Truth, Lies, Settlements, and the Need to Talk

There is a series of logic puzzles that are based on the idea of two tribes, where the members of one tribe always lie and the members of the other always tell the truth.  In the real world, there are no such tribes and no such people.  Every real person sometimes lies and sometimes (most of the time, we hope) tells the truth.

Why do I bring all of this up?  I’ll get back to that, but first, I’d like to talk about why the recent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks broke down.

There were many factors that led to the breakdown:  the refusal of the Israeli government to go through with promised prisoner releases, Palestinian applications to international organizations, the announcement of a pending Palestinian unity government, etc., but in the words of “senior American officials” quoted in a May 2, 2014 article by Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth, “There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort’s failure, but people in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth – the primary sabotage came from the settlements. The Palestinians don’t believe that Israel really intends to let them found a state when, at the same time, it is building settlements on the territory meant for that state.”

In 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked Theodor Meron, then legal counsel to the Israeli Foreign Ministry for an opinion on the legality of proposed settlements in the occupied territories.  Meron wrote that they would be a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  Eshkol chose to ignore this opinion and proceeded to build settlements, as did every Israeli government since.  The settlements were illegal from the beginning and have remained so.  Although it is generally agreed that any peace deal would now leave many of the settlements and the vast majority of the settlers in place, that does not make them legal until and unless they are made so as part of an agreement.

The settlements were an overt attempt to create “facts on the ground.”  The purpose of their creators, at its most benign, was to tilt the negotiating positions of the two sides in Israel’s favor, and it its least benign, to make a two-state solution impossible.

When Secretary of State Kerry was trying to get the parties to the table for the latest round of talks, each party had to make certain concessions to make this possible.  Palestinian President Abbas agreed to suspend diplomatic moves such as application for recognition at the U.N.  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had several options:  prisoner releases, a settlement freeze, or agreeing to the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for negotiation.  He chose prisoner releases.  While I disagree with it, reserving a concession regarding the 1967 borders as a matter for negotiation is defensible.  Refusing to freeze settlements is not.  A settlement freeze would not have prevented the building of future settlements in the event of a breakdown in the talks, so it would have had no permanent effect on the settler movement.  And yet Netanyahu chose prisoner releases.

The prisoner releases were predictably contentious.  These were serious criminals, murderers of Israelis.  Their release understandably caused an outcry, especially after Palestinians (also predictably) welcomed them as war heroes.  So Netanyahu had a lot of support when he refused to go through with the last round of promised releases on the grounds that the Palestinians were not negotiating in good faith, this despite the poison pill he himself had introduced, the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.  While many Israeli and American Jews, including staunch supporters of peace, find this demand reasonable and even important, it should be recognized that it was a new demand that had never introduced in any previous negotiation.  There is undoubtedly a way of getting the Palestinians to give this recognition or its equivalent as part of a negotiation, but getting them to agree to it as a pre-condition was a non-starter and Netanyahu undoubtedly knew that.

So, let’s be clear here: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze settlements led to his wildly unpopular decision to instead release the prisoners.  The collapse of the prisoner releases led to the Palestinian moves for international recognition and a unity government, and that led to Israel’s pulling out of the talks.

I was trying to make the case to someone that the Israelis shouldn’t have pulled out on the basis of the announcement regarding a unity government.  I made the point that the unity government might not actually happen, as it has not in previous attempts.  I could have made the point (although I did not) that a unity government would overcome the objections of those who said a peace deal could not be made if the Palestinian Authority did not speak for all the Palestinians.  Finally, I quoted Abbas’s statement that the unity government would renounce terrorism and recognize Israel.  “I’ll believe that when I see it,” was the response of the person I was trying to convince.

Of course, we will all believe it when and if we see it, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily untrue.  There is a tendency among many Jews to assume that everything the Palestinians say is a lie and everything the Israelis say is true, which brings me back to my original point.  There is no good reason to assume that Abbas is lying.  He has been pretty consistent over the years in his renunciation of terrorism, his recognition of Israel, and his support for negotiations and a two-state solution.  While consistency doesn’t guarantee truth, it usually goes hand in hand with it as a liar is usually caught in a contradiction eventually.  So we should at least give him the benefit of the doubt until and unless his statements prove untrue.

As talking is the only thing that will resolve this conflict, we must talk.  Refusing to negotiate with terrorists makes sense when negotiation may be taken as rewarding a terrorist act, but that argument doesn’t apply to this situation.  I also question the right of the Netanyahu government to make it after exchanging 1,027 prisoners for Gilad Shalit, which, justified though it may have been, could certainly be viewed as rewarding a terrorist act.  What is important is not whether all components of the Palestinian delegation renounce terrorism and recognize Israel at the beginning of negotiations.  What matters is whether they do so when an agreement is reached, and no Israeli government would sign an agreement without those things happening.   It is a commonly held fallacy that talking to people is tantamount to agreeing with them.  If that were true, there would be no U.S. Congress or Israeli Knesset.  We must talk.

About the Author
Martin J. Levine is a volunteer leader at J Street, serving on the Steering Committee of its New Jersey chapter.