A headline this week trumpeted the notion that “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians could begin as soon as Sunday. These are indirect talks, where each side will communicate with the other through American interlocutors.
Pardon my yawn.
Not that long ago, I was involved in a heated debate over a statement I had put out supporting the re-ignition of talks. This was 2007, and the issue at hand was the Annapolis Conference, in Maryland and hosted by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I argued that talks had evaporated and, despite my serious reservations about the framework of that conference, those of us trying to influence the political process need a process to be underway in order to have an effect.
I stand by that reasoning, and because of that, I would have to say that even proximity talks are a step forward, just because some kind of exchange between Israelis and Palestinians, even indirect ones, are better than none at all.
So, it’s a step, but it’s not even a baby step; more like a fetus.
Really, this is not all that different from what the Bush Administration did at Annapolis: basically, rent a room and mediate a conversation. President Obama should know better. This is not going to work.
The well-worn axiom that the two sides need to work out an agreement between themselves still holds, but the conditions today make the need for American leadership in this regard even more indispensible than before.
On the Palestinian side, the condition they need the most help on was made clear in a question US Senator Ted Kaufman asked a (surprisingly excellent) panel of experts in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing this week. Kaufman wondered how the parties can move forward when Israel is willing to make concessions but he’s not hearing any sense of willingness to make concessions on the Palestinian side.
The Palestinian Authority has, as has been repeatedly acknowledged by the Israel Defense Forces, clamped down on terrorism in the West Bank. They have revised textbooks in schools to take out what Israelis saw as inflammatory rhetoric. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has instituted a two year plan for state institution building which has been praised around the world, including in Israel and even braved domestic anger by going to the annual Herzliya security conference to present it to Israelis.
In the past, the PLO, which from its inception saw all of Mandatory Palestine as its homeland (as many Jews see it as theirs) agreed to forego 78% of that territory and establish a state on the remaining 22%. The result was that the terms of negotiations shifted to debating over the 22%. Kaufman’s question implies a similar effect in response to the PA’s current efforts.
In the end, what more do the Palestinians have that they can concede? Can they give the Israelis more than already forgoing any significant return of refugees to Israel, sharing Jerusalem and a state on the West Bank and Gaza with mutually agreed land swaps, all of which they’ve done and have never backtracked from? It doesn’t seem so.
On the Israeli side, the question has never been reaching an agreement, but what Israel believes it is able to “pay” and risk for peace. The Netanyahu government represents the right wing of Israel in its efforts to ensure that Jerusalem cannot be shared, in its move to stake Israel interests in Hebron and Bethlehem, and its apparent intention to keep everything west of the security fence without making any allowance for a viable Palestinian state on what’s left (not that such a territory could possibly be a viable state).
Those are not positions that align with mainstream Israelis. However, the massive mistrust of the Palestinians, due to the Al-Aksa Intifada and other clashes over the last decade, as well as distorted narratives, means that most Israelis won’t actively oppose such stances.
The so-called “demographic threat” and warnings from such figures as Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert of a future as an “apartheid state” don’t have the same impact on Israel as an immediate, physical threat. It’s a bit like smoking—you know the danger is real, but it comes along so gradually that you don’t feel the same kind of urgency you would if a car is speeding out of control toward you, though both are equally deadly.
Under those circumstances, left to their own devices, are Israelis likely to overcome the massive internal resistance to giving up the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, sharing Jerusalem and withdrawing from that famed 22% on the West Bank and allowing some arrangement to join the West Bank to Gaza? It’s not just unlikely. At this point, it’s almost unthinkable.
We should be clear on this, and so should our leaders: there is no doubt that Israelis want peace. There is also no doubt that they are prepared to make sacrifices for peace, and there’s a good chance that, under the right conditions, the sacrifices mainstream Israelis would make are enough to get a deal done and create a viable Palestinian state while not only maintaining, but enhancing Israeli security.
But to get that done, mainstream Israelis have to see that there is a plan they can get behind that is realistic and that is going to be implemented fully. And they have to be able to trust the process. It is unlikely that anything but a peace that has endured for some time is going to build real trust in the Palestinians in the hearts of mainstream Israelis. Thus, they have to be convinced that there is something else they can trust instead.
The United States is the only possible place for that faith. This is why it is not sufficient for the US to simply broker bilateral talks between the parties.
I do not mean to suggest that the US must impose a solution on Israel or the Palestinians. But the US has its own interest in peace (well articulated in this op-ed), and can spell out its own vision. It can then also offer guarantees to both sides, as well as spelling out consequences for violating terms of a future agreement or for dragging their feet in negotiations.
If done properly, US action of this kind can bring real hope to the Palestinians and instill a sense of security in the Israelis. It can also mobilize the currently discouraged silent majorities of American Jewish and Arab supporters of a sustainable two-state solution, giving the Obama Administration the political backing it would need to stay the course in the face of the defenders of the status quo and the reactionaries.
One can see the potential support even in Congress. Watch this hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (a hearing with a panel that was encouragingly moderate and educated, a centrist panel absent the usual extreme right wing views that are usually present at such events). The potential for support for concerted American action is there.
But for that support to crystallize, the President, and no one less, must take real leadership on this issue, with a well-considered and politically viable plan that is both wise and bold. Thus far, Obama has fallen very short of such reasonable expectations. The result has been a serious degradation in the situation in the Middle East and a massive wave of despair among those who believed that Obama would not repeat the mistakes of the previous two presidents.
The place to start is with a serious plan. No more steps without a broader strategy, like the call for a full settlement freeze or the sputtering pleas to Arab countries for more gestures toward Israel. There needs to be a fully pieced together plan of action, a vision of an endgame, and clear steps, worked out in advance in consultation with both the Israelis and Palestinians. The US then needs to install its carrots and sticks at every step of that strategy.
I still believe the two-state solution can be saved. Others who share a two-state vision that includes a viable Palestinian state and a Jewish and democratic state of Israel have lost that belief. Obama doesn’t have until even the end of his first term to take these obvious steps. The time is now. And it starts with an American plan of action.
More articles by
More articles in
ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by SimonAbramson.com