Commentary Magazine


Palestinians and the Hands of Time

This week marks the 46th anniversary of the Six-Day War and it cannot be said that the Palestinian Authority has neglected to remember the occasion. Earlier this week the PA’s chief “peace negotiator” Saeb Erekat schlepped a group of foreign journalists to Latrun, the crossroads town that once served as the choke point for the 1948 siege of Jerusalem to remind them—as well as Palestinians and Israelis—that what he is asking for is not negotiations for peace but an attempt to turn back the hands of time and return the region to the moment in history before the Israeli victory in 1967 changed the strategic balance in the region. As the New York Times reported:

“I am sure many of you are asking why is Saeb Erekat bringing you to this point,” Mr. Erekat said to a group of diplomats and reporters as he stood against a backdrop of green fields, a reservoir and an Israeli settlement of red-roofed houses in the valley below.

“It is not because I want to demarcate the maps or finalize the negotiations,” he said, referring to the intensive efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to get the Israelis and Palestinians to return to peace talks. “I just want to stand here and say, ‘It is 46 years later.’ ”

Erekat’s candor is in a sense quite commendable. Latrun is a potent symbol of the nature of the Israel that existed in those halcyon days before the obstacle to peace was the presence of Jews in the West Bank and in which a small state with indefensible borders and a capital that could be isolated with ease stood on the precipice of destruction as Arab armies began to mass on its borders. Erekat was sending a clear message to Israelis that if they thought the PA would ever accept the fact that the world had irrevocably changed in those 46 years they could just keep dreaming.

As Erekat well knows there now exists a broad consensus within Israel about the desirable nature of a two-state solution.  That consensus includes Prime Minister Netanyahu and most of the members of his government. Indeed, even the Israeli right knows that if the Palestinians ever offered a complete end to the conflict and recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders were drawn they would find the majority ready to make painful territorial sacrifices. But by laying down a marker on Latrun—a place that no Israeli in his right mind would ever consider leaving—Erekat was making it clear their real priority was not peace but an effort to merely continue the conflict on more advantageous terms.

Indeed, reminding Israelis of the Israel that existed from 1949 to 1967 is not exactly the way to reassure his ostensible peace partners of the PA’s good intentions. But of course what else can you expect of a peace negotiator that has boycotted peace talks for the past four and a half years?

The actions of Erekat and his boss PA leader Mahmoud Abbas show just how much of a fool’s errand Secretary of State John Kerry has sent himself on by seeking to revive talks with the Palestinians. The PA says it will talk with Israel but only if Netanyahu promises in advance to use the armistice lines that stood until June 4, 1967 as the starting point for negotiations with the clear implication that they will accept little if any alterations to them.

Though Kerry and those American Jews who are cheering his efforts on seem to forget, Israel offered the Palestinians an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem in 2000, 2001 and 2008 and were turned down every time. The latter offer even included a codicil from Ehud Olmert abandoning Jewish sovereignty over the Old City and the Western Wall. But even those terms were not enough to tempt Abbas to give up the conflict.

If the Palestinians were really interested in peace, they could do what President Obama asked them to do this past spring and negotiate without preconditions as Netanyahu has always been prepared to do. But since doing so would put them in a position where they might be forced to either say yes to an accord, which is unthinkable given the realities of Palestinian politics, or no, which would demonstrate that it is not the Israelis who don’t want to make peace, they will continue to find excuses to stay away from the table.

But instead of negotiating, they continue to talk about forcing the Israelis to accept the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the Palestinian refuges of 1948—something that means the end of the Jewish state and grandstanding at Latrun—which reminds Israelis of what a return to the 1967 lines would mean.

Instead of trying to move the clock ahead to a time when Palestinians will have finally rejected the politics of hate and war, Erekat and Abbas continue to appear more interested in turning it back to a moment when there was not a single Jew living in the West Bank, Eastern Jerusalem or the Old City. It is no small irony that there was not only no peace when there were no settlements but also no Palestinian independence. If the PA ever truly wants a state as opposed to a never-ending conflict, the Israelis will be ready. History cannot go backward even if the Palestinians wish it could.

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