The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), in a rare but important interview to our Channel 2 News a week ago, made the strongest appeal yet to Israeli public opinion, suggesting that there is a realistic, moderate partner on the other side of the Green Line.

“For me, Palestine is the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. All the rest is Israel,” he said.

He added, maybe for the first time negating publicly the “right of return” to sovereign Israel: “I am from Safed. I want to visit it, but not return to live there.”

He defines himself as the last Palestinian leader to compromise with Israel. He may just be right.

This was an important yet futile attempt to convince Israeli public opinion, at election time, that there is a Palestinian issue to deal with, that there is a partner for peace, and to sway Israeli public opinion toward moderation.

On the other hand, the Hamas-Hezbollah-Tehran axis ferociously condemned Abu Mazen for his moderation – they want us to believe that the only way is bloody confrontation and to move us toward the extreme.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman suit them well, a viable peace process endangers their bellicose interests and their Islamic fundamentalist ambitions.

Yet, with the exception of President Shimon Peres, Abu Mazen’s message of peace went unnoticed by an electorate persuaded by all political contenders that there is no place for the Palestinian issue on our national agenda.

For the new odd couple of Israeli politics, “Biberman,” this is a major achievement. In their ideological and political hearts, they still cling to the dangerous notion of a Greater Israel – from the Sea to the River. Our next-in-line leader, Liberman, is even a settler living in the West Bank.

Moreover, the prime minister skillfully manipulated the Israeli, and to a large degree the international, agenda away from the Palestinian issue to the Iran issue, which is very valid in itself, a threat to Israeli and world security, yet in reality, it does not eliminate the Palestinian issue, and its centrality to the region. On the contrary, progress on the Palestinian issue would make an anti-Iran coalition easier and more effective.

Sadly, the opposition – already aiming at their heart of hearts for their ministerial seats in Netanyahu’s next cabinet – is also escaping the Palestinian peace process. Shelly Yachimovich, even on the memorial day for the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, spoke at the Knesset about “a territorial compromise in the West Bank,” driving Labor back to the days of Yigal Allon, or even worse, in style and content, to the days of Golda Meir, who contended that there is no Palestinian people. And, as in the days of Golda, her party servilely agrees.

Yair Lapid had to go to no other university campus than Ariel in the West Bank, to make a confused speech about possible negotiations without a real settlement freeze, although he probably knew better.

For him, between Left and Right, there is Ariel.

Those who advance the social agenda in Israel, from the promising Moshe Kahlon through Shas and the former protest movement leaders – now candidates in the Labor list – also neglect to see, or admit, that without a viable peace process with the Palestinians, the heavy defense costs and settlement waste will not allow for economic growth and social justice. Yet they all escape the hot potato of the Palestinian issue, ignoring a time bomb.

Indeed a dangerous time bomb, especially since our region, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, will follow the voice of the Arab people, which has become more relevant in legitimizing regimes. And the Arab constituency, with the exception of the fundamentalists, empathizes with their Palestinian brethren living under occupation. In the past, relationships in our region were influenced by a balance of forces. We won the wars and were strong. Today, with terrorism being more potent and turning increasingly ballistic, and with an almost universal ability to develop and acquire arms of mass destruction, a military balance in our favor is not sufficient.

In our time, it is the motivation to use those weapons that count more, and therefore we must add to the balance of power, a balance of motivations.

And that motivation in the Arab world, not enamored with Israel in the first place, hangs mostly on the state of the Palestinian issue. At times of a viable peace process, our relations with Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf and the Maghreb kept improving.

During political stalemate, facts on the ground speak louder than any political demagogy, in Israel or the Arab world. Seven million Jews and 5 million Arabs live from the Sea to the River. According to demographic projections, already by 2025, we will be a minority in our own country – a Greater Palestine, rather than a Greater Israel. We can then choose between Bosnian-like warfare and apartheid as in South Africa. We will then – at a time that is not far off – not only lose our national character, but also our democratic political system, our growing economy, our security and our very moral fabric.

We have a decade left to prevent the settlers dream come true, or rather the nightmare that awaits us.

The mere existence of 350,000 settlers, the government’s favorite children of Israel, makes a solution increasingly difficult for those who lack the courage to face reality instead of hiding from it.

As time goes by without a political solution, the extremists on all sides thrive.

On the other side, the Right has been invaded by skillful settlers – Liberman and Moshe Feiglin in “Likud-Beytenu,” Naftali Bennett and Ya’acov Katz on the religious Right.

On the Arab side, it is also the people who believe that they have a monopoly on patriotism and nationalism and a direct line to the almighty, who, without political progress, grow more influential – Hezbollah, the Salafis, al-Qaida and Hamas. Their ambition is to turn Arab societies into Islamic republics, à la Iran, and the hatred and struggle against Israel is a perfect vehicle for this. The last thing on their minds is the destiny and well-being of the Palestinians; it is a tool to recruit the young into their fold.

If indeed our leadership continues to ignore the relative moderates, such as Abu Mazen, and to avoid the Palestinian issue, backed by the so-called opposition, we will be left in a binational state, characterized by violent confrontation between the extremist religious on both sides, isolated from the rest of the world.

There is, of course, an alternative – come the end of January there will be someone to work with on peace in the White House, and Israel will have a new government. If this government wants to prevent a danger greater than Iran, it must engage seriously with the Palestinian president.

It must dramatically change orientation to recognize the centrality of resolving the Palestinian conflict to our national security, understanding that with courageous, unpopular decisions – along the lines of the Obama and Clinton visions, on the basis of the 1967 lines, with mutual land swaps including the establishment of three settlement blocks, Jerusalem as a capital of two states, yet a united city, with stringent security measures and no right of return for Palestinian refugees to sovereign Israel – the moderates will be strengthened and the fundamentalists weakened.

This is still achievable and demands that all sides face reality and confront virulent opposition rather than engage in dangerous escapism and extreme nationalism.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords
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