Bluffing at peace


The “preliminary talks towards peace negations” between Israel and the Palestinians — the cumbersome phrase given to the resumption of direct talks between the conflicting sides after three years of disconnection — are a bluff.

Both leaderships are not committed to reaching a final solution to the conflict and are exploiting the talks’ platform in order to preserve the status quo between them, promote popularity at home, offset international criticism and advance other interests that they consider of higher priority.

In other words, the resumption of the talks is not the outcome of an organic process in the Israeli or Palestinian camp whereby each side comprehends the destructive ramifications for each nation if it fails to reach an agreement, but rather stems from other interests on the part of the two leadership groups.

Lacking clear policy in the chaotic Middle East, the United States needs to demonstrate a tangible achievement and she does so via its traditional bastion: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The multiplicity of challenges that America faces in the region limits the pressure it can apply on either side to move forward with the talks and to genuinely commit to a long and arduous process.

How unserious the talks are is reflected in the fact that convincing the delegates to sit around one table is the personal achievement of Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied by the veteran Ambassador Martin Indyk. “Kerry and Indyk reinitiated the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiation,” announced the headlines in Israel and commented that “peace” is their “life mission.”

Precisely here the bluff lurks: Reading the headlines, one may get the impression that Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Indyk are the conflicting sides. If the actual disputing parties were serious about ending their decades-long conflict and living side-by-side in peace, the headlines should have been closer to: “Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas have reinitiated the peace talks” and for both “peace is their mission in life.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has a firsthand experience with the catastrophic consequences of not reaching peace with Israel. As a senior Palestinian official and later prime minister under the former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, he witnessed the ferocious suffering that Arafat brought on both Palestinians and Israelis when he first declined Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and then launched the Second Intifada which ended with thousands of casualties on both sides, the rise of Hamas and the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank.

Like the other Palestinian delegates in 2000 (many of whom still comprise the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah), Abu Mazen did not protest against Arafat’s decision to decline the offer, fully backed by President Bill Clinton, which would have paved the way towards an independent Palestinian state and ended the conflict.

Since he took office in 2005, Abu Mazen supported the Palestinian Authority’s (P.A.) recognition of Israel, called for nonviolent resistance to the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza, and spread messages of peace and harmony to Western audiences. At home, however, the messages are radically different. Under Abu Mazen’s watch anti-Israeli incitement in the West Bank flourishes, even now while the discussions between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations take place.

Examples are ample. Only few days ago, The Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli research institute that studies Palestinian society, media, and education, reported that Fatah (the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s dominant faction, whose Abu Mazen was one of its founders in the late 1950s) is using its Facebook page to glorify Fatah’s terror attacks against Israeli citizens and praise other vicious terrorist attacks such as the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. During the recent visit of the Barcelona football club to Israel and the P.A., the Palestinian state-sponsored television channel welcomed the club’s players to “Palestine, a land that stretches from Rosh HaNikra to Eilat” — thereby repudiating Israel’s existence.

Throughout his presidency Abu Mazen has done nothing to amend the core messages of Fatah. According to Benny Morris, a leading historian on the conflict, Fatah’s charter from 1964 has never been amended and still calls for the “complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence,” as well as the support for an “armed public revolution [as] the inevitable method to liberating Palestine.” The official Palestinian demonization of Israel and the celebration of violence shows that Abu Mazen has failed to educate his public for the possibility of peace with Israel.

Moderate as Abu Mazen portrays himself, there seems to be a contradiction between his rhetoric and action. Looking at important junctions in the peace process that could have advanced the establishment of a Palestinian state, Abu Mazen failed to accept Israeli offers to end the conflict. In 2009, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert personally handed Abu Mazen a peace offer that addressed all the core issues of the conflict. The offer included a Palestinian state on a territory equivalent to 100 percent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (using land swaps to satisfy each side’s needs); sovereignty over the Temple Mount; and the return of thousands of Palestinian refugees to the new Palestinian state. Abu Mazen did not reply to Olmert’s offer, thereby missing the most generous offer by an Israeli prime minister in the history of the conflict. Such incidents raise deep doubts about the commitment of Abu Mazen to genuinely accept the “two-state solution” formula and to end the conflict once and for all.

Agreeing to meet with the Israelis in Washington, Jerusalem and Jericho this summer is not aimed at advancing peace, but at maintaining the status quo with Israel. No doubt, clinging to the status quo has its cons. First, it removes the burden of political accountability off the Palestinian leadership. Governing an undefined political entity, somewhere between autonomy and a quasi-state, legitimizes undefined relations between the leadership and its citizens. Second, delaying the creation of an independent Palestinian state justifies Palestinian requests for foreign aid.

Consequently, the flow of money to Ramallah from the United States and the European Union continues and in 2012 totaled approximately $800 million. The money helps Abu Mazen and his proxies to sponsor his apparatus in the West Bank; pay salaries to the expanded public sector; continue to suspend general elections that might endanger his rule and strengthen his fierce opponent Hamas; and to curb potential rivals, such as former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, an ardent state-builder who was forced to resign last spring.

