The recent New York Times editorial on the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace-talks (“Time to move on in the Mideast”) misses the point. While the American commitment to advancing peace isn’t doubted, and though there may still be some half-hearted meetings, it was clear from the outset that the latest chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian peace saga might end in failure – and that was even before the recent agreement between Palestinian Authority President Abbas’s Fatah movement and the terrorist Hamas in Gaza, which reportedly took also US Secretary of State John Kerry by surprise.
Unlike what the editorial said and the widespread assumption, especially in the US and Europe, that the principles of the “Clinton Parameters” of 2000 and the Bush proposals of 2004 were the consensual templates for a final peace deal, in fact most of those principles were not accepted by one of the sides – or both. A recently divulged Palestinian policy paper makes it clear that the supposedly agreed formula for the large settlement blocs to become part of the State of Israel in exchange for land swaps is rejected by them out of hand – while another document dated April 2, 2014, proves beyond a doubt that the Palestinian leadership never abandoned its original intention to join 15 international conventions and treaties, in contravention of the terms agreed upon with the US and Israel. In other words, Abbas’s decision to take this step had nothing to do with the prisoner release or with the Israeli plan to build additional housing units in Jerusalem.
As Secretary Kerry has said, it is indeed time for a “reality check,” and this would show that many of his presuppositions were mistaken – and that ignoring or trying to vault over them with the help of some kind of diplomatic pogostick won’t help.
For over 100 years, and certainly since the 1947 UN Resolution on creating Jewish and Arab states in Palestine – various Palestinian leaders have refused to accept the Jewish people’s intrinsic claim to even part of the land. Israel may be an unpalatable reality to them – but is not necessarily seen as a legitimate, permanent fixture. Though pretending to support the “two-state solution,” they are loath to link this with an acknowledgment of Israel as the Jewish nation-state, i.e., the Jewish people’s right to a national state.
Israel, on the other hand, is prepared to recognize a future Palestinian nation-state, in spite of the factually somewhat contrived Palestinian claim to nationhood.
While the two-state formula is certainly not risk-free for Israel – in fact it may actually heighten the likelihood of future wars – and though many in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and indeed in his own party, oppose it on ideological grounds, a large majority of Israelis prefer it to the “one-state solution” which would jeopardize the country’s Jewish character and very raison d’être.
In order to justify their position, the Palestinians have brought up the red herring that a Jewish nation-state would discriminate against its Arab minority, ignoring the fact that most countries today are nation-states, many of which with sizable ethnic or religious minorities which – except in Arab and Muslim countries – enjoy full civil rights as would (and does) the non-Jewish minority in Israel.
Netanyahu is determined to give peace a chance, and like prime minister Ehud Barak before him, he wants to achieve a final “end of conflict” resolution knowing full well that this would be predicated on difficult, often painful, Israeli concessions – not least giving up major parts of the land to a Palestinian state. The Palestinians, as the record shows, had no intention then and have no intention now of responding with parallel compromises and concessions on any of the “core” issues of the conflict – Jerusalem, refugees, security (the Jordan Valley) and, as mentioned above, Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish nation-state. Progress at the Clinton sponsored Camp-David talks in 2000 was aborted by Yasser Arafat’s pre-planned second intifada, and the current talks were undermined by Abbas’s UN gambit. The strategy is the same, only the tactics differ.
US diplomats never fail to stress their evenhandedness – and rightly so – but in the light of recent events, this raises certain questions. Though it was clear, especially to the American officials involved in the talks, that the Palestinians were wholly to blame for the crisis – some of Secretary Kerry’s statements seemed to imply that Israel was mainly to fault (a statement which the State Department spokesperson later tried to mitigate by saying that “both sides were culpable”). But the damage was done and was bound to breed extremism – on both sides. For the Palestinian nay-sayers it was a godsend – proving to them that whatever they do or fail to do, the American go-between will close at least one eye – while for the Israeli extreme Right which anyway opposes any accommodation of Palestinian demands, it justified its stance against making concessions.
But even more centrist Israelis cannot but look askance at a situation in which every conciliatory step by Israel is met by a further hardening of Palestinian positions and by raising additional conditions – with official America seemingly looking away.
Even more fundamentally misjudged, however, may be the Obama administration’s “all or nothing” approach and its totally irrelevant time-tables. Among other things, this has ignored the lessons of yesteryear, namely that previous peace initiatives had been successful because, unlike the Palestinians, the leading players wanted them to be so.
That was why Menachem Begin’s foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, went to Morocco to meet Egyptian vice-president Tuhami, that was why Egyptian president Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, and that’s why the Jordanian delegation to the Madrid Talks expressly stated that its purpose was to conclude a peace agreement with Israel. All these agreements were attained without an active American role in the initial stages – though they would not have reached a conclusion without the active and fruitful participation of US intermediaries in the ensuing stages: that of President Jimmy Carter at the 1978 Camp David negotiations and of secretary of state James Baker with his senior negotiator Dennis Ross and his team before and after the Madrid Conference. This is not the way the present US administration has gone about it, instead trying to get something off the ground which is still weighed down by immovable ballasts.
No, the US should not give up and “move on,” certainly not in the way that the Times editorial connotes – but it should reexamine some of its underlying assumptions and possible solutions. Moshe Dayan pointed out 36 years ago that there was no way to arrive at an official, inclusive peace document that both Israel and the Palestinians would agree too. The fact that this unfortunately hasn’t changed should not rule out partial or intermediary de facto or even de jure agreements, actively supported and sustained by the US, on a great number of practical issues.
This could, at least partly, unblock the present “closed-door” situation and hopefully lead to more formal peace in the future.
The author was twice Israel’s ambassador to the US, and he has been involved in many of the peace endeavors over the years.