Israeli soldier in West Bank town of Dura 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is hard to imagine less propitious circumstances for renewed negotiations. Egypt and Syria are in flames and violence increasingly threatens Lebanon and Jordan. The Palestinians remain divided between “Hamastan” in Gaza and the feckless Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to renew talks primarily out of fear of US opprobrium, rather than enthusiasm for negotiations. Abbas clearly does not speak for Gaza, and arguably not for the West Bank; Netanyahu risks a rift in the Likud and his coalition.
The sides are far apart. Indeed, the basis for the talks’ resumption was diplomatic ambiguity. The Palestinians rejected Israel’s demand that they recognize it as a Jewish state and for a two states for two peoples solution, agreeing merely to the first half, so the US stated that this is its position; Israel rejected the Palestinian demand that the basis of the talks be the 1967 borders, so the US stated that this is its view; Israel rejected the Palestinian demand that it cease all settlement activity, so the US stated that this is its understanding, at least outside the settlement blocs.
If virtually all observers agree that the prospects are dismal, why bother? Moreover, trying and failing may be worse than not trying at all, for the last thing the sides need is another failed peace process, dashing whatever residual goodwill exists and possibly once again unleashing violence.
History, however, can be unpredictable, even unfathomable. At times, historic turning points come upon us without warning, the crisis becomes so deep that we reach rock bottom and change begins – and a crisis is what both we and the Palestinians face. Indeed, the very future of Zionism and with it of Palestinian statehood are at stake. I care little for Palestinian national aspirations, however, unfortunately our national aspirations are inextricably linked.
Through a blind, ostrich-like disregard for demographic reality, mass settlement throughout the West Bank has created a situation in which Israel’s very future as a Jewish and democratic state is at risk. Indeed, many question whether a two-state solution remains possible. Those who claim to be the vanguard of Zionism risk becoming its hangmen.
There are currently 1.6 million Israeli Palestinians, 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and another 1.7 million in Gaza, a total of approximately six million, versus just under six million Jews, so that already today Jews are a small minority in Eretz Israel. Given comparative birthrates, the Palestinian majority will grow steadily and inexorably.
By withdrawing from Gaza we gained a few decades of demographic time, but this was done over the dire opposition of the same people who continue to oppose compromise in the West Bank today, and a few decades are a blink of an eye in national life.
Some seek succor in fabricated statistics indicating that there are a million fewer Palestinians in the West Bank, but this is illusory. A withdrawal is not a concession to the Palestinians, it is a lifeline to ourselves.
Unfortunately, however, the answers posed by the Left have failed as well. On three occasions the Palestinians turned down dramatic peace proposals: at Camp David in 2000, under Clinton’s even more dramatic ones later that year (97 percent of the West Bank with a 1-2% land swap) and under Olmert’s similarly far-reaching proposals in 2008 (93.5% of the West Bank but with a full 6.5% land swap), in all cases with a division of Jerusalem.
What Abbas rejected in 2008 he is unlikely to accept today and the prospects that Netanyahu would, or could, offer a similarly generous proposal are dubious.
So there is ample reason for pessimism. Ultimately, however, Israel is a vibrant democracy and in the best (i.e. worst) tradition of democracies, will ultimately make the right decisions – if the Palestinians ever allow us to do so – kicking and screaming, not at the last moment, but probably a bit thereafter.
Even Netanyahu appears to have recognized that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing and has recently begun speaking of his determination to avoid a one-state reality. This quiet, but dramatic rhetorical change is reminiscent of the transformation Sharon underwent 10 years ago. A premier can only deny reality for so long.
It is too early to tell whether Netanyahu’s epiphany is real, and he has a history of hinted, but ultimately illusory, changes of mind. Hopefully, he is now prepared for a deal based on a withdrawal from all of the West Bank except the settlement blocs, thereby transferring the onus for the talks’ success to the Palestinians. Their past rejection of even the most dramatic proposals and ongoing refusal to accept the principle of two states for two peoples, has always been, and remains, the primary obstacle to peace.The writer, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.