Rattling the Cage: The Palestinians aren't suckers, either

Why should Abbas want to negotiate a new deal when he's being told it won't be anywhere near as fair as the one he turned down last year?

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
Look at that Mahmoud Abbas - another Palestinian who never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here Binyamin Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution, he's offering to negotiate peace without preconditions, and all Abbas can say is nyet. He's waiting for Barack Obama to do all the work for him, to force concessions out of Israel while he sits there fanning himself. This is no partner for peace. This is no "moderate." So goes the Israeli consensus on the leader of the Palestinian Authority. I agree with one part - that he's missing an opportunity. But I think the one he's missing is the opportunity to call Bibi's bluff. If I were Abbas, I would take Netanyahu up on his offer for peace talks without preconditions. I would negotiate from a simple, reasonable principle: equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis. Fair is fair. And remember, folks - no preconditions. Netanyahu's stance, as laid out in his Bar-Ilan University speech and elsewhere, is that he could accept a future Palestinian state under certain conditions. But where would that state be? Where would its borders lie? The prime minister isn't saying; he'd leave that to negotiations. At any rate, though, Netanyahu's vision of Palestine would not include any part of Jerusalem; all of the city, on both sides of the Green Line, would remain under Israeli sovereignty. Neither would Palestine include any land on the Israeli side of the West Bank security barrier. Nor, obviously, any land in "Israel proper." All that territory, according not only to Netanyahu but to the national consensus, is Israel's by right. As for the rest - the land in the interior of the West Bank - that's what we're going to talk about. Somewhere in there could be Palestine. That land is what we Israelis call "disputed territory." Fair enough. Now it's Abbas's turn, and if I were him, I would say to Netanyahu: I could, under certain conditions, accept a future State of Israel alongside Palestine. I'm not saying where Israel's borders will be; that's what we're here to talk about. At any rate, though, Israel will not extend to any part of the West Bank - all that land is Palestine's by right. The same goes for Jerusalem - all of it, the Jewish and Arab sectors, will be united under Palestinian sovereignty (and, by the way, be called "al-Kuds"). We also have the right to a territorial belt on your side of the Green Line - one equal in area to the West Bank land you sliced off for yourself with the security fence. But somewhere beyond Palestine, somewhere between Metulla and Eilat, could be a place for Israel. In these peace talks without preconditions, I consider that stretch of land to be "disputed territory." NOW IF Abbas actually made such a counteroffer to Netanyahu in negotiations, all of Israel, beginning with the prime minister, would be baffled. That's much, much more than anything Abbas demanded in his talks with the Olmert government, or anything Yasser Arafat demanded at Camp David or Taba. Yet this imaginary, absurd Palestinian position I've described is the mirror image of the deal Netanyahu is offering Abbas. The problem is that Netanyahu's offer, while absurd, isn't imaginary. Our prime minister has actually taken Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy back to the 1990s - before the Annapolis talks, before Taba, before Camp David. In the past nine years, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came very close to an agreement on dividing the land. By the time talks broke off at the end of last year because of Operation Cast Lead, Ehud Olmert had offered Abbas the rough equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank. Abbas's main objection had been the location of the land swaps - and, of course, Olmert's abject lack of support from his government or public for the deal. So now Netanyahu comes and says he doesn't want to be bound by what his predecessors offered at Annapolis, Taba, Camp David or anywhere else - he wants to start fresh. No preconditions. And what's his offer to Abbas? Who knows? Maybe 60%, maybe 40%, maybe more, maybe less. Whatever it might be, the Palestinians should know that these past nine years they've spent negotiating with Israel have been a waste of time. Whatever progress they thought they'd made, whatever gaps they thought they'd narrowed - poof! It's all gone. We're starting from zero. NOW NETANYAHU is well within his rights to take this stance. He's not breaking any promises Israel made to anybody. The road map, for instance, says the two sides will discuss Jerusalem? Fine, we'll discuss Jerusalem, here's what we have to say: "It's all ours. Period." Isn't this a nice discussion? What's more, Netanyahu has the backing of the government, the Knesset and probably a majority of the public. He can honestly say that as prime minister of Israel, he's doing the right thing. He just can't expect Abbas, as president of the Palestinian Authority, to cooperate. Nobody else can, either. Why should he want to negotiate a new deal when he's being told it won't be anywhere near as fair as the one he turned down last year, or even the one his predecessor turned down nine years ago? Yes, Palestinian leaders are an obstinate breed. While I don't blame Abbas or Arafat for rejecting Israel's offers - we're pretty exacting when it comes to land disputes, too - I blame them for refusing ever to acknowledge publicly that Israel was sincerely trying to reach an agreement. Such an acknowledgment could have improved the climate for peacemaking tremendously. However, while Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, has been obstinate, he has never done what Netanyahu is doing now - wiped the slate clean and presented a new offer that marks a wholesale retreat from what his side was offering before. No statesman would go back into negotiations from a position many, many squares back from where he'd stood when they left off. The sad thing is that Netanyahu and most Israelis think we're being reasonable and Abbas is being radical, or rejectionist, or maximalist or something. I wish Abbas would take my advice and negotiate with us in kind, treating Israel as "disputed territory" just as Netanyahu treats the West Bank. It might be a learning experience for us. It might teach us a little humility, show us that we're not the only people who can claim rights to land around here. It's not going to happen, of course. We are at a stalemate in the peace process. I just hope that in trying to break this stalemate, the Obama administration doesn't flinch from the truth that today, the main obstacle to peace is not in Ramallah, it's in Jerusalem.