area of the West Bank and Gaza, faces severe difficulties. The rumored Egyptian offer of a major tract of land in Sinai, adjacent to Gaza, to be part of a future Palestinian state, an idea proposed by Giora Eiland in 2008, would perhaps be a necessary condition for a future two-state solution, by providing more land to work with. The U.S. and Europe should actively promote this approach, which would make it easier for Palestinians to agree to the limited sovereignty in the West Bank necessary for Israel’s security.

However, while a necessary condition, by itself Eiland’s regional land swap idea wouldn’t be sufficient to bring an agreement. It will take strong, persistent pressure, both public and private, from the US and the EU on the Palestinians for them to adopt more reasonable positions. Doing so is more likely to yield a positive result than continuing the old and failed mode of “pressuring Israel,” which may harm Israel but won’t bring the Palestinians a state. This new approach is long overdue. Given Obama’s track record, its implementation is not too likely. But the case for it is strong and needs to be made.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 35 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.