Commentary Magazine


Topic: chief Palestinian negotiator

Palestine Papers Confirm What Israel Has Said All Along

I don’t know whether the “Palestine Papers” published yesterday by Al Jazeera and the Guardian are real or, as Barry Rubin argues, a fake aimed at discrediting the Palestinian Authority’s current leadership. What is certainly false, however, is the claim, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it, that “Now we know. Israel had a peace partner.”

If the papers are true, then, as Noah pointed out, they show the PA agreeing to let Israel keep most — though not all — of the huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. The Guardian deems this concession shameful. Freedland terms it “unthinkable”; the paper’s editorial goes even further, accusing Palestinians of agreeing “to flog the family silver.”

Yet, as Rick noted, every peace plan of the past decade — starting with the Clinton Parameters in 2000, which virtually the entire world claims to view as the basis for any agreement — has proposed assigning the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel. The Guardian is entitled to fantasize about a Palestinian state “created on 1967 borders, not around them,” but no serious mediator or negotiator ever has. Even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which everyone accepts as the basis for talks, was drafted so as to allow changes to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

Indeed, far from constituting an “unthinkable” concession, the PA offer detailed in these documents didn’t even amount to the minimum that every peace plan of the past decade has deemed necessary for an agreement — because every such plan, again starting with the Clinton Parameters, has also proposed giving Israel additional parts of the West Bank (usually in exchange for equivalent territory inside Israel) so as to allow it to retain some of the major settlement blocs. And, according to these documents, the Palestinians wouldn’t agree to that.

This, of course, tallies exactly with what Israel has said for the past decade. Israel never claimed that negotiations broke down over Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but it repeatedly claimed that talks broke down over other issues, such as borders. In 2008, for instance, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank plus territorial swaps equivalent to the remainder, but the Palestinians refused to sign: they insisted on land swaps of only about 2 percent (see here or here).

The Palestine Papers also claim that the PA agreed to cede exclusive control over the Temple Mount in favor of management by “a body or committee.” But that, too, was in Olmert’s offer: a five-member committee composed of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S., thereby ensuring an Arab majority. And, again, the Palestinians refused to sign. Indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas subsequently told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that “the gaps were wide.”

The documents did, however, contain one revealing quote: chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat allegedly told an American official, “Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians.”

Whether or not Erekat actually said that, it’s unfortunately true. And until it changes, peace will remain a distant dream.

I don’t know whether the “Palestine Papers” published yesterday by Al Jazeera and the Guardian are real or, as Barry Rubin argues, a fake aimed at discrediting the Palestinian Authority’s current leadership. What is certainly false, however, is the claim, as Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland put it, that “Now we know. Israel had a peace partner.”

If the papers are true, then, as Noah pointed out, they show the PA agreeing to let Israel keep most — though not all — of the huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which are home to hundreds of thousands of Israelis. The Guardian deems this concession shameful. Freedland terms it “unthinkable”; the paper’s editorial goes even further, accusing Palestinians of agreeing “to flog the family silver.”

Yet, as Rick noted, every peace plan of the past decade — starting with the Clinton Parameters in 2000, which virtually the entire world claims to view as the basis for any agreement — has proposed assigning the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel. The Guardian is entitled to fantasize about a Palestinian state “created on 1967 borders, not around them,” but no serious mediator or negotiator ever has. Even UN Security Council Resolution 242, which everyone accepts as the basis for talks, was drafted so as to allow changes to the pre-1967 armistice lines.

Indeed, far from constituting an “unthinkable” concession, the PA offer detailed in these documents didn’t even amount to the minimum that every peace plan of the past decade has deemed necessary for an agreement — because every such plan, again starting with the Clinton Parameters, has also proposed giving Israel additional parts of the West Bank (usually in exchange for equivalent territory inside Israel) so as to allow it to retain some of the major settlement blocs. And, according to these documents, the Palestinians wouldn’t agree to that.

