Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to orchestrate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians has breathed new life into old arguments about West Bank settlements and the need for Israel to take risks for peace. Kerry’s clear advice to the Israelis that they must give the Palestinians what they want or find themselves boycotted and isolated is widely accepted as conventional wisdom by the foreign-policy establishment. The movement to boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) Israel assumes Israel’s foes will ultimately win because in the absence of peace, frustration about failed negotiations will cause the Jewish state to be portrayed as the new South Africa, a crumbling nation that will be brought to its knees by economic warfare.
Israel’s enemies have always underestimated its resiliency and this time is no exception. But the problem with many of the discussions about such boycotts is that they invariably ignore some basic facts about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If, in fact, Israel is willing to give up almost all of the West Bank and allow the Palestinians their independence, that renders moot Kerry’s condescending advice echoed by his supporters in the media. The majority of Israelis are rightly concerned about the consequences of a West Bank withdrawal and the very real possibility that the Hamas terror state in Gaza will be replicated in any other land that the Jewish state surrenders.
But the key question that those, like Kerry, who are urging the Netanyahu government to do just that is not about the merits of a pact that would make the Jewish state more vulnerable. Rather, it is about what Kerry and his minions will do after the Palestinians once again say, “no.” After all, they’ve already done it three times. And, if news reports are correct, they may be on the verge of a fourth rejection of American-imposed terms in the wake of Israel putting an offer of 90 percent of the West Bank while being compensated for the remaining ten percent with land swaps inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, or other exchanges.
Though most in the news media treat this information as being only slightly more arcane than the details of the Peloponnesian Wars, the fact is, Israel has already offered the Palestinians an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem three times. And three times they refused to say yes to Israel. The first two refusals were straightforward “no’s” from Yasir Arafat in 2000 and 2001, who answered Ehud Barak’s peace offers with a terrorist war of attrition called the second intifada. The third time, Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas was so worried about being forced to say no again that he fled the U.S.-sponsored negotiations with Israel in 2008 as soon as the Israelis made their offer in order to avoid giving an answer at all.
If Abbas finds another reason to avoid accepting a generous deal that would give the Palestinians the independence they claim is their goal, it raises the question of how Israel’s critics will justify the BDS campaign that Kerry threatened the Jewish state’s punishment if an agreement is not reached. Will they dismiss Israel’s offers as insignificant or not worthy of an answer? Or will they claim the difference between 90 percent of the West Bank plus swaps and every inch of the territories that Israel won in a defensive war in 1967 is so significant that it justifies an economic war on the Jewish state, terrorism, or both?
The answer to those questions is yes to all. As was the case after 2000 and each time since then, apologists for the Palestinians will find a way to justify the indefensible and to rationalize the Palestinians’ inevitable resort to violence, in addition to international campaign bent on Israel’s delegitimization. But for the most part they will do what they have done since 2000 and merely ignore Israel’s offers of peace and consider the absence of an agreement as proof of the Jewish state’s sole responsibility for the continuation of the conflict.
The first time Israel sought to give the Palestinians the West Bank, Arafat’s answer confused the Israeli left-wing that staked its political life on the transaction. The government of Ehud Barak went to Camp David in the summer of 2000 determined to give the Palestinians an offer they couldn’t refuse. But when Arafat did refuse it, they hardly knew what to think. At a press event I covered in the fall of 2000, Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel’s foreign minister conveyed his shock at the way his effort to satisfy the Palestinian desire for independence had somehow led to yet another bloody conflict. Yet he said there was a silver lining to these tragic events since at least the world would now know which side wanted peace and which had chosen war. More than 13 years later, I still don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at his naive faith in international public opinion.
As we now know, rather than undermine the Palestinian narrative of victimization those events only increased international support for their position and criticism of Israel. That was repeated after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 when, again, an Israeli effort to make peace was repaid in blood as the evacuated territory was transformed into a launching pad for Hamas rockets aimed at Israeli civilians.
The prime obstacle to peace remains the Palestinian political culture that continues to view Israel’s existence as a crime and considers Tel Aviv, let alone the blocs of communities along the old border or in Jerusalem’s suburbs, to be as much of an “illegal settlement” as the most remote hilltop holdout of Jewish extremists in the West Bank. In the absence of a change in that culture that will allow Abbas to sign a peace treaty without a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees and recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, there is little chance that the Netanyahu government’s offer of 90 percent of the West Bank will be accepted. Nor is a slightly more generous formula likely to do the trick. As they did in 2000, 2001, and 2008, the Palestinian leadership seems to be preparing their public for continued conflict rather than for an acceptance of an accord that would force them to give up their dream of Israel’s complete annihilation.
Rather than twisting Netanyahu’s arm to do what it his country has already tried to accomplish in the past—trade land for the non-credible promise of peace—Israel’s critics should be thinking about how they will react to the fourth Palestinian “no.” Unfortunately, the odds are that most will barely notice it when it happens and will simply continue blaming Israel. Indeed, that’s exactly what the Palestinians—who know that’s what happened the first three times they rejected Israeli offers of peace—are counting on.