What is the big secret that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have cooked up for us? Or perhaps, like so many previous attempts at peace making, it will all turn out to be a major anticlimax – an interim agreement, the release of more prisoners, a settlement freeze (which like all others will only ever be on paper but never on the ground), and a period of continued negotiations on “unresolved issues” (such as refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water, borders – we can all recite the list in our sleep) for an indefinite period.
We’ve been there, seen it, done it and always failed – at least so far.
But there are signs which suggest that Kerry has some surprises in store for us, judging by the actions and statements by some of the leading government figures in recent weeks.
For a start, Netanyahu spent a few hours, suddenly and away from the limelight, in a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah last week. It is remarkable how little attention the media has given to this event despite the fact that such a meeting has not taken place for some years – excepting secret meetings about which we know nothing.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has also returned to the public debate. He has reasserted his former territorial stance, which begrudgingly accepts the possibility of border demarcations and potential land swaps. Liberman desires to redraw the border in the north of the West Bank, including some major Arab population centers which would then find themselves “transferred” from the State of Israel to the new Palestinian state but without being physically moved.
This would result in a changed demographic balance between Arabs and Jews inside Israel and would, in Liberman’s right-wing world view, contribute even further to strengthening the Jewish majority in the Jewish state. After all, he argues, since the reason for agreeing to a two-state solution is neither ideological or strategic, but demographic, let’s take the argument one step further and make the Jewish state even more Jewish in its demographic composition.
Whether or not the Arab citizens of Israel are in favor of such a move (they clearly are not) is of no concern to Liberman. Since when have the democratic preferences of the Arab population have ever been a major concern to him?
And the jitters have also set in with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has come out with a statement critical of Secretary of State Kerry, the sort of statement our senior politicians usually reserve for the EU and European heads of state. Ya’alon, known for his right-wing positions, is obviously aware of something going on behind the scenes and is getting worried.
For a senior Israeli government minister to endanger our relations with the US administration in such a way is almost unheard of.
But Ya’alon is nobody’s fool and must surely have known what the reaction to such a statement would be. Regardless of the apology he was forced to make, his real views are well known and to a certain extent he came clean, even if it was totally undiplomatic.
His use of the “messianic” terminology to describe Kerry’s quest for an agreement is a bit ironic given the fact that he supports the ultimate political Messianists, those who would hold on to a Greater Israel at all costs even if it means continued conflict and bloodshed for another 60 years.
And the government hawk, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, has announced his intention of putting together a new “Land of Israel” coalition in the Knesset, aimed at thwarting any further withdrawals or concessions which, he clearly fears, are just around the corner.
Was Ya’alon’s message aimed directly at Kerry, or at the Jewish lobby in the US? AIPAC has chosen not to overplay its response in an attempt to downplay, rather than highlight, the Ya’alon statement.
AIPAC is also waiting to hear exactly what Kerry and Obama are cooking up and it is clear that it does not have any inside information.
It can never be seen to actively oppose a serious peace initiative or, for that matter, to criticize too strongly an incumbent American administration, regardless of its political orientation.
Bush may have been a blind supporter of Israel, but all of the US presidents who have actively promoted a peace process – Carter, Clinton and now Obama – have strongly supported Israel’s strategic posture while, at the same time, being critical of the government’s policies vis a vis the Palestinians.
AIPAC is also aware that, for the first time in US-Israel relations, we are witnessing a shift in power in the American Jewish lobby, as the impact of J Street and an alternative pro-peace message has come increasingly to the fore under the Obama administration.
Obama wants to be remembered as a president who made a significant change in the Israel-Palestine arena. He wants to be remembered as someone who has achieved something as significant as the Camp David Peace Agreement between Israel and Egypt, rather than as the president who brought us Oslo which, in retrospect, has not proven to be a major success even if it did change the structural relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Obama’s visit to Israel was a great success among the Israeli public and he also knows that J Street represent an increasing proportion of the North American Jewish community who, while supportive of, and concerned about, Israel’s security, are not prepared to buy into the rantings of a right-wing foreign minister or a right-wing defense minister, with whom they no longer identify.
BUT FOR observers of the failed attempts at peace negotiations over the past 20 years, it is difficult to see what new proposals could be on the table. Borders are as difficult to demarcate as before, if not more difficult, given the continued expansion of the settlement network. Wherever the border is drawn, and whatever the extent of land swaps, there will always remain a large number of settlers (estimates range between 70,000-100,000) that are highly ideologically motivated and who will refuse to be evacuated.
The most recent proposal, put forward by Tel Aviv professor Gidon Biger, has been to enable extra-territorial exclaves, through which all populations would remain in situ but would choose their citizenship based on national and ethnic identity. This is not an alternative form of a one-state solution, without borders, but would consist of exclaves located in, and surrounded entirely by, the sovereign territory of the other state.
But the notion of Jewish exclaves in a Palestinian state would, in retrospect, legitimize the establishment of the settlements and occupation in the first place, while the existence of Arab-Palestinian exclaves inside the Jewish state would legitimize the Liberman- style views of population transfers without having to physically move the population – and both of these notions seem far removed from the political realities of either of the two governments.
There is however one hopeful sign and that is the fact that we all, media and senior politicians, seem to know very little about what is really happening behind the scenes.
The more secret it is, the greater the chance that in this country, where everything is normally leaked five minutes before it actually takes place, there are some real negotiations taking place.
The standoff between Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog in the pro-peace camp, and the intransigence of Liberman, Ya’alon and Bennett is getting closer by the day. Perhaps Ya’alon is right after all in labeling Kerry a peace messianist. If the pro-peace camp take on the struggle with the same messianic zeal that the settlers and the peace spoilers have displayed until now, perhaps there is still a small ray of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.