Let’s assume for a moment that Secretary of State John Kerry actually succeeds in getting Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to sit down and talk with Israel for the first time since George W. Bush was president. As I wrote earlier this week, if that happens that will be the result of American promises to back the Palestinians on various issues and probably also a pledge to put a time limit on the negotiations in order to heighten the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even if all that happens, most of the international media and virtually everyone in the foreign policy establishment seems to take it as a given that the primary obstacle to a deal will be Israel’s recalcitrance in making concessions. But that Netanyahu isn’t willing to deal is a myth, which is why so many in his coalition have been speaking up to talk about their opposition to a two-state solution.
As Haaretz reports today, various high level sources including a senior Cabinet minister are saying that Netanyahu is ready to give up more than 90 percent of the West Bank and evacuate “more than a few settlements” if Abbas is serious about peace deal that will truly end the conflict and give assurances about security. So the operative question for the region, as Kerry tries to pressure the parties to sit down prior to September, is whether Abbas is ready to take yes for an answer in the way that he wasn’t in 2008 when he turned down an offer of a state from Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert.
Since few think Abbas will ever be able to sign off on any accord that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it’s doubtful that Netanyahu will ever have to make good on these promises. But that hasn’t stopped right-wingers in his coalition from getting upset about the prospect of a pullback on the West Bank. But leaving aside the panic on the right, Netanyahu’s willingness to give up so much territory should focus the world on what it is exactly that the Palestinians want or are prepared to live with.
As with Netanyahu’s ground breaking 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University where he formally embraced a two-state solution, we can expect his critics to dismiss these latest signals that his government is willing to make sacrifices for peace. We will be told that there is no point offering the Palestinians a state on terms they can’t accept.
Palestinians say they have been waiting for several decades to get a state. They could have had one in 1947 when Palestinian Arabs and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world disdained a United Nations partition plan that called for a Jewish state and an Arab one to be created in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Three times since 2000 they have continued to say no to offers that would have again divided the land and given them a chance for independence.
But if Abbas is again going to treat an offer of statehood that would give him more than 90 percent of the West Bank as nothing or insists on accepting nothing less than a militarized Palestinian state (something that Israel is already experiencing on its southern border in Hamas-run Gaza, which is an independent state in all but name), then we are entitled to ask why.
In speaking of taking these kinds of risks for peace, Netanyahu is going far beyond what most of his supporters think is reasonable. Yet if after all this time, the Palestinians are not willing to talk or stay at the table for more than a few days or weeks simply because they cannot get all of the West Bank or Jerusalem or even to accept demilitarization, then the world should draw conclusions about their intentions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the obstacle to peace in the Middle East isn’t Netanyahu or Israeli settlements. It’s the hate and intransigence that drives the Palestinian political culture that makes it impossible for Abbas to ever sign a deal. Though I don’t expect most in the foreign policy establishment to acknowledge this fact, what will happen in the next couple of months is likely to reaffirm this basic fact.