An Israeli-Palestinian meeting of minds

Are Netanyahu and Abbas both benefiting from not going to the negotiating table?

Palestinians hold a flag in the West Bank 370 (photo credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)
Palestinians hold a flag in the West Bank 370
(photo credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)
The issues that separate Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) is always fodder for news, but the question that is less often asked is how much overlap is between them?
If the vast range of opinion within the Israeli body politic were to be taken into account, the question would become meaningless.  Within Israel, strands of political opinion are so vast they can be compared to being well to the right of Ghengis Khan and well to the left of anything Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has yet articulated. Therefore, the only practical approach is to assume that Israel’s position is that of its current democratically elected government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If opinion polls have any validity, this seems likely to remain the situation after the forthcoming general election.
The position of the PA must be taken as that publicly stated by Abbas to the non-Arab audiences. There is no denying that like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, he has made directly contradictory statements for domestic consumption, and the gap between his two positions is wide indeed − so wide that  he would face a problem in carrying Palestinian public opinion with him in any substantive peace negotiations.  Nor is there much point in referring back to the founding charter of Fatah, Abbas’s party, where the ultimate objective is clearly the elimination of Israel.  History has its place in the overall scheme of things, but politics is a game for the here and now.
A curious factor binding the PA and Israel together is the apparent irreconcilable split between Fatah and Hamas, the extreme Islamist de facto government of the Gaza strip. It is of little value to place too much emphasis on the total rejection of Israel by Hamas because both Israel and the PA would like nothing better than to see the PA re-establish its authority in Gaza. But neither seems prepared to do very much about it. Cooperation has so far been confined to countering attempts by Hamas to gain a foothold in the West Bank. To go any farther would involve Abbas in a damaging loss of credibility with the ordinary Palestinian. Indeed, he pays lip service to the concept of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but the two are chalk and cheese as regards to an acceptable strategy towards Israel. Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Abbas has taken to asserting it.
Both Israel and the PA have publicly committed to the two-state solution. Netanyahu declared his support for the concept in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, as well as when he addressed the US Congress in May 2011. He reiterated his position in a letter he sent to Abbas a year later, following the establishment of his national unity government.
Speaking to the joint meeting of the US Congress, Netanyahu said:
Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples − a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. This is not easy for me. I recognize that we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland in Judea and Samaria.  The Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.  But there is another truth: The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state.
For his part, Abbas was widely quoted following his interview on Israeli TV in November 2012:  “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital…the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.”
By the end of November he addressed the UN General Assembly, asking for Palestine to be recognized as a non-member observer state. “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel," Abbas said. "Rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence and that is Palestine. We will accept no less than the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative.”
Thus, the difference between the stated positions of Israel and the PA appear paper thin. But the peace process has been, and remains, in the deep-freeze. Both leaders are well aware that peace is a dangerous game and that there are lunatic extremists in both camps.  Each has a chilling reminder of predecessors who moved too far or too fast. It would require exceptional courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late Egyptian president Anwar Saddat did – to say "It’s over, enough with the bloodshed."  And the memory of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin is no doubt not far from Netanyahu's mind. A reminder that terrorism can also be a threat from the same side. So, yes, caution is to be commended, but caution to the point of immobility has brought us to the present impasse.
Paralysis of the peace process may suit the leadership of both parties, but opinion polls reveal that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor an end to the conflict and the chance to live in peace, side by side.  There is the true meeting of minds.The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (