Under the last government, of Ehud Olmert, direct talks with the Palestinians became a routine feature of the political landscape. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qurei, would meet frequently for lengthy sessions designed to hammer out the substantive elements of an accord. And the two men at the top of the hierarchies, Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, would also get together intermittently, sometimes even walking arm in arm for the cameras, ostensibly building up a relationship of trust that, it was hoped, would filter down to their respective teams and enable real progress.
That attempt at peacemaking collapsed with the implosion of Olmert’s political career amid a welter of corruption allegations. It collapsed, too, in a typical orgy of Israeli and Palestinian recrimination: Olmert blamed the Palestinians for failing to seize on his departing offer to relinquish almost all of the West Bank and divide Jerusalem in the cause of a deal. Abbas complained variously that Olmert’s terms were either not good enough or not credibly presented.
In the more than a year and a half since then, the absence of any substantive direct contact between the leaderships of the two sides has invested the resumption of face-to-face talks – via this week’s White House-hosted ceremonies – with a resonance quite unlike those Olmert-era sessions. What had become the unremarkable rhythm of negotiations between protagonists claiming to be quietly making headway is now, this time around, a very public, fraught and incredibly high-stakes exercise in improbable bridge-building, between two leaderships that appear to be talking across each other, with naysayers on both sides predicting dire fallout should the endeavor break down, and the resumption of terror attacks reinforcing the dismal sense of bloody déjà vu.
BINYAMIN NETANYAHU has moved a long way from the opposition politician who, in the Knesset at the start of the Oslo process 17 years ago, denounced Yitzhak Rabin as being “much worse than the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, because Chamberlain threatened the security and freedom of another nation, while you are threatening the security and freedom of your own nation.”
Netanyahu, the champion of the settlement enterprise, has presided over an almost 10- month freeze in housing starts at those beloved settlements, in order to get the Palestinians back to the peace table, at the behest of an American administration whose own heavy-handed missteps on settlements were central to Abbas’s staying away in the first place.
Netanyahu, the Likud leader, has reversed his party’s emphatic opposition to the idea of a second sovereign entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, last year pledging his support for an independent Palestinian state, complete with flag and national anthem, and declaring on Wednesday that “we recognize that another people shares this land with us.”
Netanyahu, the security hawk, rapidly outflanked his dovish predecessor Olmert in removing roadblocks and checkpoints and easing freedom of movement for Palestinians in the West Bank – including in the area near Kiryat Arba where four Israelis were murdered on Tuesday night – taking “calculated security risks” to enable the Palestinian economy to flourish, in the hope that “economic peace” would eventually galvanize Palestinian support for the real deal.
And this week, as he finalized his trip to Washington, Netanyahu, the peace-deal skeptic, deliberately placed himself in his peacemaking Likud predecessor Menachem Begin’s shoes, telling his own party’s immensely dubious activists, “I hope to find [in Abbas] as courageous a partner as Begin found in [Egypt’s president Anwar] Sadat” more than 30 years ago.
“Hope,” rather than “expectation,” is most certainly the operative word, however. Would a peacemaker in the Sadat mold, some of those around the prime minister ask rhetorically, have deliberately spent the first nine months of the unprecedented opportunity provided by the settlement freeze wriggling away from negotiations?
THE PALESTINIANS, for their part, are most certainly moving along the path to statehood. Indeed, an official PA document delivered to the US ahead of the direct talks ceremonies specified that the PA intends to seek a UN Security Council resolution recognizing the state of Palestine on the pre-1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.
PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, with input and support from his former International Monetary Fund boss, now Netanyahu’s Bank of Israel governor, Stanley Fischer, has overseen an economic transformation in the West Bank. Growth is in double digits, in stark contrast to so much of the global economy. Jenin, the former suicide bomber capital, made headlines last month for opening a cinema complex. Ramallah’s shopping culture and night life are thriving so brightly as to put east Jerusalem in the shade – a kind of West Bank Tel Aviv, dancing till dawn in hedonistic contrast to the sleepy, conservative holy city.
