In May 2009 the Obama administration called on Israel to stop all settlement activity in the West Bank, including “natural growth.” President Obama assumed that this settlement activity was the basic obstacle to peace with the Palestinians — even though since 1992 there had been both on-and-off Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and West Bank settlement, and the Palestinians had never made the former conditional on a stoppage of the latter.
In November 2009, with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas boycotting talks with Israel since the Obama administration had made its demand about settlements, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed an unprecedented ten-month moratorium on Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Yet Abbas continued to boycott talks. He only, finally, consented to join them a few weeks before the ten-month freeze expired — and said he was making his further participation conditional on an extension of the freeze. This took no little chutzpah. For about nine months, the freeze had apparently made no difference to him; now he was saying he couldn’t do without it.
Seemingly, since getting him to remain in the peace talks, or participate in them at all, was so difficult, the logical conclusion was that the talks, and the “peace” they were supposed to conduce to, weren’t all that important to him.
Obama, however, reached no such conclusion. On September 26 Israel’s freeze expired and construction in existing settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) — the Jewish heartland and of great security significance to Israel — continued. So, however, did frenetic U.S. efforts to get the talks restarted, consisting mainly of relentless pressure on Netanyahu to do Abbas’s bidding and extend the freeze.
On Monday night, with speculations flying as to where things were headed, Netanyahu made a speech to the Knesset that surprised most observers. He offered a deal: “If the Palestinian leadership will unequivocally say to its people that it recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and ask for another suspension of construction for a fixed period.”
Netanyahu went on to say that this demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state was “the root of the conflict and therefore a central foundation for resolving it. For 100 years, the Palestinians have taught entire generations to believe that there is no Jewish people, that this land is their homeland alone.”
A couple of observations are in order. First, Netanyahu was offering a serious, tangible concession in return for words. For Israel to stop West Bank construction while Palestinian construction there continues apace implies that the Palestinians have a superior claim to the territory. Such an implication, however, is both unjustified and dangerous to Israel — unjustified because its claim to the West Bank is at least as strong as the Palestinians’ claim, dangerous because retaining at least considerable parts of the West Bank is indispensable to Israel’s defensibility against both terrorism and military invasion.
No doubt, if, hypothetically, Abbas were to make such a speech to his people as Netanyahu suggested, it would be a novel event and would mark a change for Abbas personally. It would be greeted in the West as having near-messianic significance. But most of Palestinian society in the West Bank, Gaza, and the surrounding countries would greet it with outrage; and, most important, such hypothetical words from Abbas would have no binding validity for the Palestinians in the future.
In any case, the Palestinian response to Netanyahu’s proposal was not long in coming. Just after his Monday-night speech, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stated that the Palestinian Authority “forcefully rejects all these Israeli games. The racist demands of Netanyahu cannot be tied to the request to cease building in the settlements for the purpose of establishing a state.”
The demand for recognition as a Jewish state, then, was somehow “racist” and a total nonstarter.
By Tuesday Netanyahu was reportedly continuing to work on other ideas for overcoming the freeze-extension impasse. One Israeli observer has cogently argued that Netanyahu “has needed to convince the U.S. administration that he is not the factor obstructing its efforts to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track….” Once again, Washington’s tepid reaction on Tuesday to this latest proposal of his shows that — regarding the administration and many others for whom the Palestinian-state idea has an apparently indestructible power — it’s a Sisyphean task.
As Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, remarked on Tuesday, in reality there is
no chance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians in the near future. In [their] eyes… the occupation began in ’48 [when Israel was created] and not in ’67 [when it captured the West Bank and other territories in the Six Day War]. Not only Hamas thinks this — Abu Mazen [Abbas] does too. Their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state shows they have no interest in having Israel as a state beside theirs.
Yaalon thus became — along with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — the second member of Netanyahu’s inner cabinet of seven ministers to speak the truth publicly of late. If Washington could grasp this truth, it could stop pressuring Israel to surrender strategic territory and instead concentrate on strengthening it against imminent threats from Iran and its allies.
Netanyahu, too, could concentrate on Israel’s real issues and not have to put so much time and energy into proving that it is not Israel that prevents peace.