Pardon our skepticism, but we’ve been down this road before. It leads nowhere, and it is dangerous. Think about it. If we can barely pass important legislation in the United States because of entrenched differences of political opinion within our Congress, how in the world do we expect a real peace to emerge from this latest round of American-sponsored Middle East peace talks, given the entrenched differences that exist within the Palestinian body politic, not to mention the political fault lines within Israel itself.
Sadly, Yasser Arafat was probably correct when he told President Clinton in 2000 that if he agreed to the proposed Camp David peace proposals (that essentially gave the Palestinians practically everything for which they were asking) he would return to his own funeral. So what has changed since then that would allow any Palestinian leader to think he would fare better than Arafat? Actually, very little has changed except that the rejectionists on both sides are more strident than ever.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has considerably more room politically to maneuver (he would survive a walkout by his far-right coalition partners), but he has scant reason to make serious concessions in the current unstable environment other than to placate the Obama Administration. We do not wish to minimize his need to placate Washington. Israel faces an extremely serious threat from Iran, growing instability throughout the Middle East, and an alarming rise in hostility and tension in each neighboring country. Israel’s position is far more precarious than many people seem to recognize, notwithstanding its military superiority.
While President Obama was unequivocal in his assurance to the Israelis (and its neighbors) that America has Israel’s back, Israel cannot afford to turn a cold shoulder to Secretary of State Kerry’s currently convened peace talks. And therein lies the danger. Only Israel will be asked to make serious concessions or good-will gestures, such as releasing prisoners who have murdered Israelis and many Palestinians who have cooperated with Israelis. More concessions will be demanded, each of which (as in the past) will be pocketed by the Palestinians, with no commensurate consideration of Israel’s needs. And when the talks reach an impasse (as we believe is a certainty), the recriminations will, more than likely, be directed at Israel, This, in turn, could slowly erode American support for its mid-east ally. While the far right in Israel probably cannot topple the Netanyahu government, it can create considerable unrest in Israel and on the West Bank.
The idea that the chaotic and violent so-called Arab Spring has, somehow, changed the strategic calculus thereby providing some golden opportunity to achieve peace in the Middle East is chimerical to say the least. While political Teutonic plates are moving throughout the Middle East and changes of historical proportions are underway, secularists and Islamists are jockeying for primacy. They agree on very little except for their shared antipathy toward Israel. Strong resentment, often hatred, toward Israel is, it seems, the only current common denominator in all of the chaos.
While most of the international media attention has been focused on the violence in Egypt and Syria, Lebanon remains a powder keg and there has been substantial recent unrest in Jordan (Israel’s “quiet” neighbor). Were the monarchy to fall, it would almost certainly be replaced with a Palestinian dominated government. The Palestinians do, after all, represent about two thirds of Jordan’s population. While we don’t know with any degree of certainty what position, relative to Israel, such a government would take, it would wind up with a well-organized and modern military. Suffice to say, Jordan has become a wild card in the growing Middle East imbroglio. We recognize that violent, religious zealotry is not unique to one side in this smoldering caldron. This virus of ethnic hatred, unfortunately, finds a home on both sides of the River Jordan.
Israel is in a position to make peace with its neighbors and survive the political consequences of an irate far right. This does not seem possible on the other side. There is, however, an easy way to find out. Let both sides state, at the outset, the following:
1. “We agree that the purpose of the negotiations is to bring the long-standing dispute to a permanent end with no further demands to be made by either side against the other”.
2.“We mutually recognize the status of statehood for both parties to the negotiations; a Jewish state for Israel, and an Arab Palestinian state for the Palestinians” (Israel’s demand that its status as a Jewish State be recognized is really a counter-balance to the Palestinian demand that all Palestinians who once lived in what is now Israel and/or their descendents have the right of return to Israel which would, of course, destroy Israel as the Jewish state created by the United Nations in the first place).
3.“We agree that both sides will commit to living in peace with the other.”
4.“We (both sides) agree to establish normal diplomatic relations with the other.
Keep in mind; all we are suggesting is that both sides agree that the four principles outlined above are merely the agreed-upon publically stated objectives of the negotiations. But that won’t happen.
Just a week ago Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (or State, if one prefers the United Nations General Assembly’s determination) declared while in Egypt, “In a final solution (how’s that for an immensely poor choice of words), we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Our point is not to nitpick Abbas’s choice of words or give excessive weight to their meaning. Abbas was simply playing to the Arab street. While, in recent years, Abbas has been viewed as a moderate, his wording is indicative of the prevailing sentiment, which he cannot ignore, nor can any other Palestinian representative in the current political climate.
Another terribly frustrating reality is that while the Israeli side can speak with the authority of an elected government, the Palestinian side cannot. Hamas, which has vowed never to negotiate with the Israelis or to ever recognize Israel’s right to exist, and, in fact, which is committed by its Charter to Israel’s destruction, represents (in a manner of speaking) about 40% of the Palestinian population. So what are the odds of a negotiation succeeding or, more germane, how binding would any agreement that is reached really be.
While Netanyahu can speak for his government, Abbas really can’t. He has only partially recognized authority on the West Bank, given the divisions within Fatah, and virtually none in Gaza where Hamas rules. So you have a government (Israel) negotiating with a Palestinian entity that, despite one’s most optimistic aspirations for the talks, really constitutes but a faction within a highly amorphous body politic.
It seems that Secretary Kerry, in muscling both sides into negotiations, proceeded as though Hamas doesn’t exist and, therefore, represents no one. But they do exist, and there is a limit to the latitude Abbas has to negotiate while this irritable 800-pound gorilla (Hamas) is standing in the room second-guessing him.
The irony is that Israel really does need a settlement of the conflict. The current situation simply cannot continue indefinitely. Israel is a remarkably modern, democratic, energetic, prosperous and innovative nation, and living next to a population that is perpetually restive, frustrated and hostile to its very existence is untenable. The Palestinians have no less of a need for an end to the conflict. The problem really is that the two sides do not share a common timetable for resolution, or a common vision of an acceptable peace.