Less than a week after his new government was sworn in, European and American critics are once again lambasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His appointment of Interior Minister Sylvan Shalom as the head of the country’s negotiating team in potential talks with the Palestinians is being panned as emblematic of the coalition’s inability to make peace. Shalom is a hawkish member of Likud and has in the past stated his opposition to a Palestinian state. Coming a day after Netanyahu reaffirmed the country’s commitment to opposing the redivision of Jerusalem on the 48th anniversary of its unification during the Six Day War, the naming of, as far his critics are concerned, the misnamed Shalom seemed to solidify the government’s international image as opposed to peace. But there are two problems with this point of view. One is that both Netanyahu and Shalom have committed themselves to negotiate in good faith. The other is that whatever one might think of the Israelis, it’s fair to ask why foreign critics don’t judge Palestinian negotiators by the same standard applied to Israelis.
There’s little doubt that the Obama administration has no expectation that the Netanyahu government will give them what they want in terms of concessions to entice the Palestinians back to the table. The State Department dismissed Shalom’s appointment with what Foreign Policy termed “a shrug” as if to indicate that the president and Secretary of State John Kerry don’t really care who Netanyahu designates for the job of negotiator.
Like most members of his party, Shalom has been a skeptic about the peace process. He has said he will vigorously pursue a deal with the Palestinians and has a reputation as a pragmatist. But some people are suggesting, as the Times of Israel pointed out, that his true mission is to sabotage the talks. That is hardly likely since Netanyahu has never closed the door to negotiations in any of his previous three terms in office. No matter his positions on the shape of a potential deal, the prime minister views the continuation of talks as being in his best interests in terms of both domestic politics and the country’s foreign policy.
But while others are lamenting the comparison between Shalom and his predecessor in this role, Tzipi Livni, it should be pointed out that having an ardent advocate of a two-state solution leading the Israeli delegation at the talks didn’t make a bit of difference. The Palestinians blew up the talks last year when Fatah signed a unity pact with Hamas and decided to pursue recognition at the United Nations in an end run around the peace process. Though a bitter critic and rival of Netanyahu, Livni confessed that it was not the prime minister who torpedoed Kerry’s initiative. Rather, she said, it was Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas who showed once again that he was incapable of making peace even if he wanted to do so.
That’s a key point that Western Israel-bashers consistently forget. Israel has already offered the Palestinians statehood and almost all of the territory they demanded three times between 2000 and 2008 and refused to talk seriously to Livni last year in what amounts to a fourth “no” to peace. Were they to come to the talks prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn they would find that no Israeli government would be able to resist taking them up on a two-state solution. But they can’t or won’t, a fact that renders the identity of the Israeli negotiators a piece of meaningless trivia.
But even if you want to be cynical about Shalom’s commitment to the process, it bears asking why the same people who think him insufficiently devoted to peace have no problem accepting and even praising Palestinians who do far worse. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has regularly denounced Israel and engaged in libelous attacks on it while always denying it the right to be a Jewish state. His boss, PA leader Abbas, embraces and honors terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands, and has also incited Palestinians to attack Jews in order to compete with Hamas for popularity with a public that links bloodshed with political legitimacy. There has never been a Palestinian negotiating team that hasn’t stated positions that are far more extreme than anything Shalom ever said, yet never are they denounced as obstacles to peace.
Unlike with the Israelis, no one says Erekat’s belief in the “right of return” disqualifies him for the talks even though that marks him as a man that will never accept Israel’s existence. But Shalom’s skepticism is treated as proof that Israel won’t negotiate. Instead of worrying about the Israelis, who have already shown they’ll trade land for the hope of peace (and got terror instead), it’s time for the international community to start holding the Palestinians accountable. Until they do, they’ll never have an incentive to start talking in good faith.