Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to revive the Middle East peace process hasn’t accomplished much so far and isn’t likely to do better in the future. But it has posed an interesting challenge to the Palestinians. Given that they don’t wish to further offend the United States or disrupt the flow of Western aid that keeps the corrupt Palestinian Authority afloat, and also don’t wish to return to negotiating with Israel under virtually any circumstances, how do they justify continuing their four-and-half-year-old boycott of peace talks? Their answer to that dilemma is clear: continue to pile on the calumnies against the Jewish state and hope that it will be seen to justify their ongoing refusal to even talk with Israel.
Their reasoning for sticking to this tried and true formula for avoiding peace talks is sound. Given that both Washington and much of the Western media has always been ready to buy into their abuse of Israel and to stick to the idea that the Palestinians are innocent victims rather than the principle authors of their own misery, why shouldn’t they continue to pretend that Israeli building in Jerusalem is an obstacle to peace that prevents them from returning to the table?
But anyone who is familiar with the parameters of past peace talks that they claim to wish to build on understands that their complaints about Jews in Jerusalem or canards about ethnic cleansing are not only false but simply excuses manufactured to justify their unwillingness to play ball with Kerry.
The Palestinian complaints about Israeli building in East Jerusalem dooming peace talks are patently absurd. The plans, which consist of tenders for the construction of 300 apartments in the Ramot neighborhood and 800 in the Gilo area, would in no way affect the Palestinian position or their hopes for an independent state that might include part of the city.
Ramot and Gilo are located in parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 and thus are over the “green line” that once divided the city. But these are 40-year-old neighborhoods that are long established, not some remote hilltop settlements in parts of the West Bank that are assumed to be part of a future Palestinian state.
In every peace plan put forward by peace groups as well as the Israeli government’s offers of statehood to the Palestinians, the Jewish areas of East Jerusalem remain part of Israel. The Palestinians know that even in the most generous distribution of territory—including the one put forward by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008 that called for the abandonment of the Old City by Israel—Ramot and Gilo and other such neighborhoods are not going to be handed over to them and emptied of their Jewish inhabitants. In other words, if the Palestinian goal is truly to have a state alongside Israel that includes the Arab sections of East Jerusalem, it doesn’t matter how many Jews are in Ramot and Gilo.
But, of course, the PA isn’t really interested in a partition of Jerusalem or the 1967 lines as it is in finding a reason to avoid talking to Israel. That’s why they are forced to try to blow up the issue of Jews in East Jerusalem as a provocation that prevents them from negotiating.
To be fair to the Palestinians, they are in some ways merely following the lead of the Obama administration that has made an issue of building in Jerusalem during the president’s first term. But, fortunately, Obama and Kerry have seen sense and abandoned past attempts to get Israel to agree to a building freeze in its own capital and instead urged the Palestinians to negotiate without preconditions.
But that is something that PA leader Mahmoud Abbas knows he cannot do. Abbas fled from Olmert’s offer that would have given him virtually everything he says he wants because he knows that he could not survive after signing a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn.
Despite Kerry’s naïve optimism that he can succeed where all his predecessors have failed, the intervening years have not altered Abbas’s position. With his Hamas rivals ensconced in Gaza and his own political position still precarious as he serves the ninth year of his four-year term as president, Abbas has no leeway to agree to a peace that would conclude the conflict. Palestinian politics remains mired in the rejectionism that has characterized its relationship toward Zionism since its inception. Nor is Abbas strong enough to resist the demands of the descendants of the 1948 refugees for Israel’s destruction even if he really were willing to make peace.
But faced with Kerry’s pleas for talks, all Abbas can do is to stall and pretend that Jews building in areas that the Palestinians will never get even in a division of Jerusalem is reason to avoid talking. Both Washington and the Western press shouldn’t fall for the latest version of the PA’s excuses.