Savir's Corner: September’s Spring

Is it possible that Netanyahu doesn't understand that the one thing that will maintain Israel’s Jewish character is a clear Jewish majority in the country?

Binyamin Netanyahu 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned some time ago of a “political tsunami” if Israel does not prevent the unilateral Palestinian UN move with a peace policy initiative. He must have whispered this warning into Binyamin Netanyahu’s left ear.
That ear is deaf; the prime minister only uses his right ear, to heed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin and the settlers.
Otherwise, he would channel sums from the inflated settlement budget to public housing. Like many listening-impaired, he has lost his – our – balance.
We should not view September through binoculars fixed on the hall of the UN General Assembly; but with our bare eyes on the squares of Arab cities. Since January 25 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the Arab world has gone through a dramatic transformation. Not only have two dictators been toppled so far, but from that date onward, no Arab leaders will take any significant decisions without consulting their constituencies, mainly the young; 60 percent of Arabs are under 30.
Given the new Arab reality, the September scenario is foreseeable.
The Palestinian street yearns to see a rapid movement away from occupation and toward statehood.
The Palestinian leadership, alongside the Arab League, will most probably ask for a vote in the General Assembly on an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital. Most of the world will vote “yes,” and only Israel’s few good friends may be convinced to oppose.
These may include the United States, Germany, possibly the United Kingdom and perhaps Romania and Micronesia. As a result, Israel will find itself not only totally isolated in the world, but also being faulted for having isolated our best friend, US President Barack Obama.
September 2011 has a historical precedent, one that should strike us as familiar and of which we should be wary. In 1947, the UN General Assembly decided to partition the land of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
The world voted for partition; we accepted, and the Arabs refused. We gained, they lost – they lost the opportunity to create a Palestinian state, they lost the support of the world, they lost a chance for peace. In September, we are at risk of reversing roles.
The world will vote once more for a two-state solution; the Arabs will accept, and we will refuse – we will lose the world, we will endanger our identity and we will lose what is perhaps the last chance for peace.
But the Palestinian leadership will not gain much when it returns from New York to its constituencies in the squares of Ramallah or Nablus. The General Assembly decision will not have produced a state, frustration will grow on the Palestinian street, and a form of intifada, probably by peaceful means, will threaten to break out.
The Arab world will listen carefully to the young voice of Palestine and aspire to include it as another uprising of “the Arab Spring.”
This will further weaken Israel’s strategic position in the region as a whole and may jeopardize its relations with Egypt and Jordan.
ALL OF this is avoidable, and avoiding it is up to us. All our prime minister needs to do is to say one sentence: “I agree to begin direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, based on US President Barack Obama’s Washington speech.”
All the ingredients of this speech, including the border issue, are acceptable; some are clearly to our advantage. In that case, the international community will ask PA President Mahmoud Abbas to engage in negotiations and give up on unilateralism.
Unfortunately Netanyahu is not following that path and is instead making a futile demand – that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Since when do we need Abbas’s hechsher for Israel’s being Jewish? This is up to us to define. It can only be based on our society, religion, tradition and morality.
Is it possible that Netanyahu does not understand that the one thing that will maintain Israel’s Jewish character is a clear Jewish majority in the country? One that can come about only with the creation of a Palestinian neighbor state, living side-by-side with us in peace and security? The alternative is a binational state, in which we lose identity and forgo democracy.
Netanyahu behaves like a serial alibist; he seems to be constantly looking for the best possible excuses to avoid serious negotiations and hard decisions. Yet it is not too late. It is our responsibility now to make peace not just with Abbas, but with the Palestinian people.
This will happen if our government, and not just Arab governments, looks after the interests of Israel’s young generation, which is striving for a peaceful life. If Netanyahu and the government embrace this course, which I still hope they will, then the September tsunami could yet become the September Spring.
The writer is the president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.