This, of course, tallies exactly with what Israel has said for the past decade. Israel never claimed that negotiations broke down over Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but it repeatedly claimed that talks broke down over other issues, such as borders. In 2008, for instance, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians 93 percent of the West Bank plus territorial swaps equivalent to the remainder, but the Palestinians refused to sign: they insisted on land swaps of only about 2 percent (see here or here).

The Palestine Papers also claim that the PA agreed to cede exclusive control over the Temple Mount in favor of management by “a body or committee.” But that, too, was in Olmert’s offer: a five-member committee composed of Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S., thereby ensuring an Arab majority. And, again, the Palestinians refused to sign. Indeed, PA President Mahmoud Abbas subsequently told the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl that “the gaps were wide.”

The documents did, however, contain one revealing quote: chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat allegedly told an American official, “Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians.”

Whether or not Erekat actually said that, it’s unfortunately true. And until it changes, peace will remain a distant dream.

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Good Advice from Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh

I wouldn’t expect the Obama administration to take advice from ideological rivals on how to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. But it’s puzzling that it remains equally deaf to advice from two prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

In a moderated conversation published this month, Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh were in complete accord:

OZ: … [T]he first issue we need to deal with is the refugee issue, because this one is really urgent. Jerusalem is not urgent, it can wait. It can go unresolved for another generation, it can be unresolved for three generations. The refugees are hundreds of thousands of people decomposing in dehumanizing conditions in refugee camps. Israel cannot take these refugees back or it would not be Israel. There would be two Palestinian states, and there would be no Israel. But Israel can do something, along with the Arab world, along with the entire world, to take those people out of the camps, into homes and jobs. Peace or no peace, as long as the refugees are rotting in the camps Israel will have no security.

NUSSEIBEH: I agree. Whether there is or isn’t a solution, the refugee problem is a human problem and it needs to be resolved. It cannot just be shelved day after day after day in the hope that something will happen. The human dimension is far more important in this whole conflict than the territorial.

Yet Obama’s team remains fixated on “borders first.” That’s ridiculous on several counts. First, since territory is all that Israel has to trade, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be foolish to make all his territorial concessions up front, leaving him without leverage to extract crucial Palestinian concessions on other issues, like the refugees.

Second, since two previous Israeli leaders, Ehud Barak (at Taba) and Ehud Olmert, were that foolish, the entire world ought to know by now that Israel twice offered the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories (with land swaps). Those offers went nowhere because the Palestinians refused to make reciprocal concessions on other issues — especially the refugees.

Specifically, the Palestinians insist that Israel absorb millions of refugees and their descendants under any deal, thereby eradicating the Jewish state by demography. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated this in the Guardian just last week; the governing body of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s “moderate” Fatah party did so last month.

Until this changes, any territorial concessions Netanyahu offers will be meaningless, because no Israeli government will sign a deal that effectively spells the Jewish state’s death warrant. But if the refugee issue were resolved, Netanyahu would either make a generous territorial offer or face certain ouster in the next election. Thus, if Washington actually wants a deal, this is the place to start.

Finally, as Oz and Nusseibeh noted, this is a human tragedy that has already been left to fester far too long. That Palestinian leaders have held the refugees hostage to their maximalist demands for over six decades shows just how little they really care about their own people. And for all its fine talk of human rights, the “enlightened West” is evidently no better.

I wouldn’t expect the Obama administration to take advice from ideological rivals on how to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. But it’s puzzling that it remains equally deaf to advice from two prominent Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

In a moderated conversation published this month, Amos Oz and Sari Nusseibeh were in complete accord:

OZ: … [T]he first issue we need to deal with is the refugee issue, because this one is really urgent. Jerusalem is not urgent, it can wait. It can go unresolved for another generation, it can be unresolved for three generations. The refugees are hundreds of thousands of people decomposing in dehumanizing conditions in refugee camps. Israel cannot take these refugees back or it would not be Israel. There would be two Palestinian states, and there would be no Israel. But Israel can do something, along with the Arab world, along with the entire world, to take those people out of the camps, into homes and jobs. Peace or no peace, as long as the refugees are rotting in the camps Israel will have no security.

