The past week saw the intersection of two unexpectedly hopeful developments in the Middle East. The first was a decision of the European Union to deny EU funding to Israeli entities connected to the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, requiring an acknowledgment from Israeli recipients of such funding that those territories are not within Israel’s legal borders.
Hard on the heels of that development came the announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry that he has succeeded in getting Israelis and Palestinians to agree to resume the long-deadlocked peace talks.
Amusingly, the most angry attacks on the EU’s new rules came from the heads of political parties in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, including Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi and Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, who bitterly oppose any “concessions” to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority—as well as from Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, who believes that peace can only be made with the next generation of Palestinian leaders. The reason they gave for their anger is that the European action might jeopardize Kerry’s efforts to achieve a two-state solution.
Of course, they knew European rules were likely to have the very opposite effect, for they were the first indication that the up-until-now largely empty anti-settlement rhetoric of Western democracies may yet produce sanctions against a right-wing Israeli government determined to pursue a course that must lead to apartheid.
There may be something satisfying about exposing the shameless hypocrisy of the Greater Israel advocates who dominate Netanyahu’s government. But it is also a measure of the shamelessness of that government’s dishonesty that must bring into question its intentions in entering new peace talks—especially so in light of Netanyahu’s previous successes in using peace talks as a cover for his vast expansion of settlements, and also in light of his rejection of terms of reference that identify the pre-1967 lines as the starting point for the to-be-resumed territorial negotiations. It is a record of deception that should send a clear message that success in getting Netanyahu to agree to these talks says little about improved prospects for a two-state accord.
“Jaw-jaw is better than war-war," as Winston Churchill famously observed, but not when it serves as cover for “settle-settle.” After nearly half a century of Israel’s disenfranchisement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, more jaw-jaw may be the worst of all options, for it delays confronting the parties with the moment of truth that can bring about change to a later time when it may no longer be able to do so, or may allow hopelessness and frustration to build to an explosion of the kind that led to the second intifada. Netanyahu’s agreement to resume peace talks and to accept certain of Abbas’ conditions for those talks, despite his earlier rejection of all Palestinian conditions, was as much the result of the fortuitous timing of the EU’s threat of sanctions as of Kerry’s relentless jaw-jaw.
The foregoing is not to argue that it is no longer possible to rescue a two-state agreement from the debris of past failures. It is to argue that it can happen only if it is clearly understood that the central issue that has from the very outset stood in the way of a peace accord is territory, not security, nor Arab refusal to recognize Israel as the home of the Jewish nation, nor the status of Jerusalem, nor even Israel’s refusal to allow the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees—each of which, as shown in the provisional agreements reached between Ehud Olmert and Abbas during the Annapolis Conference negotiations, are subject to compromise.
But having yielded to Israel fully half of the territories the UN determined in 1947 to be the legitimate patrimony of the Palestinian people, no Palestinian leader can or will ever agree to allow Israel, whose part of Palestine assigned to it in the 1947 UN Partition Resolution was enlarged by 50 percent, to remove even one additional square meter from the 22 percent of Palestine the Palestinian people have been left with.
On this key issue of territory, the U.S. enjoys unique leverage that no other country has. Considering the near-panic with which Israeli leaders reacted to the EU’s minimal step, imagine Israel’s reaction to a simple American warning that Israel’s rejection of the universally accepted formula for a two-state peace accord along the pre-1967 lines would no longer allow the U.S. to defend Israeli positions in the UN Security Council and in international courts.
Such an American declaration would either bring a Netanyahu government into peace talks based on the 1967 lines, or lead to the replacement of his government by one that is prepared to do so. Yet the only reason we have not made such a game-changing declaration is not because it is not the right or effective thing to do, but because it might incur a certain domestic political cost. Compare that cost to the ones the U.S. is demanding Palestinians and Israelis pay. For years now successive U.S. administrations have sought to bring an end to this conflict without undertaking any significant diplomatic initiatives that might incur a domestic political risk.
The likelihood that this will change seems to be less than zero. At a recent Senate hearing, Samantha Power, President Obama’s nominee for ambassador to the UN, declared that she intended to “stand up for freedom” at the UN. Lest anyone construe that statement as a concern for Palestinians, whose freedom has been denied for nearly half a century, she explained that she understands her mission to be the elimination of the UN’s “unacceptable bias and attacks” on Israel. So much, then, for expectations that this Administration will do anything other than recycle past failures.
Kerry has proven his formidable diplomatic skills in getting the parties to resume peace talks. But getting these talks to result in an agreement is a whole other matter. Expecting Netanyahu to accept the pre-1967 line as Israel’s border, or Abbas to make the major territorial concessions demanded by the settlers, without the U.S. contributing much more than its time and exhortations is utterly illusory.
The outcome of talks based on that expectation will only prove once again that in diplomacy, as elsewhere, there is no free lunch.
Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He also serves as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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