Mort Zuckerman: U.S. Role in Israeli-Palestinian Talks Is a Problem

Having Americans in the direct negotiations is a serious problem in procedure.

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It's good that Netanyahu maintained his focus and calm in the face of the two most recent terrorist attacks, one in which four Israelis, including a pregnant woman, were murdered, followed by a shooting the next day. Note that Netanyahu did not say that yet another terrorist attack would cause Israel to withdraw from the talks—quite different from the way Abbas threatened to withdraw if one house was built in any settlement. The Palestinian leader has uncertain backing, whereas Netanyahu's political position as a member of the rational, conservative wing of the country enables him to withstand internal pressures. But it was necessary that Netanyahu emphasize: "This peace must be a true peace. It will not just be a piece of paper." Israelis cannot vacate territory and see it emerge as another base for terrorism.

There are several reasonable demands that should be made to the Palestinians. One is to declare in the language of their own people that both sides have genuine claims to this land, that both sides have the right to live in peace, and that a viable compromise is possible. The Israelis understand that Palestinian discourse in Arabic is much more hostile than the English-speaking world understands. It portrays Israel as an illegitimate invader that must be destroyed. If the Palestinians were to publicly begin the process of reversing the relentless delegitimization of Israel and the daily incitement to hatred and violence through mosque and media, they would prepare their people for compromise and persuade Israelis of the viability of negotiations. A true double-header. It did not help that while Palestinian Authority President Abbas was meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, a Palestinian Authority minister visited the families of suicide bombers.

Nor will the newly smooth supportive talk from the Obama administration suffice, given the widespread belief within Israel that the administration lacks a basic commitment to Israel, or even a sympathy for it, contrary to every U.S. administration going back to Harry Truman. This is important because U.S. support made it feasible in the past for the Israelis to propose territorial concessions in the belief that Washington would protect their back. This confidence remains to be rebuilt, for the Israelis cannot easily forget the public positions taken by the United States on various subjects, especially Jerusalem; they have enhanced and hardened the expectations of the Palestinians, who felt they could not be less pro-Palestinian than the White House. What is more, the Israeli public is concerned that even if President Obama's rhetoric has now changed, the improvement in the U.S.-Israeli relationship could be rendered meaningless if Obama gets angry again.

Israel's difficult history from previous negotiations has to be remembered. For years after the Oslo Accords, the Israelis had to endure a campaign of indiscriminate murder by hundreds of Palestinian suicide bombers who crossed over from the West Bank, killing hundreds of Israelis. Ditto Hamas and its bombing of Israel with thousands of rockets and mortars after Israel withdrew from Gaza. European monitors at the Rafah crossing had fled as soon as fighting between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah heated up. Abbas, too, would do well not to forget how Hamas savaged Fatah members.

The Israelis cannot risk Hamas somehow or another taking over the West Bank and creating yet another base for terrorism. Today Israeli counterterrorism forces can reach every place in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria in the Bible), capture prohibited weapons, or intercept innumerable suicide bombers. If the West Bank were allowed to become a failed Palestinian state, its location, eight to 12 miles from the Mediterranean, means that any kind of rocket and mortar assault could seriously threaten the viability of Israel's interior. The ridge line on the West Bank overlooks so much of the heartland of Israel that even a Palestinian teenager with the most simple weaponry, such as a portable Kassam rocket, could hit Israel's main airport and major cities. Any Americans who do not understand why Israel must have a fully demilitarized Palestinian state and a method to verify it do not understand how close everything is in the Middle East. Israelis know their defense cannot be entrusted to any other force. As the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once said of international forces in the Middle East: They are like an umbrella, except they always close when it rains.