NUSSEIBEH: I agree. Whether there is or isn’t a solution, the refugee problem is a human problem and it needs to be resolved. It cannot just be shelved day after day after day in the hope that something will happen. The human dimension is far more important in this whole conflict than the territorial.

Yet Obama’s team remains fixated on “borders first.” That’s ridiculous on several counts. First, since territory is all that Israel has to trade, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be foolish to make all his territorial concessions up front, leaving him without leverage to extract crucial Palestinian concessions on other issues, like the refugees.

Second, since two previous Israeli leaders, Ehud Barak (at Taba) and Ehud Olmert, were that foolish, the entire world ought to know by now that Israel twice offered the equivalent of 100 percent of the territories (with land swaps). Those offers went nowhere because the Palestinians refused to make reciprocal concessions on other issues — especially the refugees.

Specifically, the Palestinians insist that Israel absorb millions of refugees and their descendants under any deal, thereby eradicating the Jewish state by demography. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated this in the Guardian just last week; the governing body of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s “moderate” Fatah party did so last month.

Until this changes, any territorial concessions Netanyahu offers will be meaningless, because no Israeli government will sign a deal that effectively spells the Jewish state’s death warrant. But if the refugee issue were resolved, Netanyahu would either make a generous territorial offer or face certain ouster in the next election. Thus, if Washington actually wants a deal, this is the place to start.

Finally, as Oz and Nusseibeh noted, this is a human tragedy that has already been left to fester far too long. That Palestinian leaders have held the refugees hostage to their maximalist demands for over six decades shows just how little they really care about their own people. And for all its fine talk of human rights, the “enlightened West” is evidently no better.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

“Soul-searching” at the White House? Not so much. “‘There isn’t going to be a reset button. That’s not their style,’ said a Democratic strategist who works with the White House on several issues. ‘They don’t like pivots, and they also believe they’re right.'”

Nancy Pelosi is the right leader to show the country that the Dems “get it”? Not so much, according to Heath Shuler: “Shuler believes that his party didn’t get the message on Election Day when voters kicked Democrats out of majority control of the House if his caucus keeps Pelosi at the top of their leadership team. ‘I hope that with so many members that we need to go in a different direction, that we have to be able to recruit or get back those members of Congress that lost, and I just don’t see that path happening if she’s at the top of the Democrats,’ Shuler said.” He says he’ll run against Pelosi, but maybe he’s in the wrong party.

Would Russ Feingold be a formidable primary challenger to Barack Obama? Not so much, says Mara Liasson: “There’d have to be a real anti-war movement in the country for Russ Feingold to try to capture and lead. But there’s not even that.”

Have the Obami learned anything about their Middle East policy failures? Not so much. The U.S. is goading Bibi to offer a 90-day freeze (why should this freeze produce a different result than the last one?), but the PA is already grousing. “Earlier on Sunday, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed strong reservations about the U.S. proposal, because it would only apply to the West Bank and not east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.”

Is Obama still the media’s darling? Not so much. “The Democratic president left for Asia just three days after his party suffered big defeats in mid-term elections at the hands of voters worried over the sputtering U.S. economy and unemployment stuck near 10 percent for more than a year. The trip was intended to counteract that frustration with a stress on opening new markets for American goods and improving the jobs picture, so the timing was especially tough. ‘The coverage has been quite negative. The dominant narrative is an embattled president representing a weakened nation,’ said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ‘All in all, not the kind of trip a president who has just suffered an electoral rebuff needs,’ he said.”

So the Obama team is going to be more transparent and connect more successfully with the American people? Not so much. “From the administration’s stance on a presidential commission’s controversial recommendations for Social Security and Medicare cuts, to Republican demands that Obama veto any bills containing earmarks, Axelrod offered few specifics on administration plans during interviews on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Fox News Sunday.'” So why bother going on? It’s hard to solve the alleged “communication” problem if you don’t have anything to communicate.

