“Peace and security” issues have long dominated Israeli elections, and the March 17 vote may be no exception. The big question trotted out by many is whether the government-elect will even have a “partner for peace.” The result of this thinking, which tends to downplay the ongoing human rights violations as a necessary function of collective safety, is a commitment — either by intention or by default — to the status quo.
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As tired memes and phrases have come to dominate the debate, here’s my best attempt to assess the no-partner thesis on its merits.
Let’s start with why the Palestinians might appear to be an unsuitable partner for peace. There’s the fact that the Palestinians themselves are both politically and geographically divided, with Palestinian unification increasingly a distant prospect. How can one meaningfully negotiate a two-state solution with a two-headed entity?
And there are public opinion surveys showing that the Palestinians themselves favor a return of all of historic Palestine as a five-year goal — from the “river to the sea,” according to a poll conducted in mid-2014.
There are suggestions by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he also still harbors designs on all of Israel, such as the interview he gave to an Egyptian paper which included the statement that “the right of return is holy and no one can deny it.”
And then there are all the troubling videos and photographs: a recent video showing a Palestinian child shooting a shoulder-launched missile on a Gaza beach — for fun. Or images like those the Israel Project likes to circulate on Facebook, ostensibly of Hamas-run terror training camps for children.
For those who are mired in examples of Palestinian militancy, the infamous quotation from Golda Meir looms large: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Yet for all of these examples there are also instances that point to the Palestinians being as decent a partner as any successful negotiation requires.
For one, Abbas has indeed stated that his government relinquishes the Palestinian claim to Haifa, Acre and Jaffa. And in that infamous Egyptian news quote cited above, he allowed that the refugee problem is “complex,” requiring complex solutions. Dogma this is not.
Hamas, for its part, has also begun to moderate, albeit slowly and vaguely. And while it publicly maintains a degree of bloodlust, we must recall that the PLO itself left behind its airline hijacking spree in the 1960s and 1970s to settle into a more defensive, grassroots intifada to embrace, ultimately, an agreement to live side-by-side with Israel, including mutual letters of recognition exchanged in 1993.
And then there is a litany of explicit public statements about a willingness to coexist. Here are two, from J Street’s roundup on the topic. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat in 2013: “We have to live side by side... We don't see any other solution than a two-state solution.” And Abbas in 2012: “There will no armed, third armed Intifada. Never... We don't want to use terror. We don't want to use force. We don't want to use weapons. We want to use diplomacy. We want to use politics. We want to use negotiations. We want to use peaceful resistance. That's it.”
So what about those opinion polls I mentioned above? Here’s what I think is most important. Amid the regrettable hardening of attitudes over the last year, there still remains the stark fact that what is likely driving these attitudes is as much mutual fear as anything else, and that Palestinians may even fear Israelis more than the reverse.
For example, a December 2014 poll revealed that “58% of Palestinians think that Israel’s goals in the long run are to extend its borders to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expel its Arab citizens. 24% think the goals are to annex the West Bank while denying political rights to the Palestinians.”
On the Israeli side, “37% of the Israelis think that the Palestinian aspirations in the long run are to conquer the State of Israel and destroy much of the Jewish population in Israel; 18% think the goals of the Palestinians are to conquer the State of Israel.”
So if fear is indeed in play, one has to realize that the very nature of the question is problematic. In other words, asking whether Israel has a partner ignores the myriad dynamics taking place between these two peoples and their governments, not to mention broader regional and global dynamics.
One could even flip the question on its head: in the Israelis, do the Palestinians have a peace partner? I suspect that many Palestinians have an opinion on this. I suspect many will be waiting to see if their hunch is confirmed as Israelis head to the polls next month to help shape the next chapter in their country’s foreign policy.