The direct talks that were launched at the Washington summit should have one aim - to fix the border between Israel and the Palestinian state that will be set up in the West Bank. Israel needs a border that will delineate its borders, normalize its international status, end the dissent over the settlements and solidify the national consensus. This is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mission in life. If he succeeds, he will have justified his return to power and go down in history as a formative leader.
Netanyahu is now concentrating on the Palestinian track. Over a year ago, he devoted almost all his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama to the Iranian threat. The Palestinians were mentioned merely in passing. In their two most recent meetings, the agenda was turned upside down, according to American sources. Most of the time was devoted to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and Iran was pushed to the side.
From Netanyahu's point of view, the arrangement he is working on with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is designed to create a balance between two Israeli interests - its desire not to include the West Bank Palestinians within its borders and not to rule over them, and maintaining its ability to defend itself. The Palestinians will get sovereignty and give Israel security. This is the deal Netanyahu is proposing, wrapped up in declarations of "putting an end to the conflict."
Ending the conflict is a lofty goal, but Netanyahu and Abbas will not be able to achieve it. Not because they are bad leaders or because they want the conflict to continue, but because its conclusion does not depend on them. No signature can do away with the conflicting narratives of the two peoples, each considering itself the victim and seeing its rival as an unwanted invader. It is impossible to compromise on a national ethos with the stroke of a pen, and there is no chance today of formulating a joint Israeli-Palestinian narrative. If the negotiations focus on who is right and who is wrong, and who was here first, we can forget about them in advance.
The question of narratives must be left to historians, educators and creators of culture. The statesmen must focus on life's practical aspects and agree on the border in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as security arrangements that will ensure stability. The border must make clear where Israel ends and Palestine begins, where we are and where they are.
Israel has recognized two kinds of border - the peace borders with Egypt and Jordan, and the deterrence borders with Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. There is no clear border in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, only local separation arrangements - walls and fences, checkpoints and separate roads - and a nonstop attempt to establish facts on the ground and push aside the other side.
In many ways, Israel's relations with "Hamastan" in Gaza are more orderly than with the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where the two sides cooperate on security and economic arrangements under the shadow of diplomatic rivalry. The disengagement from Gaza created a clear border, and everyone knows where Israeli control ends and Hamas' sovereignty begins. Anyone who tries to cross the line is risking his life, and the side that fires across the border is aware that it will be fired on as well. That's a simple version of "sovereignty in return for security."
The border itself does not ensure quiet. Israel has been attacked from across its agreed-on borders and has invaded all the neighboring countries. But the border works wonders for internal consensus. During the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the army returned to areas that Israel had vacated through unilateral withdrawals. But it then left, once again. No serious discussion was held about re-occupying the security zone in southern Lebanon or setting up Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip once more.
It will be like that if a new border is established in the east: Every Israeli will know where he lives and where not, and the attempt to snatch another dunam, another hill and another alleyway will stop.
Netanyahu is talking about "new ideas" that will replace the total separation and the evacuation of every settler from the area handed over to Palestine. These are illusions. Any agreement that is not hermetically sealed and leaves openings for fights over control and land will merely lead to another confrontation. That's what happened with the demilitarized areas in the north before the Six-Day War, and it's what is happening today in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has to achieve the best arrangement possible and then stop there. It will be painful, but it will bring order to our lives.
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