Kerry’s Challenge: A Peace Ratified by Both Israelis and Palestinians

Prime Minister Netanyahu recently stated that any agreement with Mahmoud Abbas 'be submitted to the people for a decision.' He certainly wasn't including the Palestinian people in his referendum call.

For the sake of the argument, let's say – and pray – that Benjamin Netanyahu is serious this time when he tells U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his own cabinet that he is ready to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Yes, yes we've been burned before, many times, ever since 1996 when Netanyahu first became prime minister and purported to continue a peace process that he was in fact assiduously bent on destroying. And repeatedly during his present term.

But he has always seemed somehow a bifurcated man. His more rational, intelligent self seemed to yearn to conclude an historic re-partition deal which would be applauded world-wide – but which his other, 'ideological' self and his 'natural partners' in domestic politics persisted in spurning. Now, at any rate, he has different partners. And the danger of the 'one-state solution' grows more tangible and imminent every day.

At cabinet on Sunday, with Secretary Kerry still shuttling between him and Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu announced that "it is necessary that any agreement, if it is achieved, be submitted to the people for a decision." This was not, he insisted, an 'impediment' or precondition on the resumption of the negotiations.

Fair enough. Negotiating 'ad referendum' to a broader policymaking body is reasonable and legitimate. But who are 'the people' that Netanyahu has in mind to submit the agreement to?

Presumably not the people of Nablus or Jenin, the people whose lives and rights will actually be determined by the agreement. No, not the natives, poised at long last to gain their independence. Netanyahu means the Israeli people, who will decide whether to 'give up' the occupied territories.

This overweening display of colonial discrimination in the final act of decolonization is uncomfortable to contemplate, and could resonate uncomfortably through our future history.

Ironically, it would not even have the saving grace of Jewish or Zionist mystique to mitigate its bad taste. The referendum could not be restricted to Israeli Jews only, or to Israeli Jews and Jews around the world deciding on whether to compromise their nation's ancient, biblical right to Eretz Yisrael. The egregious political incorrectness of such a restriction would trigger uproar within the country and abroad. Netanyahu would lose much of the international approbation that he rightfully would hope to achieve from a peace deal.

So the residents of Upper Nazareth and of Nazareth, Jews and Arabs, would be called upon to vote on the future of nearby Jenin, whose own residents would be ineligible – still the passive, unenfranchised, chattel-like subjects of Israeli decision-making.

Abbas has spoken in the past of conducting his own referendum on an agreement. Plainly, that would be in the best long-term interests of Israel as well as in the immediate interest of the American mediator, since it would significantly enhance grass-roots Arab support in the region for a peace-and-re-partition deal.

Just as plainly, though, judging from all-too-recent history, it would run the risk of losing to the anti-peace forces in Palestinian society, grouped around Hamas, which are still present and powerful on the West Bank.

The George W. Bush administration, brushing aside Israeli apprehensions, failed to block Hamas from running in Palestinian elections after the Gaza Disengagement. The rest of that story is tragically familiar.

John Kerry's single-minded determination to draw the parties back to the negotiating table is widely and justly admired and has breathed new hope into the region. But back-to-the-table must not be the horizon of his mediation, even though the shape of the peace deal is fairly clear once the two principals decide to go for it.

The Secretary will need to address carefully the 'ad referendum' provisos on both sides. They are much more than merely tactical devices to circumvent the pitfalls of ephemeral politics. They are steps of lasting significance that will be cited, on both sides, long into the future.

Kerry's final challenge, if all else goes well, will be to do everything the super-power can do to ensure that submitting the agreement to 'the people,’ on both sides, elicits the resounding vindication that a lasting peace will need.  

AP