Zalman Shoval: Why Mr. Kerry is wrong

One cannot entirely rule out that at the end of the nine months allocated for the present talks, what might emerge will after all be some formula of de facto peaceful co-existence.

Kerry thumbs up (photo credit: Reuters)
Kerry thumbs up
(photo credit: Reuters)
US Secretary of State John Kerry is wrong on two counts. First, when he echoed Palestinian threats of violence unless Israel bent to Palestinian demands (an American friend explained to me that this had been an inadvertent off-the-cuff remark), and second, because his words on Israel’s Channel 2 and Palestinian TV seemed to indicate he is unaware of many of the cogent aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry extensively dwelt on the matter of “settlements,” which he deems “illegitimate,” but it is not realistic or logical to expect Israel not to go on building in areas, including Jerusalem, which by most accounts and under any eventual arrangement will remain part of the State of Israel. The Palestinian leadership, of course, will feel encouraged to continue using this issue as a red herring to torpedo the talks.
Kerry made a major and praiseworthy effort in getting the two sides back to the table – and according to conventional wisdom, probably shared by him, there supposedly already is agreement on all the main ingredients of a potential peace deal, along the Clinton parameters or something similar, and “all that is needed is the courage to implement them.”
However, contrary to this view, nothing is actually agreed with regard to the so-called “core issues” – borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem – or Israel’s legitimacy as the state of the Jewish people. The only item on which there is a measure of agreement in principle is eventual separation between the two sides, though the Palestinians are adamantly insisting that the future border should adhere strictly to the 1949 armistice line ─ and US statements supporting this stance only reinforce their reluctance to compromise.
There is the supposedly magic wand of land swaps, but not only is there no agreement on the very principle, let alone the details of swaps, the idea also goes counter to United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which envisaged Israeli withdrawals from areas it occupied as a result of the aggression against it in 1967 – only in the context of secure borders, which the former armistice line obviously is not.
From Israel’s point of view, the security aspect is an imperative in determining the future border – but the Palestinian and apparently also the American concept of security differs in more than one respect from that held by Israel.
In the unsettled situation of the broader Middle East, security on a geopolitical scale means a great deal more than policing the areas under Palestinian control. There are also other aspects; not only the demographic changes recognized by the US, but for Jews, also the question of giving up land which historically and morally is part of the Land of Israel.
Zionism and Israel have been willing to give up parts of the land for pragmatic reasons, peace being the first among them – but not putting in question the justice and legitimacy of the Jewish people’s claim to its historic homeland.
Language, especially diplomatic language, is pliable and adaptable to different, often conflicting, purposes.
So we have, for example, both Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli extreme Right venting their opposition to partial or provisional agreements – but while the Palestinians want to avoid compromise, even if temporary, on any of the pertinent issues – the Israeli extreme Right, because it opposes the very idea of Palestinian statehood as a matter of faith – holds the status quo to be the best option at this time.
Also the majority of Israelis remember Sharon’s misbegotten disengagement from Gaza – and its consequences.
In other words, while Abbas fears interim agreements will delay, or perhaps entirely eliminate Palestinian statehood, opponents of the twostate solution in Israel fear the opposite, i.e. that once there is agreement on any formula for Palestinian statehood – the process will be irreversible.
Similarly, on the Israeli side, there is the controversy about the onestate solution – as opposed to the two-state concept. Both extremes, Left and Right, support the former – albeit for contradictory reasons: the first because they oppose the Zionist ideal altogether, the second because they oppose in principle giving up any part of the country – while many Palestinians, including not a few in Abbas’s own camp, support one-statism because they believe that it would spell the end of a Jewish Israel.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has more than once stated that Israel doesn’t want to rule over another people and that he is prepared to make difficult decisions in order to achieve an “end of conflict” resolution – but as things look, and this should be clear to our American friends, the prospects for this are almost non-existent – especially if one thinks in terms of nineor six-month time spans.
THE BASIC Palestinian strategy of steering clear of meaningful negotiations in which both sides, not just Israel, would have to make concessions, has not changed for decades.
This was their response to the 1978 autonomy framework – and just as Yasser Arafat, correctly expecting the unofficial contacts which later led to the Oslo agreement to bring him greater benefits, instructed the Palestinian delegation to the official post-Madrid talks to tread water, today’s Palestinian leadership aims the present talks to fail in order to get matters back to the UN and other international bodies – or even to unleash another wave of violence.
Contrary to rumors in Israel, Kerry has stated the US is not planning to present a peace plan of its own, adding that the US cannot force an agreement on the two sides – as indeed it can’t.
One also often hears the line that “no one can want peace more than the parties themselves” – which, unfortunately underscores the reality that the Palestinians do not want peace – except on their ultimative terms.
There are some predictions that the US might soon submit bridging proposals, but though one can bridge a river, one can’t bridge an ocean.
No US or other proposals, even made with the best intentions, will be acceptable to either side if they ignore the respective basic positions.
This does not preclude some compromise – but not on the larger issues.
What Israel’s most prescient statesman, Moshe Dayan, said 35 years ago still holds true, viz. that no final document that will satisfy the Palestinians can be acceptable to Israel – and vice versa.
Thus, a final “end-of-conflict” agreement is not to be expected any time soon, but on the other hand, to declare total failure would not be advantageous either – including to America which, as Aaron Miller put it, “by pressing the Israelis and the Palestinians back towards the table, has assumed responsibility for producing an agreement.”
Hence, in spite of the declared opposition of all the three parties – Israel, the Palestinians and the US – to partial, interim or provisional agreements, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that at the end of the nine months allocated by the US for the present talks, what might emerge will after all be some formula of de facto peaceful co-existence, comprising economic steps like those already initiated by the US and Israel, additional mutual security arrangements, expanded Palestinian self-government, perhaps even a slight expansion of Area A into Area C – with the US declaring that progress has been made, creating a basis for talks on permanent status in the future.
The author is a former Ambassador to the US.