How serious Benjamin Netanyahu really is about resuming talks with the Palestinians will be reflected in the extent of his effort to reshape Israeli public opinion, where the concept "there is no partner" has been thoroughly assimilated, partly because of the prime minister's own utterances.
First, Netanyahu will have to cope with the Israeli presumption that the status of the territories is, at best, "disputed," though they are usually perceived as "liberated" or "promised," either by the Balfour Declaration or God himself. United Nations resolutions stating that they are "occupied territories" where a Palestinian state is destined to rise have been disregarded. Accordingly, every inch of the West Bank from which Israel withdraws is perceived as a concession, of both historical rights and real estate.
A second problem is that Israelis perceive their country's control of the West Bank as the starting point for "mutual concessions." The Palestinian concession in 1988 of 78 percent of "historical Palestine" is considered irrelevant. From the premiership of Ehud Barak to that of Netanyahu, Israel has eschewed territorial exchanges on a one-to-one basis, whose ultimate meaning is carving up the "poor man's lamb," to use the biblical metaphor.
Third, Netanyahu will have to confront the public's impression that Ehud Olmert, like Barak before him, "gave up everything" but was turned down by the Palestinians. In the Israeli consciousness, "everything" refers to the territorial issue and leaves out Jerusalem, the refugees and security. In fact, the Palestinians stretched the interpretation of the UN's resolutions in order to accede to Israeli demands in at least the four following ways.
Although the international community denies the legality of the settlements, the Palestinians proposed a territorial exchange that allows 75 percent of the settlements to remain under our sovereignty. Although the international community has determined that East Jerusalem's status is the same as the West Bank's, the Palestinians agreed to leave the neighborhoods Israel established after 1967 in Israel's hands. Despite the centrality of the refugee issue, the Palestinians agreed that the practical solution would be financial compensation and to settle the refugees in Palestine. And although every country has a natural right to things like air space, coastal waters and an army, the Palestinians agreed to Israeli demands that take bites out of their sovereignty.
Fourth, Netanyahu will have to face up to the Israeli predilection for creating realities by force of arms rather than seeking international legitimization - as expressed in David Ben-Gurion's dictum, "It's not important what the goyim say, it's important what the Jews do." The source of this concept lays in Israel's success in winning the world's recognition for its conquests in the War of Independence, a war that was fought under different circumstances than exist today. The tripling of the settlements since the Oslo Accords reflects the prevalence of the illusion that we will be able to annex them simply because we built them.
Both Netanyahu and the Israeli public will have to get used to the fact that by reaching an agreement, we won't be bestowing a state on the Palestinians. We will be getting the Jewish state back from an Arab world ready to accept it, not out of love but because it has no alternative.
Israel has indulged in a great deal of foreplay in these negotiations, mostly with itself. Barak and Olmert got closer than Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, but not one prime minister has mustered the courage to reach the point where an agreement actually has a chance to be conceived. Until we get to that point of our own free will, the Palestinians will prefer to remain in the cozy embrace of the international resolutions, in the hope that they will be implemented, against Israeli interests.
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