The Disappointing Message From Israel's Foreign Minister

Henry Siegman
Henry Siegman
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Henry Siegman
Henry Siegman

Since her appointment last year as Israel's minister of foreign affairs, it seemed to many observers inside and outside of Israel that Tzipi Livni may be about to bring to Israel's stagnant peace diplomacy a new openness, rationality and momentum that belie her ideological origins as a member of a leading founding family of the Irgun, the hard-line right-wing predecessor of the Likud.

Livni incurred Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's wrath when she suggested Israel take seriously Syria's offer to open peace talks with Israel. She has also been the most outspoken advocate for an immediate resumption of a peace process with the Palestinians. In general, her public statements have contrasted sharply with the inability of Olmert and his Labor party colleagues to focus on anything other than their own immediate political survival.

It is disappointing, therefore, that expectations for Livni's emergence as the "great white hope" for a turn away from Israel's reliance on military force towards diplomacy have all but evaporated - like the morning fog on the ski trails in Davos - when last week she lectured Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting that the forging of a unity government between Fatah and Hamas would send the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians into deep freeze.

"Compromising with extremists," she warned Abbas, "will not promote anything, but can only lead to further stagnation."

Forty years into Israel's occupation of the West Bank, no one - least of all Livni, nor her new good friend Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - should entertain illusions about the real conditions for a resumption of a peace process.

There are two such conditions, the first being a Palestinian government that includes both Fatah and Hamas. Neither of these two parties is an ephemeral phenomenon about to disappear from Palestinian political life; the minimal measure of Palestinian unity that is necessary for successful peace negotiations - not to speak of a peace agreement - between Israel and the Palestinians requires the collaboration of both.

No matter how much assistance Fatah is getting from the U.S. and other sources to build up its security forces, a military confrontation with Hamas will yield only a civil war that will turn the West Bank and Gaza into Somalia - surely not a recipe for making peace, stabilizing friendly Arab regimes, or gaining support for U.S. goals in the region. And Abbas is painfully aware of how uncertain the outcome of new parliamentary elections would be, were he to be able to hold them.

Even if Fatah were to succeed, either through new elections or a violent showdown, to oust Hamas - a party that won the right to lead the Palestinian Authority in what was the first truly democratic election in Arab history - the predictable result would be Hamas' return to terrorist "resistance" that Fatah would not only be unable to restrain but, as in the past, would seek to compete with. It is an outcome hardly conducive to ending the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The second condition for peace talks is acceptance by Israel of the principle enshrined in the road map and implicit in previous agreements and relevant UN resolutions that peace negotiations over territorial issues must start at the 1949 armistice line (the so-called Green Line).

While changes can be made to enable a majority of Israeli settlers in the West Bank to remain in settlement concentrations near the Green Line, this can only happen if Israel is willing to swap comparable territory in return from its side of the border. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Rice have repeatedly affirmed the principle that no changes in the pre-1967 border can occur except by agreement between the parties.

In the course of the war that followed the Arab countries' rejection of the UN's partition resolution of 1947, Israel enlarged its share of Palestine from roughly half of the country assigned to the Jews in that resolution to 78 percent of Palestine, leaving Palestinians with 22 percent - less than half of the part assigned to them. The road map aside, there is no Palestinian leader who would or could agree to turn over to Israel parts of that remaining 22 percent as the price of a peace agreement, except in an even land swap. Far from seeing such an Israeli demand for additional land, no matter how limited, as "generous" (as described by Ehud Barak at the Camp David summit in 2000), Palestinians see it as obscene. And most assuredly so would Israelis, if the roles were reversed.

However, at the Davos meeting, Livni argued that since there was no Palestinian state and no connection between Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, the pre-1967 border has no special status, thus rejecting both conditions for peace talks: the 1967 borders as a point of reference for territorial negotiations and a Palestinian unity government.

Livni's relentlessly upbeat rhetoric about a two-state horizon therefore turns out to be not much more than the empty sloganeering previous Israeli governments engaged in these past six years. These slogans continue to serve as a cover for the predatory expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land that has fragmented the West Bank and precludes the establishment of anything more than a Potemkin state alongside of Israel.