Iran wants to negotiate about its nuclear program? Not so much. “They have yet to agree on venue, a length for the talks or even the subject. Iran says it is willing to talk about everything but its uranium enrichment program; the other countries – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – want to talk mostly about the entire nuclear program.”

“Soul-searching” at the White House? Not so much. “‘There isn’t going to be a reset button. That’s not their style,’ said a Democratic strategist who works with the White House on several issues. ‘They don’t like pivots, and they also believe they’re right.'”

Nancy Pelosi is the right leader to show the country that the Dems “get it”? Not so much, according to Heath Shuler: “Shuler believes that his party didn’t get the message on Election Day when voters kicked Democrats out of majority control of the House if his caucus keeps Pelosi at the top of their leadership team. ‘I hope that with so many members that we need to go in a different direction, that we have to be able to recruit or get back those members of Congress that lost, and I just don’t see that path happening if she’s at the top of the Democrats,’ Shuler said.” He says he’ll run against Pelosi, but maybe he’s in the wrong party.

Would Russ Feingold be a formidable primary challenger to Barack Obama? Not so much, says Mara Liasson: “There’d have to be a real anti-war movement in the country for Russ Feingold to try to capture and lead. But there’s not even that.”

Have the Obami learned anything about their Middle East policy failures? Not so much. The U.S. is goading Bibi to offer a 90-day freeze (why should this freeze produce a different result than the last one?), but the PA is already grousing. “Earlier on Sunday, Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed strong reservations about the U.S. proposal, because it would only apply to the West Bank and not east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.”

Is Obama still the media’s darling? Not so much. “The Democratic president left for Asia just three days after his party suffered big defeats in mid-term elections at the hands of voters worried over the sputtering U.S. economy and unemployment stuck near 10 percent for more than a year. The trip was intended to counteract that frustration with a stress on opening new markets for American goods and improving the jobs picture, so the timing was especially tough. ‘The coverage has been quite negative. The dominant narrative is an embattled president representing a weakened nation,’ said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. ‘All in all, not the kind of trip a president who has just suffered an electoral rebuff needs,’ he said.”

So the Obama team is going to be more transparent and connect more successfully with the American people? Not so much. “From the administration’s stance on a presidential commission’s controversial recommendations for Social Security and Medicare cuts, to Republican demands that Obama veto any bills containing earmarks, Axelrod offered few specifics on administration plans during interviews on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ and ‘Fox News Sunday.'” So why bother going on? It’s hard to solve the alleged “communication” problem if you don’t have anything to communicate.

Iran wants to negotiate about its nuclear program? Not so much. “They have yet to agree on venue, a length for the talks or even the subject. Iran says it is willing to talk about everything but its uranium enrichment program; the other countries – the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany – want to talk mostly about the entire nuclear program.”

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Why Don’t They Talk About Ramallah?

A friend writes:

You might not have time to read the Travel section of the Sunday Times, but the story on page 13 of Sunday’s edition highlights a problem for the Palestinian Authority. The article makes clear that Ramallah, the PA’s effective capital, is a hip town with all kinds of exciting nightlife and restaurant choices. Hmm. Hardly squares with the beleaguered, impoverished, starving, besieged Palestinian-refugee narrative the Western media have been feeding us.

Salaam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, wants to encourage private-equity investments, but to do that you have to let investors know that there will be a return on capital. Suicide bombers and private equity don’t mix, whereas a dynamic social, cultural, economic climate do. So, who wins? The foreign-aid class represented by the UN or the economic-development group represented by Fayyad?  Fayyad wants to show the reality of a booming economy, while President Abbas (Fayyad’s boss, in principle) and Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator (whatever that means, given that there are no negotiations), want to show the Palestinians as beaten down by circumstances and beaten up by brutal Israeli troops.

