Two Israels Are Negotiating Peace With the Palestinians

Could one of the reasons for lack of progress in peace talks be that Israel's representatives are not on the same team?

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

“Talking about an arrangement in Jerusalem,” the mass circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth blared on its front cover earlier this week, with the words “arrangement in Jerusalem” in almost frightening, blood-red bold letters. With a headline like that, we can’t help but buy it - as I did at the corner store along with another splurge purchase - because we’re dying to know: What are they talking about in that room? Have they actually gotten anywhere? Are Israeli and Palestinian negotiators serious about reaching a peace agreement?

Yedioth didn’t quite deliver on its promise of a story about negotiators getting close to a deal in Jerusalem. Rather, the juiciest bit of news it had to offer was that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who oversees talks with the Palestinians, and Isaac Molho, a lawyer who serves as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal envoy to the talks, had disagreed over the Jerusalem issue in front of the Palestinian negotiators. More specifically, Livni reportedly took a more liberal position on the concept of having certain areas of Jerusalem freely accessible to both Israelis and Palestinians. Molho, in contrast, wanted to minimize such areas as much as possible, if at all.

The dynamic described fits right in with the predictions that many pessimists made when the talks were relaunched in August. Livni joined Netanyahu’s coalition government on condition that she be put in the driver’s seat in negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu agreed, but then went and sent his right-hand man to ride shotgun.

Molho, who is considered a Netanyahu loyalist to the core, has represented the premier several times in the past both in Palestinian negotiations and in domestic affairs. On the one hand, it makes sense for Netanyahu to have someone he trusts in the room. On the other, it isn’t for nothing that some in the Israeli press have dubbed him a babysitter sent to watch after Livni and keep her from making offers Netanyahu isn’t prepared to honor.

The story was unsourced, unsurprisingly, but with so few people in the room there aren’t many possibilities. This isn’t the first time that Palestinian negotiators have complained that the Israelis don’t come to the table with a united position, frustrating progress. What’s more interesting is what the gaps between Livni and Molho represent.

There are Israelis who know that the price of a peace agreement includes a shared Jerusalem and they are willing to pay that price. Livni is among them, as are about 50 percent of Israelis, according to the Peace Index at Tel Aviv University.

There are Israelis who either don’t want to acknowledge that price, or say that the price is too dear and that they’d rather take their chances on continuing the status quo – maybe incurring another intifada and increasing international isolation, maybe not. It’s very likely that Netanyahu is among those Israelis, though we’ve never known for sure. His finance minister, Yair Lapid, made it clear this week that he is among the Israelis who see no room for compromise in Jerusalem, telling Israel Radio that the “founding ethos” of the state is that Jerusalem would never be divided – a curious statement as the city was, in fact, divided at the time of the state’s founding.

“If the Palestinians want a state, then they must know that this has a price and they will not get everything they want,” he said.

Apparently, Lapid is also thinking in prices - but he thinks that the price of peace is something the Palestinian side has to pay by forfeiting its claims to Jerusalem.

Beyond the price-payers and price-refusers, the leftists and rightists, the doves and hawks, here’s one more way that can help us understand what’s happening in the talks. Not long ago, when I was interviewing Dani Dayan, then one of the leaders of the Yesha settlement movement, I asked him what Israel should do in the face of international pressure to reach a two-state solution. He insisted that a Palestinian state wasn’t the answer, and would never be. “Israel should opt for conflict management,” he told me, “not conflict resolution.”

That, in a nutshell, is what creates two competing camps of Israelis dealing with the Palestinians – whether over the Jerusalem issue or any other. There is the conflict resolution team, which includes Livni and a bunch other people who still believe, sometimes hoping against hope, that it is possible to reach a historic agreement. And then there is the conflict management team, people who make a career of coping with the conflict but never take seriously the possibility of ending it.

Only time will tell which team Netanyahu is really on.

Jerusalem.Credit: Nick Thompson

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