U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made it very clear that working toward Israel/Palestine peace is high on his agenda; he has already made several trips to the Middle East and has asked for two months to jump-start the negotiations, focusing initially on Israel’s borders and security needs.
- Undercutting U.S. peace plan
- Israeli officials offer tepid response to Arab League bid to jumpstart peace talks
- Erekat: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be based on the 1967 borders
- Despite new Arab League initiative, resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks is nowhere in sight
- Get Arab leaders to recognize Israel and you, John Kerry, might prosper
- An open letter to Mahmoud Abbas: Save the two-state solution
But he's in for an unpleasant surprise: It is reported that Israel has rejected Kerry’s outline for the first round of negotiations and refuses to engage on security and border issues. The reasoning was that if security and borders are dealt with first, Israel will be left with no bargaining chips on crucial issues like the Palestinian Right of Return and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. An unnamed official says that Kerry misunderstands the conflict as being only about territory.
I wouldn’t know whether this is true. But there is certainly a strong feeling among many in the Western world that the Israel/Palestine conflict can easily be resolved if only the two sides get serious about it. In light of this, it's important to clearly state the main reasons why simply getting Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table is likely to lead to another resounding failure:
The first is that no Israeli prime minister will be able to retreat to the 1967 lines in the foreseeable future without a dramatic change in Israel’s security situation. Israelis are too traumatized by the second intifada and the rocket attacks from Gaza that fell after Israel’s withdrawal. They want assurances that Israel’s population centers will not be subject to such rocket attacks in the future.
The second reason is that no such assurances can be made as long as Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. Israel’s position is that as long as Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, no peace agreement with the Palestinians is worth the paper on which it's written.
The third is that Netanyahu and much of Israel’s right thinks that the world misinterprets the Middle Eastern conflict as being about Israel and Palestine, whereas it is really about the Arab world not accepting Israel’s existence. Hence no peace agreement with the Palestinians truly safeguards Israel’s long-term future.
Four: Most observers in the Western world underestimate the power of the Palestinian national ethos. Many Palestinians indeed do not see establishing a state in the 1967 borders as the end of conflict. The refugees’ right of return is deeply entrenched in the Palestinian ethos and no Palestinian leader will have the legitimacy to renounce their right of return. But without such renunciation, no Israeli Prime Minister can sign anything. Israelis are afraid that after retreating to the 1967 borders, Palestinians will begin a new process of demanding the right of return into pre-1967 Israel, and that the retreat will have done nothing to resolve the problem. This is why Netanyahu insists that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, i.e. that they renounce any rights to pre-1967 borders.
Five: Kerry may be underestimating the strength of those in Israel who oppose any Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. This is the official position of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party and at least half of Likud MKs, all of whom openly reject the two-state solution.
The analysis so far suggests that the deadlock is indeed very deep. It seems that Netanyahu only wants to play at negotiating, knowing it will fail, and that Abbas cannot give Israel sufficient guarantees for its security nor renounce the right of return.
It is therefore imperative for Kerry to take a different approach, one that focuses on the region as a whole. At the end of March, the Arab League summit in Doha once again reaffirmed its peace initiative based on a single principle: If Israel retreats to the 1967 borders and a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital is established, all Arab countries will recognize Israel, establish diplomatic relations and full normalization. After that all Muslim countries except Iran will do the same.
Moving ahead along the lines of the Arab League Peace Initiative would address a number of the problems outlined above. It would take care of Netanyahu’s fear that peace with the Palestinians will not eradicate the root cause of Israel’s insecurity because the Arab world, as a whole, would now officially commit to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
It would deprive Hamas of any strategic depth in the Arab world and force it to change its rejectionist stance. Additionally, the initiative would give Palestinian leaders legitimacy to renounce the right of return, since they would have the backing of the whole Arab world and because Arab countries could guarantee the naturalization of Palestinian refugees into their territories.
The problem is that the overwhelming majority of Israelis does not even know about the Arab League Peace Initiative’s existence and its contents. They also do not know that this initiative has been re-ratified every year, including now in Doha. And no Israeli leader has even discussed the initiative, let alone engaged with it.
Israel is incapable of truly taking in the Arab League Peace Initiative because all Israeli governments have accepted Jabotinsky’s Iron Wall thesis that Arabs will only accept Israel’s existence if they are convinced that Israel could not be destroyed by military means. And no amount of evidence to the contrary has convinced Israelis that this point has been reached.
This mental Iron Wall led to catastrophic consequences: In the early 1970s, Anwar Sadat, the former Egyptian president, approached Golda Meir four times with an offer for peace. She wouldn’t even listen. The result was the traumatic Yom Kippur war.
In many ways we are in a similar situation now. There is a peace offer on the table and Israel’s governments won’t listen. The question, therefore, is: How can the Iron Wall of Israel’s public consciousness be penetrated? How can Israelis be convinced that their dream of living safely in the Middle East is not a Fata Morgana?
Judging from history, only something like Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977 can achieve this goal. This was the psychodramatic event that changed Israeli public consciousness. This permeated Israel’s mental Iron Wall. Peace with Egypt, and later with Jordan, became possible.
Obama and Kerry should not aim for resuming bilateral Israel/Palestine talks. Instead they should push for a psychodramatic turning point similar to Sadat’s visit that will reach Israeli minds and hearts. To do so, they will have to use U.S. influence to get a central figure of the Arab World, preferably from the Royal House of Saud, to repeat Sadat’s gesture, and address Israelis directly. This alone will help Israelis realize that, even if the Arab world doesn’t love us, it genuinely accepts our existence here.