Not mentioned in the Travel section Ramallah story or in Thomas Friedman’s column in the same Sunday paper on West Bank economic development is the name Benjamin Netanyahu. Not that the New York Times is about to give Bibi credit for anything, but the fact is Bibi campaigned for office in January 2009 on two main planks: addressing the Iranian threat and rebuilding the West Bank economy. It was Bibi who ordered more than 200 roadblocks/checkpoints to be removed, and it is Bibi who meets weekly with Palestinian and Israeli economic-development experts to see what red tape he can cut through to help the Palestinian Authority aid the rapid economic growth of the West Bank.

Give all of the credit to Fayyad, but his silent partner in all of this growth and relaxation of security is Bibi. Even Fayyad has said this to visiting American groups.

Both Fayyad and Bibi believe that the growth of a vibrant economy will lead to the development of better security for both sides, the creation of civil society, and the institutions needed to survive Fayyad. And both believe that ultimately the people of Gaza will be asked to choose: Do you want Hamas, Islam, and poverty with the hope of a world without Israel some day, or do you want a quality of life, free movement, and a political entity that has Israel as a partner?

A friend writes:

You might not have time to read the Travel section of the Sunday Times, but the story on page 13 of Sunday’s edition highlights a problem for the Palestinian Authority. The article makes clear that Ramallah, the PA’s effective capital, is a hip town with all kinds of exciting nightlife and restaurant choices. Hmm. Hardly squares with the beleaguered, impoverished, starving, besieged Palestinian-refugee narrative the Western media have been feeding us.

Salaam Fayyad, the PA prime minister, wants to encourage private-equity investments, but to do that you have to let investors know that there will be a return on capital. Suicide bombers and private equity don’t mix, whereas a dynamic social, cultural, economic climate do. So, who wins? The foreign-aid class represented by the UN or the economic-development group represented by Fayyad?  Fayyad wants to show the reality of a booming economy, while President Abbas (Fayyad’s boss, in principle) and Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator (whatever that means, given that there are no negotiations), want to show the Palestinians as beaten down by circumstances and beaten up by brutal Israeli troops.

Not mentioned in the Travel section Ramallah story or in Thomas Friedman’s column in the same Sunday paper on West Bank economic development is the name Benjamin Netanyahu. Not that the New York Times is about to give Bibi credit for anything, but the fact is Bibi campaigned for office in January 2009 on two main planks: addressing the Iranian threat and rebuilding the West Bank economy. It was Bibi who ordered more than 200 roadblocks/checkpoints to be removed, and it is Bibi who meets weekly with Palestinian and Israeli economic-development experts to see what red tape he can cut through to help the Palestinian Authority aid the rapid economic growth of the West Bank.

Give all of the credit to Fayyad, but his silent partner in all of this growth and relaxation of security is Bibi. Even Fayyad has said this to visiting American groups.

Both Fayyad and Bibi believe that the growth of a vibrant economy will lead to the development of better security for both sides, the creation of civil society, and the institutions needed to survive Fayyad. And both believe that ultimately the people of Gaza will be asked to choose: Do you want Hamas, Islam, and poverty with the hope of a world without Israel some day, or do you want a quality of life, free movement, and a political entity that has Israel as a partner?

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RE: Abbas Still Says No

The new preconditions for negotiations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas posed this week are, as Jonathan noted, equivalent to refusing to negotiate until there’s nothing left to negotiate about. If talks cannot even start until the PA is granted every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that doesn’t leave much to discuss. I also agree that Abbas’s reluctance to talk stems partly from the knowledge that his own public would reject any deal Israel could actually sign.

However, another factor is at play here: refusing to talk has consistently proved a very successful Palestinian tactic. As chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Dustour in June: “At first they told us we would run hospitals and schools, later they were willing to give us 66 percent, at Camp David they reached 90 percent and today they have reached 100 percent. Why then should we hurry?”

Erekat is correct: the offer Ehud Olmert made Abbas last year — to which Abbas never even responded until after Olmert left office, then finally rejected via the media — indeed gave the PA the territorial equivalent of 100 percent (with swaps).