Israeli officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and many in the IDF’s senior ranks, have also praised the PA security forces, trained with US funding and under US oversight, for helping maintain rare calm in the Palestinian cities and for their role – until Tuesday night – in the marked decline in terrorism.
Of course, Abbas’s PA has every interest in stifling Hamas-orchestrated dissent. And while PA commanders demand that the IDF pull back further, and hand over greater areas of control, those same Israeli officials are extremely cautious about doing so. When push comes to shove, the sense in Israel is that Hamas is far more ready than Fatah to both kill and be killed, as it proved in Gaza, and that, without the IDF’s presence, the threat of it replicating its takeover in the West Bank could not be discounted.
The PA forces did prevent popular disquiet over Operation Cast Lead in Gaza almost two years ago from erupting into a full-scale violent solidarity in the West Bank. And the sense of stability created by their deployment has made a deep impression on a succession of visiting American and European leaders, notably including even the most consistently pro-Israel American Jewish legislators.
Fayyad, too, with his understated, earnest diligence, has personally won over those same policy-makers. This, they all report back, is undoubtedly a man fashioning the institutions of statehood – gradually connecting the dots of a blueprint designed to win international legitimation. The more awkward question is whether Abbas and Fayyad are building a state at reconciliation with Israel.
The PA’s initial official response to Tuesday night’s terrorist attack only redoubled misgivings. PA-controlled media referred to it as a “military operation.” Abbas and Fayyad, while ordering a Hamas crackdown with a reported 300 arrests, merely condemned it as being “against the Palestinian interest.”
Later, at the White House on Wednesday, Abbas was more humane, saying that “We do not want any blood to be shed, one drop of blood, on the part of the Israelis or the Palestinians.”
THE HEART yearns for the success of this latest attempt at peacemaking. The same heart that pleaded for good relations with our neighbors 62 years ago, even as we founded this country amid the war that was designed to destroy it at birth.
The heart says do anything for peace. Freeze the settlements – depriving Abbas of the pretext he is already advancing to scupper the talks – and prepare to dismantle most of them, in areas where we cannot expand sovereignty. Work for compromise on border routes and even in Jerusalem. Encourage international compensation for Palestinian refugees and their descendants, and even consider a very limited entry into Israel for family reunification purposes.
Anything, says the heart. Anything to free us of the terrible, debilitating, unwanted burden of ruling the Palestinians. Anything to ensure the preservation of an Israel at once Jewish and democratic. Anything to widen the circle of normalization and create greater regional support for the struggle against Islamic extremism and its patron state, Iran.
And the head? The head, in a murderous week such as this, cannot forget that second intifada bloodbath, and the Palestinian leadership duplicity that fostered it. The head too well remembers the hatred emblemized by the mindless destruction of the settlement greenhouses in Gaza, and the rise of Hamas – the Palestinian voter-endorsed rise of Hamas – when the opportunity to build a model state in the Strip was spurned.
The head, even as it recognizes the toxic outbursts of the likes of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, from which the Netanyahu leadership quickly dissociated itself, cannot ignore the relentless demonization of Israel in PA TV broadcasts, in ceremonies honoring terrorist “martyrs” and in Fatah resolutions. Demonization that is tolerated, sometimes encouraged, by the Abbas leadership. Demonization that renders Israeli citizens fair game for drive-by shootings.
The head considers the validity of Netanyahu’s only two real caveats
regarding Palestinian statehood – that the new Palestine not be capable
of threatening Israel militarily, and not be allowed to alter the Jewish
character of our country via an influx of refugees – and cannot find a
sympathetic explanation for why an Abbas bent on peacemaking would have
wriggled out of talks with such a prime minister as the precious months
of the settlement freeze passed fruitlessly by. The head searches in
vain for evidence that the Palestinian leadership is conveying to its
people that the Jews have a sovereign legitimacy in this land.
The heart so fervently wants to see all the current pessimism proved
wrong. But the head deduces that Netanyahu’s admirable hope of finding,
in Abbas, a new Sadat, will prove forlorn, and fears that this week’s
return to terror attacks was only the first murderous consequence.