Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Octobe 8, 2015.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was a telling exchange between BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month. Doucet had asked Netanyahu how he would respond to pressure to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and Netanyahu came as close as ever to losing his cool. “I’ve been calling, day in and day out, in every forum, in the United Nations, in the US Congress, in Israel, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv – I haven’t done so in Nepal because I haven’t visited – I’ve called on [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to resume unconditional negotiations immediately.”
Israel has a PR problem. Despite Netanyahu’s insistence that he is willing to negotiate with the PA, the international community continues to view him – and by extension, Israel – as the main obstacle to peace. Like a wound that refuses to heal, it is a PR problem that was first irritated when US President Barack Obama blamed the failure of peace talks on Netanyahu, and has festered over years of Likud’s principled yet self-defeating antipathy toward the international community.
Past Israeli leaders understood something that Netanyahu either doesn’t, or doesn’t care about – that for Israel to maintain its international standing, it must at least appear to initiate along the Palestinian track.
In a 2009 speech in Herzliya, Israel’s then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni said it best: “If we don’t put a plan on the table in Hebrew, we’ll get a plan in Arabic and French.”
Netanyahu thinks that by calling for the immediate resumption of peace talks he has put the ball in the Palestinians’ court. But the Palestinians have become public relations magicians, and Abbas has managed to spin a tale in the international media that casts Netanyahu as the obstacle to peace, even while the PA president refuses to negotiate. Netanyahu’s strategy is failing. The world is indeed living on another planet.
BUT IT is not too late for Netanyahu to drag the international community back to reality. He can retake the initiative, and truly shift the pressure to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu should announce publicly, ideally at the United Nations General Assembly, that he is willing to return a large percentage of the West Bank (historians have estimated that previous Israeli administrations have offered between 75 percent and 95% of the West Bank, including land swaps) to the control of the PA, under the following pre-conditions:
• The PA holds elections, so as to ensure that Israel is returning the land to a government that truly represents the Palestinian people;
• The newly-elected PA leader agrees to renounce all claims to the land remaining under Israeli control, the final borders of which will be determined during negotiations;
• Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations operating both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip renounce violence, disarm, and agree that the peace deal with Israel will represent an end to all outstanding claims on Israeli territory.
Critics of Israel generally fall into one of two categories: people who genuinely – if naively – believe that Israel is uninterested in peace, and anti-Semites. Israelis have a tendency to imagine that the bulk fall into the latter category. It is easier that way – this line of thinking allows for the offhanded dismissal of criticism. But of course, it ignores the well-meaning Left, who more often than not seek nothing more than peace and prosperity for the region.
This initiative would accomplish something important: it would push to the forefront the extremity of Palestinian society and leadership. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah will never accept a Jewish state in the Middle East – not in Hebron, and not in Jaffa. And certainly not in Jerusalem. And they will not disarm; their raison d’être is to kill Jews and Israelis.
But to the eyes of the bulk of the international community these Israeli demands would seem perfectly reasonable. And the return for the Palestinians, on the surface, is nearly everything that they have been clamoring for all these years – statehood, in the bulk of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip.
A unilateral move like this would cost Netanyahu nothing politically, and would put Israel back in the driver’s seat along the peace track. The embattled Israeli prime minister would no longer have to field questions about restarting peace talks. Instead, it would be Abbas in the hotseat. And, most importantly, it would send the international community crashing back down to earth.The author is the editor of the economy program at i24 news.