Israel’s critics lambast its government as incorrigibly right wing and unwilling to advance the peace process. Those criticisms grew shriller in the last week after Prime Minister Netanyahu expanded his coalition by bringing in the Yisrael Beitenu Party and making its leader Avigdor Lieberman minister of defense. But on Monday, the same Netanyahu who embraced a two-state solution and expressed willingness to give up most of the West Bank as part of a negotiated agreement, took one step further to try and make clear that Israel is serious about peace. Netanyahu did what no other Israeli leader has done by saying he was willing to negotiate the terms of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative first suggested by Saudi Arabia and embraced by the Arab League.
After swearing Lieberman into his new office, Netanyahu said the following:
I remain committed to making peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors. The Arab peace initiative includes positive elements that can help revive constructive negotiations with the Palestinians. We are willing to negotiate with the Arab states revisions to that initiative so that it reflects the dramatic changes in the region since 2002, but maintains the agreed goal of two states for two peoples.
Though left-wingers and pundits have embraced the Saudi proposal as a real breakthrough for peace, there were good reasons why Israel did not rush to embrace an idea that included recognition of Israel and an end to the conflict. The Saudis presented it as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. Its terms required Israel to give up every inch of land it won in 1967, including Jerusalem. It also said that peace must also include a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the question of Palestinian refugees, a poison pill that is equivalent to calling for an end to Israel as a Jewish state that seemed incompatible with the notion that its sponsors were truly prepared to live in peace. It was later adjusted to imply the possibility of some territorial swaps, but the refugee clause remains problematic because the only “just” solution to that problem in the eyes of the refugees and the Muslim world is a “right of return” that means the elimination of Israel. Many in the peace process crowd continue to ignore the fact that a nearly equal number of Jewish refugees from Arab and Muslim countries were forced to flee their homes after 1948.
In spite of all that, Netanyahu has just said he’s willing to talk about it and, provided that it be changed to reflect certain obvious problems, such as the refugees and the sheer impossibility of giving the Golan Heights back to a Syria wracked by civil war and the rise of ISIS, it could even serve as the starting point for negotiations.
But in spite of that, do you think Netanyahu will get any credit for this? Will the Palestinians leap at his suggestion? Will the United States, the Diplomatic Quartet or Western European nations like France, which are so interested in starting their own peace process, start devoting their efforts to following up on this opening?
Of course not.
The international community is heading to Paris later this week to hold a conference at which they’ll discuss ways to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority was invited. The Palestinians are happy about that because their sole object isn’t peace, let alone statehood, but rather avoiding direct negotiations with the Israelis, even with a third party involved. That’s because they know that in such talks, they’ll sooner or later be required to either accept a peace offer or reject it and once again alert the world to their inability to end the conflict. The PA rejected offers that would have given them statehood, including possession of almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem three times (2000, 2001, and 2008) and refused to negotiate seriously with Israel in 2014 when Secretary of State John Kerry restarted talks. They far prefer diplomatic exercises such as the one promoted by the French because it diverts attention from their intransigence and heightens Israel’s diplomatic isolation without actually bringing a peace that they don’t want any closer.
Given that even Palestinian “moderates” such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas have made it clear they won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and regard all of Israel as “occupied” territory, it’s not clear what new initiatives will accomplish. But in the face of growing international pressure, Netanyahu has demonstrated, as did his predecessors, that Israel is still willing to negotiate and to contemplate painful decisions that involve risk.
But don’t expect him the administration or the Europeans to take the prime minister up on his proposal, let alone to prod the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel.
Nearly 23 years after Israel began taking grave risks for peace with the signing of the Oslo Accords, “progress” toward an agreement has only been measured in one currency: Israeli concessions. At no point, has the international community come to grips with the grim fact that Palestinian national identity is inextricably tied to the war they have been waging on Zionism for a century. If pressure is needed, it should be on the Palestinians to finally take the “yes” for an answer they’ve been offered for several decades.
The Netanyahu statement is already being rationalized as a way to soften the criticism he’s gotten over Lieberman’s appointment. The truculent Lieberman is a resident of a West Bank settlement and hardly an asset to Israel’s international image. He will also have to prove himself capable of leading the defense establishment. But the fact that he has actually always been an advocate of a two-state solution — though his suggestion that areas of the country where Israeli Arabs predominate become part of a Palestinian state is deprecated by peace advocates — is ignored because it doesn’t compliment the narrative about Israel’s government being the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
If the U.S. or the French are serious about peace rather than merely bashing Israel, they’ll act on Netanyahu’s suggestion. But don’t hold your breath about that. The only kind of peace gesture the world seems to appreciate from Israel is a unilateral withdrawal such as the one Ariel Sharon conducted in Gaza in 2005. But after his effort to disentangle Israel from Palestinian life was rewarded by Gaza becoming a terrorist mini-state governed by Hamas, the same people who are today urging Israel to repeat that experiment in the West Bank said nothing. Nor are they prepared to acknowledge that the majority of Israelis who worry about the wisdom of creating an even larger and more dangerous terrorist state in the West Bank (i.e., the majority of Israeli voters who have handed Netanyahu three straight election triumphs) are simply behaving sensibly rather than demonstrating extremism.
As for the Arab Peace Initiative, even the Arab states understand that Israel isn’t going to agree to a “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 Arab refugees. They would probably also be horrified if Israel were to hand the strategic Golan over to a Syria wracked by civil war. Nor, despite the lip service Arab states are forced by Muslim public opinion to give to Palestinian ambitions, are they all that enthusiastic about the creation of another unstable nation that could easily be dominated by Islamist terrorists that they view as a threat to their own nations as well as to Israel.
But like every other Israeli concession, including the Oslo Accords that empowered Yasir Arafat, the statehood offers from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, the retreat from Gaza, or even Netanyahu’s acceptance of two states, this latest gesture by the prime minister will be dismissed by the international community as insufficient. Nothing short of Israel’s unilateral abandonment of its rights and security is ever considered enough. And even then, it’s clear that won’t be enough for Palestinians who continue to hold onto their dream of a world without Israel.
Despite his reputation as a hardliner Netanyahu continues to try to meet the West halfway as befitting the fact that his stances place him in the center of the Israeli political spectrum rather than its right wing. But Israelis who tire of the peace charade should not be faulted for labeling these exchanges as pointless gestures that do nothing to convince the Palestinians to put down their stabbing knives and start thinking about ending the conflict.