Approaching his 79th birthday, Abu Mazen prefers to protect the self-serving status quo with Israel. He seems eager to be remembered in the Palestinian epic as another Palestinian leader who did not compromise on the dream of greater Palestine rather than taking tough decisions that may ultimately result in Palestinian statehood.

To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s credit is the relatively good security situation in Israel since he entered into office in 2009. On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu’s proponents are continuously referring to his 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University as his unequivocal commitment to peace.

But between 2009 and 2013 Netanyahu did nothing to back his words with deeds. He completely failed to translate security into political achievement with the Palestinians, leading many analysts to conclude that when it comes to the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu has neither strategy nor policy.

While the Israeli authorities do not sponsor anti-Palestinian incitement, the Israeli prime minister should be held accountable for not preparing his public for the possibility of peace with the Palestinian leadership. Ignoring the majority support among the Israeli public for peace, Netanyahu and his ministers have nurtured the narrative according to which “Abu Mazen is no partner for peace,” leading many Israelis to become more and more skeptical about the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.

Further, in his Bar-Ilan speech Netanyahu annulled the claims that the settlements are the reason for anti-Israeli sentiments on the Palestinian side. Fair enough. Hatred of Israel predates the construction of the first settlement in 1967. But if the formula to end the conflict is to have a viable and stable Palestinian state next to Israel, then the expansion of settlements deeper into the West Bank is a hurdle towards this end.

As of summer 2013, Netanyahu has all he needs to finally redeem Israel from the conflict with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has no significant political rivals that can threaten his rule within his government or the opposition. If he decides to push forward with the peace process, he will find majority support inside his coalition, as well as among several opposing factions such as Labor, Meretz, Kadima, and even the ultra-Orthodox that will be willing to go as far as joining his coalition in case the anti-peace factions decide to breakaway. And he enjoys growing popularity and an overall Israeli public that supports the idea of the “two-state solution.” But instead of redeeming Israel from its conflict with the Palestinians, Netanyahu prefers to “redeem” more soil in the West Bank.

Indeed, since the 1970s, all Israeli governments, left or right, constructed new settlements or expanded existing ones. But under Netanyahu’s administration, there is solid evidence that the settlements enterprise has gotten out of control. Currently, the number of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria (the biblical names that refer to the West Bank) ranges between 325,000 and 367,000. In addition, about 300,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital. Of those, 70,000 to 160,000 live in settlements and illegal outposts designated to be part of the future Palestinian state. In 2012, the settlements’ population in the West Bank increased by nearly 5 percent. In the past six months, nearly 8,000 new residents moved to the settlements, representing a figure that is as twice as high as Israel’s national population growth per year.

The settlement enterprise is greased by governmental policy. For instance, two weeks ago, the Israeli Cabinet added several settlements to the national priority map, which means that new settlers will enjoy further economic benefits ranging from better housing, taxation, investment in infrastructure, and encouragement of businesses. These benefits already have proven to have had an adverse impact on Israel’s development towns in the Negev and Galilee as residents in these regions are gradually immigrating to Judea and Samaria. With the Ministry of Housing and Construction and the Ministry of Economy headed by the two leaders of the national religious party, the Jewish Home, the future of the settlements looks rosy.

When Netanyahu decided to approve the release of more than 100 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons as a gesture to the P.A., his sights were not fixed on advancing peace, but on Iran.

Israel’s concern about the progress in the Iranian nuclear program and the shortcoming of international pressure to change Iran’s course of action increases the odds of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. For such an attack to be successful — that is to surgically destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities — Netanyahu needs American military and diplomatic support. European backing of Israel’s right to protect itself, especially during the diplomatic turmoil that will follow such an attack, is important, too. Agreeing to chit chat with the Palestinians and to release prisoners to please the West and to relax the Palestinian street are two things that Netanyahu was willing to deliver in order to amass whatever support is required to meet the Iranian threat.

By the next general elections, Netanyahu will be the longest serving prime minister in the history of Israel, overtaking David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu, it seems, is eager to be engraved in the Israeli memory like other former leaders, such as the Likud’s Menachem Begin, who saved Israel from potential destruction when he ordered the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility in Osirak in 1981.

Yet, it should be noted that two years before the Israeli attack in Iraq, the same Menachem Begin compromised on the dream of greater Eretz Yisrael, signing a peace treaty with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and evacuating all Israeli settlements and military posts from the Sinai peninsula. If Netanyahu decides to successfully follow in Begin’s footsteps and conclude the conflict with the Palestinians, he will be remembered not only as the prime minister who protected Israel from the Iranian peril, but also as the one who reached the Zionist goal of fully defined Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

Abu Mazen and Netanyahu’s adherence to the status quo; their lack of genuine commitment to the peace process; and the different set of priorities on each side leaves little room for optimism regarding the prospects of the current round of talks.

For all sides — the United States included — in order to avoid turning the talks into a fiasco, the focus should be on achieving small successes to establish a system of mutual trust. Trust, a rare product between Israelis and Palestinians, can serve as a future springboard for the next round of talks; maybe under different leaders. Bold decisions do not require good timing, but courageous leaders. Unfortunately, courage is a trait that both Abu-Mazen and Netanyahu chronically lack.

Moran Stern is an adjunct lecturer at the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. Follow him @MoranStern 

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