The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. They are tired of the restrictions of occupation, and tired of being ruled by leaders who have diverted energy and goodwill in ceaseless invective rather than constructive diplomacy. A clear majority of Israelis, too, support the creation of a Palestinian state—that is, one dedicated to the well-being of its citizens and not to the extermination of its neighbor, whose enterprise and stability are so essential for the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has committed himself. Israel needs a Palestinian state to come into existence just as much as the Palestinians do.
So with President Obama gears on his first visit to Israel as president, the question he might ask of all he meets is why has it proved so difficult to achieve what the ordinary people of both sides want? So many attempts, so many dashed hopes, so many compromises, so much water on the desert. All of the efforts that seemed to put progress within reach, from the Oslo process and talks between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David to Ehud Olmert's offer to Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 to withdraw from most of the West Bank, have only resulted in intifada and terror, all on the grounds that Israel has been intransigent.
It was "intransigent" Israel that pulled out of Gaza, dismantled every settlement there, withdrew every soldier, gave the land to the Gazans—and got no peace. It was "intransigent" Israel that pulled out of Lebanon, only to see Hezbollah, a puppet of Iran, gain power with the help of the murderous Syrian occupiers. Hezbollah is still recognized by the European Union, though identified as a terrorist organization in whole or part by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Bahrain and Canada. That's a fair categorization, considering that it is officially committed to destroying Israel and organizes the murder of Israelis traveling abroad whenever it can, and that four of its fighters await trial in the 2005 bomb blast that killed Lebanon's constructive prime minister.
But aren't Israel's settlements on the West Bank the real obstacle to a two-state resolution of the conflict? Much has been made of them, not least by Obama himself in his first naive ventures into the Middle East bear pit. But the presence of several hundreds of thousands of Israelis amid a Palestinian population of 2.5 million doesn't prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Even the Palestinians acknowledge that the settlements take up just 2 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory. And the Israelis are living within the understanding they had with the Clinton administration, limiting new construction under the Clinton parameters almost exclusively to old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and to certain settlement blocks that were eventually to end up as a part of Israel in any agreement. The Israelis have been operating within a renewed understanding that the Sharon government reached with the Bush administration to restrict the growth of existing settlements but not the right to add capacity inside the settlement limits.
That is what has defined virtually all of the construction that the Netanyahu administration has allowed. It is notable that Israel's soldiers' clashes on the West Bank are not necessarily with Palestinian objectors, but sometimes with Jewish settlers who attempt to build beyond the agreed parameters. Recently, there were reports that some Israeli soldiers were on the verge of mutiny when ordered to pull down illegal houses to the fury of the settler movement.
The key international power, of course, remains the United States. It has just released $190 million in aid to Egypt, and Obama has affirmed Israel's right to defend itself. Israel's relationship with America is its greatest security barrier.
But the two countries need to come to an agreement that Israel won't take unilateral military action until diplomacy has failed, and on what kind of compromise the Israelis can live with. If military action is ultimately necessary, particularly in the context of Iran's unyielding march towards acquiring nuclear weapons, how much support is the United States willing to give?
The president has questions he can legitimately put to the Palestinian leaders, too. Are they still committed to establishing a Palestinian state in peace alongside Israel? If no, what then? Are they really prepared to continue inflicting occupation on their people? If, yes, they do want their state, the president will have more questions for the Palestinians: Will you end the glorification of terror and terrorists in Palestinian broadcasting, public ceremonies, and schools and textbooks? Will you understand that a reconciliation deal that brings Hamas is unacceptable, and so is any deal that risks shifting the control of Palestinian politics to a terrorist group that might turn the West Bank into a second Gaza? The president must leave no doubt that the United States will not tolerate launching rockets at Tel Aviv from the West Bank.