What is noteworthy, however, is that these ever growing Israeli concessions occurred without a single parallel Palestinian concession. In 16 years, Palestinian positions haven’t budged. The PA still insists on resettling 4.7 million descendants of refugees in Israel; it still won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it even rejects a 6 percent territorial swap for the settlement blocs.

In short, these concessions were not obtained through the normal give-and-take of negotiations, in which the parties inch closer by trading concessions. It has been a one-way street.

So how have Palestinians achieved these gains? By refusing to negotiate. Whenever Israel makes an offer, the PA just says “no,” with no counteroffer. Then it waits for the world to pressure Israel into offering something more to “restart the talks.” And Israel complies.

At Camp David in July 2000, for instance, mediator Bill Clinton lambasted Yasir Arafat for refusing to make Ehud Barak a counteroffer. But rather than press him to do so, Clinton proposed his own, far more generous deal in December 2000, offering the Palestinians 94 percent of the territory (compared with Barak’s 88 percent), plus the Temple Mount. Barak, pressured by Washington, agreed; Arafat again said no. Barak then sweetened the offer again at Taba in January 2001.

Abbas’s current tactic is identical: having rejected Olmert’s offer without even a counterproposal, he now seeks to pocket Olmert’s concessions, plus a few more (like eliminating the territorial swaps), and make them the starting point for the next round of non-negotiations.

You can’t blame the Palestinians: any negotiator would rather get something for nothing. As long as they can do so, that’s clearly their best strategy.

But you can blame the U.S. and Europe for letting them get away with it. Until the West stops demanding ever more Israeli concessions to “jump-start talks” and instead starts demanding that the Palestinians give something in exchange, no peace agreement will ever materialize.

The new preconditions for negotiations that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas posed this week are, as Jonathan noted, equivalent to refusing to negotiate until there’s nothing left to negotiate about. If talks cannot even start until the PA is granted every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, that doesn’t leave much to discuss. I also agree that Abbas’s reluctance to talk stems partly from the knowledge that his own public would reject any deal Israel could actually sign.

However, another factor is at play here: refusing to talk has consistently proved a very successful Palestinian tactic. As chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Dustour in June: “At first they told us we would run hospitals and schools, later they were willing to give us 66 percent, at Camp David they reached 90 percent and today they have reached 100 percent. Why then should we hurry?”

Erekat is correct: the offer Ehud Olmert made Abbas last year — to which Abbas never even responded until after Olmert left office, then finally rejected via the media — indeed gave the PA the territorial equivalent of 100 percent (with swaps).

What is noteworthy, however, is that these ever growing Israeli concessions occurred without a single parallel Palestinian concession. In 16 years, Palestinian positions haven’t budged. The PA still insists on resettling 4.7 million descendants of refugees in Israel; it still won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state; it even rejects a 6 percent territorial swap for the settlement blocs.

In short, these concessions were not obtained through the normal give-and-take of negotiations, in which the parties inch closer by trading concessions. It has been a one-way street.

So how have Palestinians achieved these gains? By refusing to negotiate. Whenever Israel makes an offer, the PA just says “no,” with no counteroffer. Then it waits for the world to pressure Israel into offering something more to “restart the talks.” And Israel complies.

At Camp David in July 2000, for instance, mediator Bill Clinton lambasted Yasir Arafat for refusing to make Ehud Barak a counteroffer. But rather than press him to do so, Clinton proposed his own, far more generous deal in December 2000, offering the Palestinians 94 percent of the territory (compared with Barak’s 88 percent), plus the Temple Mount. Barak, pressured by Washington, agreed; Arafat again said no. Barak then sweetened the offer again at Taba in January 2001.

Abbas’s current tactic is identical: having rejected Olmert’s offer without even a counterproposal, he now seeks to pocket Olmert’s concessions, plus a few more (like eliminating the territorial swaps), and make them the starting point for the next round of non-negotiations.

You can’t blame the Palestinians: any negotiator would rather get something for nothing. As long as they can do so, that’s clearly their best strategy.

