Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and President Obama all spoke at the U.N. last week and, honestly, it is hard to decide whose speech was worse. Netanyahu’s read like a pep rally to the Likud Central Committee. Abbas’s read like an address to an Arab League meeting. Obama’s read like an appeal to Jewish voters in Florida. The president meant well, but domestic politics required that he whisper where he once spoke bold truths to both sides.
The whole soap opera was just another reminder of how broken the peacemaking effort is today and how much both sides still suspect the other of really wanting two states for one people rather than two states for two people.
I’ll explain that in a moment, but, first, let me note that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz summed up the Netanyahu and Abbas performances perfectly, saying: “From these two narratives of demand and complaint, it appeared as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict traveled in a time machine back to the end of the last century, and decades of dialogue were wiped out — to the great joy of the extremists on both sides. Not peace, but rather the very fact of direct contact between the parties is once more perceived as a goal, and even that is increasingly fading into the distance.”
That is, indeed, where we are — questioning whether the two sides will even talk to each other anymore, let alone negotiate an implementable deal. Yet both sides act as if time is on their side. I beg to differ.
This is a “New Middle East” — but not in the way that we had hoped. When you leave the field empty of diplomacy now, with so many unstable characters roaming around — like extremist Israeli settlers given to occasionally daubing “Muhammad is a Pig” on Muslim buildings in the West Bank and extremist Palestinians from groups like Islamic Jihad given to shooting Israeli civilians or lobbing mortars from Gaza onto Israeli towns — you are really asking for trouble because many of the old firewalls are gone.
If clashes erupt between Israelis and Palestinians today, there is no President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to absorb the flames. Now there is a Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ready to fan them — toward Israel. It is not an exaggeration to say that if serious clashes erupted between Israelis and Palestinians, both the peace treaties between Egypt and Israel and Egypt and Jordan could be undermined. And if Palestinian violence spreads in the West Bank, Abbas may just tell the Israelis that he is shutting down the Palestinian Authority and will no longer serve as Israel’s policeman on the West Bank. That would be the last nail in the coffin of the Oslo accords. So all three pillars of peace — imperfect as they may have been, but so vital to Israel’s security since the 1970s — are in danger.
Given these stakes, here is what a farsighted Israeli government would say to itself: “We have so much more to lose than the Palestinians if all this collapses. So let’s go the extra mile. Abbas says he will not come to peace talks without a freeze on settlement-building. We think that is bogus. We gave him a 10-month partial freeze and he did nothing with it. But you know what? There is so much at stake here, let’s test him again. Let’s offer him a six-month total freeze on settlement-building. What is six months in the history of 5,000-year-old people? We already have 300,000 settlers in place. It is a win-win strategy that in no way imperils our security. If the Palestinians still balk, they will be the ones isolated, not us. And, if they come, who knows? Maybe we cut a deal.”
That is what a wise Israeli leader would do now. And when this Israeli government won’t do that, it fans the Palestinian fears that Israel really wants two states — both for itself. That is pre-1967 Israel and post-1967 Israel, i.e., Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian leadership, though, could do much more to encourage such an overture because the only thing that can force Netanyahu to move is the Israeli center. It has done so before. Why not now? Because when the Israeli silent majority sees its army unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and uproot settlements there and get rockets in return, and when they see previous, dovish, Israeli prime ministers make far-reaching withdrawal proposals and get nothing back, and when they hear that Palestinians insist on the “right of return” for some of their people — not only to the West Bank, but to Israel proper — it raises Israeli fears that the Palestinians still dream of having two states, both for themselves: the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel. If Abbas spoke more directly to those fears, Netanyahu would be under much more domestic pressure to move.
We really are back at the beginning of this conflict. Until each side reassures the other that both of them really do want two states for two people — not just for one — nothing good is going to happen out there, but something really bad might.