Making Do With Foreplay

When Israeli governments let ostensible agreements with the Palestinians slip away, they are spot on as far as the public mood is concerned.

The new term in the Israeli diplomatic lexicon is "shelf agreement." President George W. Bush begged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to redouble their efforts to create the outline of a final-status agreement, and the two sounded as if they intended to carry out the task. The new effort's starting assumption is that even if the redeeming formulas are found and understandings are reached on all the controversial issues, an agreement will not be signed due to the political difficulties each leader faces. Instead, the agreement will be put on the shelf to be available at the right time. In any case, the current effort is considered significant and has aroused opposition on the Israeli right.

The simple truth is that the outline of the final-status agreement is known, and there is no need for a whole year to turn it into a polished diplomatic accord. Formulas are not lacking, but rather the daring and willingness to transform the reality that has been created in Judea and Samaria since June 1967. Bush himself, in his public appearances here, marked out the basic lines of the only possible agreement between Israel and the Palestinians: An almost total withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with territorial contiguity between them, a solution to the refugee problem without implementing the right of return, and a practical solution to the Palestinian demand to extend their sovereignty over part of Jerusalem.

An outline of this type was already discussed in Camp David in July 2000 (and was rejected by Yasser Arafat). It was reworked and tightened in a version presented by President Bill Clinton that December. The Saudi initiative is not too far from these proposals, and, it will be recalled, Olmert spoke of it in a positive tone. In other words, no earth-shattering surprises are expected from the parties in the negotiations on the final-status agreement; the main points are already known. What is needed, first and foremost, is the willingness and courage to attain an agreement.

Over the generations, the Israeli leadership has made do with foreplay while being afraid to reach the goal (with the exceptions of Yitzak Rabin, who lost his life over the goal, and Ehud Barak, who lost the government). And the entire society has made do in this way as well. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he broke a sacred taboo; he brought his army into a forbidden zone intended to protect the Roman Republic. Ever since, his act has symbolized a step from which there is no return.

Israeli society, in contrast, is afraid to fundamentally change the reality it created in Judea and Samaria. The surveys released over the weekend show that the public continues to prefer the status quo over change. According to the current mood, the right wing is much larger than the center-left. A Haaretz-Dialog poll shows 74 seats going to the right and 46 to the center and left. According to a Dahaf-Yedioth Ahronoth poll, 68 go to the right, 48 to the center and left, and 4 are undefined.

In other words, Israeli society is not pushing its leaders to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. When Israeli governments let ostensible agreements with the Palestinians slip away, when they ignore pledges they gave to the Palestinians (or the Americans), when they avoid dealing with the conflict's core issues - they are spot on as far as the public mood is concerned. A leader has still not been found who will sweep the people in a new direction, who will lead them across the Rubicon.

Therefore the new declared goal, that of a "shelf agreement," sounds more like an alibi than a goal to foster real action. It may not be different from previous Israeli excuses to avoid reaching the moment of truth in talks with the Palestinians: "There is no one to talk to," "a chick that did not sprout feathers," "an entity lacking the ability to govern."

Not that there is no substance to these analyses of the Palestinian leaders' skills over the generations, and of the basic situation in the society they head. But they do not absolve Israeli society from its responsibility for perpetuating the status quo: A political stream has still not been created that is broad enough and strong enough to loudly demand that its leaders sign a final-status agreement whose outline is known to everyone, and to implement it.