Both Israel and the Palestinians are doing their best to act as if they care about the peace talks that are about to resume this week at the behest of Secretary of State John Kerry. But in the absence of any real hope that a deal is possible, maintaining the pretense isn’t easy. Thus, the Palestinians are doing their best to turn the announcement that some 1,000 housing units will be built in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and in the large settlement blocs that would remain part of Israel in any possible future agreement into a major controversy. Yet the pro forma nature of the protest on the eve of the talks makes it hard to believe their hearts are really in it. But since providing an alibi for not making peace remains a higher priority for the Palestinian Authority than making the hard compromises needed to reach an accord, protest they must.
The announcement of the housing bids is being interpreted by critics of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government as a sign that he is not sincere about the talks or as a sop to his allies on the right who are upset about the concessions he has made at Kerry’s request to entice the Palestinians back to the table. They are right about the latter, since many in Netanyahu’s coalition are rightly outraged about the release of terrorist murderers who will be welcomed home as heroes rather than vicious criminals by the PA.
However, the focus on settlement building, both by the Palestinians and the Americans, is a clear sign of how removed the peace processers are from the reality of the conflict. If there was any chance at all that the Palestinians were actually willing to sign a peace deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn or to end the conflict, the building of a few apartments in parts of Jerusalem that are not going to change hands wouldn’t be worth a mention. But since PA leader Mahmoud Abbas knows there’s no way he could take such a step, he and his followers must continue to try to turn settlements into an issue that will, after a decent interval, give him an excuse for weaseling his way out of the talks. Just consider it a fake controversy to go along with a peace process that is, at its core, just as fake.
As I wrote yesterday, the notion that Israel building in those areas that both sides know would remain part of the Jewish state is at all controversial is rooted in the notion that there really isn’t anything to negotiate about. If you consider, as do the Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders, that every inch of the West Bank and those parts of Jerusalem that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 are stolen property and that Jews have no right to be there under any circumstances, then the negotiations are merely about Israeli surrender, not compromise. But since Israel rightly regards its rights there as rooted in international law and history and as valid as those of the Palestinians, compromise is what is needed to make peace. Israeli building in Jerusalem or the settlement blocs is no more an obstacle to peace than the homes Palestinians are building in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem or the new settlement north of Ramallah that was featured in yesterday’s New York Times.
Optimists continue to hope that Kerry’s desperate gambit will pay off because Israel is so afraid of the explosion in terrorism that may result from yet another failure in the talks (much like the experience after the Camp David summit of 2000) that Netanyahu will fold on territorial issues, as he did on the prisoner release. If the day ever arrives when the leadership of the Palestinians—which is now divided between the moderates who don’t want to make peace and extremists who will never consider it—ever chooses to accept Israel’s legitimacy and agree to end the conflict now and forever while giving up the right of return, Netanyahu will face a difficult dilemma which could potentially tear his government apart. But since the PA remains more intent on preserving its maximalist legacy with bogus settlement protests, it’s doubtful that the fears of Netanyahu’s right-wing critics that he will give in to pressure will be realized. If the process were not so fake, we would be hearing about dissent among Palestinians as they contemplated Abbas making compromises rather than protests about building in Jerusalem.
Until that happens, we’re stuck watching the same movie as the Palestinians continue to find new reasons to avoid peace and the world moves on to deal with the real issues destabilizing the Middle East in Egypt and Syria. Staying awake until the inevitable conclusion of Kerry’s drama won’t be easy.