It is not going to be an easy conversation—and shouldn't be, given the inflammatory nature of recent speeches by President Abbas, aka Abu Mazen. He has used his platform to demonize the state of Israel and deny the Jewish people's historic connection to their ancient homeland, while asserting that the Israeli government rejects the two-state solution. For the Palestinians, he states, the right of return is holy, and no one can deny it. This from a Palestinian president who over several decades has moved from being the most flexible, reasonable, and compromise-oriented of the Palestinian leadership to being the exact opposite, both publicly and in private meetings—stubbornly uncompromising, using hard-nosed, all-or-nothing rhetoric. In the past, Abbas has spoken in favor of the two-state solution and even on occasion publicly defended his recognition of the state of Israel. No longer.
The new logo of his ruling Fatah party includes a rifle barrel and a Palestinian headscarf covering all of Israel. The Palestinian Authority ministry of information refers to Israel only as a racist, colonialist endeavor.
Perhaps Abbas is striking a posture of unalloyed militancy with one eye on upcoming elections and the shadow of Hamas at his back. No doubt he is affected by the way traditional Arab leadership has been supplanted by non-Arab powers, Turkey and Iran, both of which have turned against Israel. In any event, he has hardly been exhibiting the energy and dexterity of a leader committed to an independent Palestinian state living in peace and prosperity alongside Israel.
Instead of good-faith, constructive, private diplomacy to prepare the way for final negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian leadership launches international campaigns that do nothing to move the dialogue forward but rather move it backwards by incitement. In a January speech, Abbas did not mention compromise with Israel but focused on the return not so much of the relatively few surviving Palestinian refugees as of their millions of descendants to what is now Israel. He identified as people to follow a previous mufti of Jerusalem who allied himself with Nazi Germany and leaders of terrorist organizations that have killed Israeli citizens.
He has even attempted to portray the Jews as collaborators, noting in one interview, "I have more than 70 books in me that I haven't written about the connections between the Zionist movement and the Nazis before World War II." This is hardly preparing the Palestinian people for peace. The tactic of relentlessly criticizing Israel feeds the Palestinians' fantasy that someday they will succeed, and that eventually the world will force Israel to its knees.
For all of that, if Abbas can find his true voice, the Israelis will probably never find as amenable a partner for future negotiations. This was a man once brave enough to stand up against Arafat and tell him that the armed intifada was a dangerous mistake, and who actually stopped the second intifada in the West Bank. There remains the hope that at some point he will be able to speak to his own people about the parameters of a two-state solution using the lexicon of peace, and to engage in quiet and confidential discussions with the Israelis on territory and security.
As for the Israelis, newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry has the capacity to develop a relationship with Netanyahu based on his record of valuing mutual confidence and trust among the parties and his deep knowledge of the region. He understands the critical need to build a relationship with the Israeli people through Netanyahu, without which he cannot make progress anywhere. Netanyahu came to power after the initiatives by both Barak and Olmert had been rejected, first by Yasser Arafat and then by Abbas. The result was that Israeli leaders became much more cautious on peace efforts.
Nearly five years ago, when then-senator Obama visited much-rocketed Sderot in Israel, he remarked: "I will not wait until a few years into my term or my second term if I'm elected, in order to get the process moving. … But I also think there's a population on both sides that is becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress. And where there's hopelessness and despair, that can often turn in a bad direction."
It remains in question whether the time has passed, whether either Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas now has the authority and legitimacy of their predecessors to make the painful decisions on borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem that are required to end the conflict.
It is no wonder that some Israelis are beginning to think that a workable, ironclad, conflict-ending arrangement is increasingly unlikely. The surest route to a durable peace, they feel, may be establishing defensible borders rather than trying to negotiate a solution.
If Abbas is not willing to sign any kind of a peace agreement, the Israelis cannot allow themselves to remain in such a deadlock. They may well have to think about demarcating a border within which there will be a Jewish majority for generations, while on the other side there is a viable Palestinian state that can capture their dreams and aspirations. This means retaining the settlement blocks and outlining a meticulous security arrangement to prevent rockets being launched into Israel from Judea and Samaria.
President Obama will be forgiven for his unfulfilled promise in Sderot if he is very effective on this visit, so as to put both parties firmly on track toward the preferable course: two states at peace.
- Read Mort Zuckerman: Why Middle East Peace Is So Elusive
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- Read Lamont Colucci: Don't Underestimate the al Qaeda Threat