Today Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu went to Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv to announce his push for the Knesset to adopt a new basic law that would formally declare that Israel was the nation state of the Jewish people. The proposal, uttered in the same spot where David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence in 1948, would not compromise the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities but does seek to remove any doubt about the future of the country either in the aftermath of a peace treaty with the Palestinians or without it. Some of his domestic critics were right to point out that the passage of such a law would change nothing in Israel since it is already a Jewish state with full and equal rights for non-Jews. But the latest revelations about the recently scuttled peace talks speak volumes about why the negotiations promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry failed.
As the Times of Israel reports, Israel tried to get Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to anything that would acknowledge that Israel was a Jewish state. They even proposed wording that would at the same time say that the new Palestinian nation was the state of the Palestinian Arabs. But the two states for two peoples formula that has always been at the heart of the pro-peace agenda among Jews is not one that Abbas could swallow even in its most even-handed form. The goal was mutual recognition rather than forcing the Palestinians to accept an Israeli ultimatum. But not even the most flexible formula was something the PA would even discuss let alone accept because doing so would implicitly concede that the Palestinians were concluding the conflict and accepting that the verdict of the War of Independence is final.
This leaves Israelis pondering what their next step will be now that the Palestinians have blown up the process.
With the PA having embraced the Hamas terrorist movement, negotiations are not likely to be resumed soon. With the U.S. perhaps considering issuing its own peace plan that is likely to be more in line with Palestinian demands than Israel’s position, some in the Jewish state feel the time is right for some unilateral steps. It is in this context that Netanyahu’s Jewish state proposal must be seen. But that symbolic gesture aside, Israel would be wise to avoid seeking to repeat the mistake it made in 2005 when Ariel Sharon sought to unilaterally set Israel’s borders by withdrawing from Gaza. No matter what Israel gives up, it will get no credit from the international community.
Respected thinkers like Michael Oren, the immediate past Israeli ambassador to the U.S., believe that there must be a “plan B” in the aftermath of the collapse of the talks. He suggests a withdrawal to the security fence that would remove some settlements and make it clear that the settlement blocs and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem will forever be part of Israel.
But the problem here is that withdrawing from one place won’t convince anyone that Israel has a right to keep another. To the contrary, as with the various withdrawals that Israel has undertaken since the start of the Oslo Accords, every retreat is considered by both the Palestinians and the international community as proof that the territories are all stolen property that must be returned to the Arabs rather than as disputed lands that should be split as part of a rational compromise. The Gaza fiasco should have taught the Israelis this truth as well as making clear how costly in terms of its security such retreats can be.
Nor should anyone be holding out much hope for another try at the process even though it is doubtful that Kerry is ready to concede that his quest was nothing more than a fool’s errand. Ironically, former President Bill Clinton spoke at length during an appearance at Georgetown University this week about his own peace process push in 2000. Not for the first time, Clinton exploded the myths put forward by Obama National Security Council staffer Robert Malley that the Palestinians were not at fault for the failure of the Camp David Summit. Clinton repeated his previous assertions that it was Yasir Arafat who turned down Israel’s offer of peace in spite of the fact that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was ready to concede control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
This is significant because it set the pattern that Abbas has followed in the years after Arafat left the scene. The rejection of even a mutual declaration of recognition by Abbas constituted the fourth Palestinian no to peace and statehood in 15 years. That won’t change until the political culture of the Palestinians that inextricably links rejection of Zionism to their national identity changes.
But rather than seeking unilateral moves that will strengthen neither Israel’s security nor its popularity abroad or another deep dive into a peace process that is doomed to failure, the Jewish state must be prepared to wait patiently until the Palestinians are finally ready to make peace. Managing the conflict doesn’t satisfy those who want to resolve the conflict. But, as the Israelis have shown over the last forty years, it is the safest and most reasonable approach to a problem that, despite their best intentions, they can’t solve by themselves. It remains the best of a number of poor choices available to them.