Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations General Assembly last week with the same message: I want peace, I am ready to make peace and the only thing preventing peace is the other guy’s intransigence.
Neither was very convincing.
Prime Minister Netanyahu declared, “I am prepared to immediately, immediately, resume direct peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority without any preconditions whatsoever.... I remain committed to a vision of two states for two peoples.”
He has a credibility problem. In his election campaign seven months ago he told supporters there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. He later tried to walk that back but not everyone was buying. Especially President Barack Obama, who said he would “reevaluate” the relationship in light of those remarks. He has yet to reveal the results of that process, and it is certain to come up when Netanyahu meets with him at the White House November 9.
While Netanyahu was expressing his questionable support for two states last week in New York, his top diplomat, deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, was in the same building saying just the opposite.
Not only is she an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood but she wants to annex the rest of the West Bank. Transfer of any additional territory is not “even on the list of options we’re offering the Palestinians,” she said. Which raises the question: as the nation’s senior diplomat, whom does she speak for? Also in the building that day was Netanyahu’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, another Likudnik and outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood who also wants to annex the West Bank. Back home, Netanyahu’s top negotiator with the Palestinians, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon feel much the same.
Netanyahu has never asked his own Likud Party or any coalition he headed to endorse the two-state approach.
As for no preconditions – not quite. In the same sentence that he mentioned his commitment to two states he said the Palestinian entity must be “demilitarized” and “recognize the Jewish state.”
Netanyahu has other issues he has taken off the table in advance, including no compromise on Jerusalem, which he insists must remain Israel’s undivided capital.
That could be a deal breaker right away since Palestinians insist on making the capital of their state in east Jerusalem. Then there’s Netanyahu’s opposition to any Palestinian right of return for refugees and refusal to evacuate of any settlements. He has accelerated construction of housing and infrastructure on the West Bank that is absorbing land on which the Palestinians expect to build their state, a deliberate provocation clearly intended to make creation of a viable Palestinian state much more difficult.
His governing coalition is arguably the most far right in Israel’s history, with two-thirds of the seats held by opponents of Palestinian statehood. If Netanyahu were honest about wanting peace, he could have put together a centrist coalition.
There was nothing in his UN speech offering his vision for peace, no hint of a timetable, no mention of the shape of the two states.
“If Netanyahu is serious about movement with the Palestinians he has to change the government and bring in those who want to make peace, and he has to make sure his own party will support the two-state solution based on a settlement freeze and the 1967 borders,” said former deputy defense minister Ephriam Sneh.
Speaking on a conference call organized by Israel Policy Forum last week, Sneh said Netanyahu’s interest in forming a regional strategic alliance with the Arab states against Iran and Islamic State is out of the question “as long as we occupy the West Bank.” There is “no alternative to the two-state solution.”
He believes there are enough votes in the Knesset to form a pro-peace government, if Netanyahu is sincere about cutting a deal with the Palestinians.
If Netanyahu is bluffing about wanting peace, so is Abbas.
Sneh praised the Palestinian president’s commitment to working with Israel against violence. “You can’t find another Palestinian leader who is more pro-peace and anti-terrorism,” he said. Netanyahu has “humiliated” him and the prime minister’s attitude and policies, particularly settlement expansion, have made the Palestinian leader weaker in relation to Hamas, which derides Abbas as Israel’s policeman because of the effective job his forces are doing in security cooperation.
Abbas’ UN speech was anything but conciliatory, however.
It was inflammatory and filled with venom and lies.
His failure to condemn last week’s murder of a mother and father in front of four of their children and to rebuke some senior figures in his Fatah faction who have praised recent attacks on unarmed civilians as heroic acts, was unconscionable to Israelis.
At the UN podium he used words like “colonial military occupation,” “brutality of aggression and racial discrimination,” “breach of international humanitarian law,” “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” “racist annexation,” “the most ferocious enemy of peace” to describe Israel.
Those words of hate – echoing the rhetoric coming from much of Netanyahu’s own Likud base – overshadowed his call to “build bridges of dialogue instead of checkpoints and walls of separation.”
He rejected Netanyahu’s call for unconditional talks instead of challenging its credibility. “It is futile to go into negotiations without clear parameters and in the absence of credibility and a specific timetable.”
Abbas, 80, in the 11th year of his four-year term and loath to calling new elections or sharing power, spoke of Jerusalem as the birthplace of Jesus (actually Bethlehem) and the ascension of Muhammad, but he didn’t mention any Jewish ties to the city founded by King David more than 3,000 years ago. Arafat claimed there never was a Jewish Temple on the Mount and Abbas has done nothing to contradict that.
Abbas and Netanyahu each have given the other good reason to doubt his intentions. With Abbas’ incendiary language and Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement construction both have shown themselves to be long on rhetoric, short on vision.
Each complains he has no partner for peace, and seems intent on proving that.
“We are very close to another intifada,” said Sneh, a retired general who was the IDF West Bank administrator in the 1980s. “The Palestinians are frustrated, Abbas’ negotiations don’t bear any fruit and the teens of today don’t remember the huge price the Palestinian community paid for the second intifada” that led to the deaths of more than 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis between 2000 and 2005.
Both seem oblivious to the impending tragedy their intransigence ensures.