After years of stalemate and an untenable though relatively peaceful status quo between Israelis and Palestinians, US Secretary of State John Kerry seems to have achieved a well-earned breakthrough.
However, it is only the beginning of a long road that will undoubtedly be fraught with pitfalls, disagreements and obstacles.
One indication that the US is making every effort to achieve results with the planned talks is the report that former US ambassador to the US Martin Indyk would be named the administration’s Mideast envoy.
Indyk’s deep understanding of the region and the issues at stake make him a prime candidate for the job of complementing Kerry’s tireless diplomatic efforts.
But despite the high hopes, it’s only natural, based on past experience, to remain skeptical that the talks will lead somewhere.
While Kerry has brought a fresh approach to the negotiating table, we Israelis have a long and bitter history of dealing with a duplicitous and intransigent Palestinian leadership. Experience has shown that any serious headway in peace talks with a “moderate” Palestinian faction inevitably leads to violent attempts by more extremist Palestinian groups to torpedo a negotiated settlement – often with the tacit approval of the “moderate” leadership.
This was the case in the 1990s after the signing of the Oslo Accords and again after the 2000 Camp David talks when corrupt PLO head Yasser Arafat gave Hamas and Islamic Jihad a green light to launch suicide bombings and terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. At the time Arafat commanded a broad base of support among Palestinians and was a legitimate – albeit corrupt and autocratic – representative of the Palestinian people.
Today the situation is different. Though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has continued Arafat’s autocratic legacy, he lacks status as a leader.
Abbas does not have a mandate from his people: his term in office, which began after he won the 2005 presidential elections, expired in January 2009. The split in Palestinian leadership between the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the PA-controlled West Bank has prevented the holding of elections. Abbas has essentially been a lame-duck president for a full four-year term.
Unsurprisingly, Abbas faces wall-to-wall opposition to the renewal of talks with Israel from nearly every Palestinian political entity, from the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad to more secular movements such as Mustafa Barghouti’s Palestinian National Initiative, the Palestinian People’s (Communist) Party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Even within his own Fatah party, Abbas, 78, has been attacked, particularly by the young guard, for daring to agree to enter negotiations without first securing clear Israeli concessions to Palestinian demands, particularly the recognition of the 1949 Armistice lines and a full cessation of settlement construction as a precondition for resuming the talks.
Abbas is paying the price for failing during the nine years he has served as head of the PLO to prepare his people to make peace with the Jewish state.
Israel’s agreement to release some 350 prisoners – 105 of them long-term inmates arrested for terrorist activity before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 – could help strengthen Abbas’s standing in the eyes of some Palestinians, say pundits.
But this concession, aimed at boosting Abbas “the moderate,” comes at the expense of Israelis who must now see those responsible for the death of their loved ones go free.
Why should Israelis who have already paid the ultimate price be forced to undergo such an indignity? Has Abbas done anything constructive, such as prepare his people for painful concessions necessary to reach an agreement with Israel, to deserve such a gesture? Previous prisoner releases have failed to soften Palestinian stands. Most likely they have achieved the opposite, since Palestinians have learned it is possible to exact concessions from Israel without reciprocating.
Despite the dangers ahead, a comprehensive agreement between the sides is the only way to prevent the creation of a bi-national state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and ensure that Israel remains both Jewish and democratic. It is also the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their national aspirations - one reached through dialogue, mutual concessions and goodwill, and not aggression and threats.
We offer full support to Kerry’s initiative and hope that a just agreement with the Palestinians will result in peace and security for both sides.