But you can blame the U.S. and Europe for letting them get away with it. Until the West stops demanding ever more Israeli concessions to “jump-start talks” and instead starts demanding that the Palestinians give something in exchange, no peace agreement will ever materialize.

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The Wrong Rebuttal

A major sticking point has arisen in the run-up to the not-much-anticipated Annapolis conference: as a precondition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat created a stir when he announced that the Palestinians would do no such thing, arguing that, “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.”

Naturally, Erekat is wrong. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak intimated, every country with a cross, crescent, or religious phrase on its national flag, to varying extremes, traces its national identity to religious/cultural roots. Moreover, Israel’s use of the term “Jewish state” hardly connotes theocracy, as Erekat deceptively implies, but rather the state’s ethno-cultural identity. In this vein, former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar once compared Israel’s being Jewish to France’s being French.

Yet these rebuttals all seem a little too neat. After all, we don’t find France demanding recognition of its French identity—least of all from its adversaries—as Israel continues to do. Indeed, nobody contests that France is French by virtue of a population that is overwhelmingly French.

Olmert should operate with similar confidence regarding Israel’s ethno-cultural character, which is Jewish by virtue of a population that is mostly Jewish. Of course, in this context, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is code for renouncing the “right of return,” by which four million Palestinians would be permitted to repatriate to Israel. But if Olmert wishes to prevent this outcome, he’d be better served dealing in terms that affirm Israel’s sovereignty, rather than subjecting its pre-existent character to Palestinian acquiescence. Sovereignty encompasses the right of a state to secure its borders—and determine who can and cannot enter. When Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they are granted an undue voice in affirming Israel’s internal character—a strike against Israeli sovereignty that Israel bizarrely invites. Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not Erekat admits it.

So long as any Israeli-Palestinian peace process aims to create two sovereign states, Israel’s “Jewish character” must be seen as a matter for Israelis alone to define and determine. For this reason, Olmert would be best served arriving at the Annapolis conference ready to talk about security arrangements and final borders—ones that guarantee total sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians over their own affairs.

A major sticking point has arisen in the run-up to the not-much-anticipated Annapolis conference: as a precondition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is insisting that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. On Monday, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat created a stir when he announced that the Palestinians would do no such thing, arguing that, “no state in the world connects its national identity to a religious identity.”

Naturally, Erekat is wrong. As my contentions colleague Noah Pollak intimated, every country with a cross, crescent, or religious phrase on its national flag, to varying extremes, traces its national identity to religious/cultural roots. Moreover, Israel’s use of the term “Jewish state” hardly connotes theocracy, as Erekat deceptively implies, but rather the state’s ethno-cultural identity. In this vein, former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar once compared Israel’s being Jewish to France’s being French.

Yet these rebuttals all seem a little too neat. After all, we don’t find France demanding recognition of its French identity—least of all from its adversaries—as Israel continues to do. Indeed, nobody contests that France is French by virtue of a population that is overwhelmingly French.

Olmert should operate with similar confidence regarding Israel’s ethno-cultural character, which is Jewish by virtue of a population that is mostly Jewish. Of course, in this context, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” is code for renouncing the “right of return,” by which four million Palestinians would be permitted to repatriate to Israel. But if Olmert wishes to prevent this outcome, he’d be better served dealing in terms that affirm Israel’s sovereignty, rather than subjecting its pre-existent character to Palestinian acquiescence. Sovereignty encompasses the right of a state to secure its borders—and determine who can and cannot enter. When Palestinians are asked to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” they are granted an undue voice in affirming Israel’s internal character—a strike against Israeli sovereignty that Israel bizarrely invites. Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not Erekat admits it.

So long as any Israeli-Palestinian peace process aims to create two sovereign states, Israel’s “Jewish character” must be seen as a matter for Israelis alone to define and determine. For this reason, Olmert would be best served arriving at the Annapolis conference ready to talk about security arrangements and final borders—ones that guarantee total sovereignty for Israelis and Palestinians over their own affairs.

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