On the eve of the German government’s arrival in Israel, Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has called on Israel to make the “difficult but necessary decisions” for the peace process to succeed. There is of course nothing particularly remarkable or unprecedented about Germany’s foreign minister having made these statements. Such phrases just so easily roll off of the tongues of statesmen trying to find something constructive sounding to say about a process that has proven to be anything but. However, these unthinking assertions are problematic, because they display an utter refusal to take account of the reality of the peace process as it actually exists.
Such vague talk of “difficult decisions” is easy, but precisely what tough decisions is it that Israel could make that these diplomats can honestly say would make an iota of difference to the current Palestinian attitude? This talk simply neglects to account for the present, and indeed longstanding, attitude of the Palestinian leadership. Last week Palestinian Authority head Abbas told Kerry formerly that he rejects Kerry’s current peace framework, while also having said that if no framework is agreed upon by the end of April, then the Palestinian side will exit negotiations. It should further be recalled that the only reason that the Palestinians are even at the negotiating table is because of the Obama administration’s bribery. In return for Abbas going through the motions of peace talks the U.S. government released large amounts of funding to the PA, held up on account of the Palestinians’ unilateral activities at the UN, while Israel was pressured into releasing several rounds of convicted terrorists for the pleasure of the Palestinians’ company at the negotiating table.
Then there is the matter of Abbas’s ever-changing and fluid list of demands, red lines, and negotiating positions, with the goal posts continuously on the move. Yet, as much as it is possible to pin down precisely what the Palestinian position is, it appears to be completely at odds with what any reasonable person would expect a final agreement to look like. The Palestinians have refused to even consider recognizing the Jewish state, demanded the release of all Palestinian prisoners in a final deal, and Abbas has additionally said he will not give up the claims of the descendants of Palestinian refugees to move to the Jewish state rather than the Palestinian one. And such positions also have to be considered alongside the PA’s continuous use of its media network and school system to stir up incitement against Jews and the very existence of Israel.
There is also Abbas’s rediscovered aversion to mutually agreed-upon land swaps. In previous talks it appeared to be accepted that Israel would annex the major Israeli population centers in the West Bank, but that the Palestinians would be fully compensated with an equal amount of Israeli territory in return. Now, in response to Kerry’s framework, noises have once again resumed from the Palestinian Authority suggesting that it would only be willing to accept land swaps on a far more limited basis than previously understood. In this way the PA is now blocking what had appeared to be one of the primary avenues for overcoming a major impasse within negotiations.
The relentless calls for Israel to take difficult decisions for peace not only neglect to account for the attitude of the Palestinian side but also of the extensive concessions already offered by the Israelis. Both under Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks in 2000 and certainly under Ehud Olmert in 2008, Israel’s offers for peace went just about as far as possible without Israel either ceasing to exist as a Jewish state or rendering its remaining territory indefensible. Similarly, the current Israeli negotiating position does not appear to be measurably different from that of Barak or Olmert’s. Certainly, if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s negotiating stance was falling significantly short of previous offers then his dovish chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who served in the Olmert government and remains a political rival to Netanyahu, would doubtless call him out on this. Israel is once again offering as much as it can without ceasing to survive as Israel. But then this is the crux of the matter. It really looks as if it may just be the case that no offer that leaves the Jewish state in existence will be acceptable to Palestinians.
As ever, Israelis still have no shortage of difficult decisions to make. Yet with no serious partner for peace and with unilateral withdrawal in Gaza and Lebanon having proved strategically disastrous, Israel’s most pressing decisions do not currently concern the Palestinians. Foremost among Israel’s concerns right now must be the unparalleled threat of the Iranian nuclear program.
In her weekly video address German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would be pressing Netanyahu on the peace process. One wonders what she will find to press him on; that he give up on the demand for defensible borders? Give up on the demand not to be ended as a Jewish state by a flood of Palestinians claiming refugee status? Give up on the demand that the Palestinians recognize the Jewish state as part of concluding their conflict? There’s nothing left for Israel to concede on. The game is up for Western leaders who only wish to talk of Israel’s “difficult decisions for peace.”