‘We will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.” “Without recognition of Israel as a Jewish state there will be no peace agreement.”
“Without an agreement Israel will face increasing isolation and boycotts.” “We will never give up a piece of our homeland because of economic threats.”
“Not one settler will be allowed to live in Palestine.” “We will not remove even a single settlement.” “The framework agreement will be vague and ambiguous.” “The framework agreement will deal with every single permanent status issue including borders, Jerusalem, security, refugees.” “We will need more time to present the framework agreement.”
I could go on and on quoting the statements that have been made in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Washington and now even Munich. I would suggest, however, that they are all part of the negotiations themselves.
Information, misinformation and disinformation are all tactics of negotiation, especially in settings where there is a total lack of trust. I am quite sure, for example, that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is very pleased that he is being attacked by Naftali Bennett and settlement leaders, especially those within his own party and coalition; this makes it much easier for him to deflect pressure on him to make concessions he finds difficult to accept.
He can easily say to US Secretary of State John Kerry: Look, if I give in and make those concessions my government will collapse, I will not have the support of my party, the Knesset will reject it. Likewise for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who must contend with his own constituency and his own political movement, many of whom oppose making any concessions to Israel.
Both leaders are under enormous pressure from within to disclose to their supporters and colleagues the real content of the talks with Kerry on the framework agreement, yet they know that do to so would be completely counter-productive to actually reaching an agreement. Both leaders know that the only statements which are really important are those that are made behind the closed doors, not those that adorn the headlines of newspapers and news broadcasts. For public consumption, what is essential for both leaders is presenting the tough face of resisting pressure and not making concessions.
In my assessment, both leaders are now in that loneliest of places only real leaders ever know about.
We now have two leaders who no longer have political parties behind them. Within their own camps the sharks are circling, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. The decisions facing these leaders are extraordinarily difficult. No one should envy them.
They are facing historic choices that will not only determine the future of their nations, but literally life-and-death decisions.
None of the issues are new to them. They have both served in their positions for years. They know very well what the alternatives are from which they must choose. They are aware of all of the details, and neither has anyone they trust enough and respect sufficiently to rely on as advisors. They each know what is required to reach an agreement, that they will have to make decisions that go against statements they have both made, axiomatic declarations and red lines that they said they would not cross.
They are both confronting their own national narratives, something that must happen to reach the end of conflict and the end of claims –which both leaders have said is their goal.
For Abbas it is the ultimate recognition that Israel is here to stay and that the refugees will only be able to return to a state in only a smart part of the homeland.
For Netanyahu it is the ultimate recognition that the dream of the greater land of Israel is over forever and that Jerusalem must be shared. Both leaders have to confront the end of dreams that they have held so close to their hearts for so long.
The late Harvard University negotiations expert Roger Fisher coined the term “BATNA” – the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. Fisher argued that agreements happen when the parties no longer have a BATNA. That is the case now for Abbas and Netanyahu. Many of Abbas’s allies and colleagues tell him: wait, we will go to the UN, Israel will be isolated, there will be boycotts against Israel, we can get our state without negotiations. Those people, who don’t bear direct responsibility and are not the decision makers, have the luxury of not having to face the consequences of their advice. Abbas on the other hand has to ask himself: How many of my people may be killed before the world forces Israel to give us our state? How much destruction will we face? Netanyahu is also confronted by many allies and colleagues who advise him: Don’t give into the pressure; Israel is strong, Israel can withstand boycotts, we have stood against other formidable secretaries of states and presidents. It is easy for them to lend their free advice and to gain political support for their bombastic statements. Netanyahu does not have the luxury of deciding not to decide. He bears the responsibility, and the weight of the decision is on his shoulders.
Netanyahu as the leader of the right wing in Israel is the ideal political leader to make the deal with the Palestinians. It seems that he is really struggling within himself. I have been told by people on Kerry’s team that “Netanyahu is in the room,” meaning that he is taking the process seriously and not looking for a way out. The decisions are tough for him, but he is capable of making them and leading Israel to peace.
Abbas is the last of the founding fathers of the Palestinian national movement. He too has to ability to make the decisions to lead his people to peace.
And like Netanyahu, he too is struggling within himself. If one or both of them back out and do not find the courage to make peace, they will be cheered by the loud and vocal supporters from their respective anti-peace camps. They will be heroes for a moment, but I have little doubt that history will judge them very badly.
President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that said “the buck stops here.” The slogan derives from the slang expression “pass the buck” which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. In Truman’s farewell address to the American people he said: “The President – whoever he is – has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody.
No one else can do the deciding for him.
That’s his job.”
That is our reality – the buck stops with Abbas and Netanyahu, and this is the moment of truth.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.