Twice following the Oslo Accord and the flexible arrangements Benjamin Netanyahu made in the Hebron and Wye agreements, Israel tried to advance the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. At the Camp David Summit in 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak daringly slaughtered a verbal sacred cow when he expressed willingness for a more flexible formula than a united Jerusalem under Israel’s sovereignty. But Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas were panic-stricken lest U.S. President Bill Clinton force a permanent-status agreement on them, and they ran away.
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Later, in an interview with Ehud Yaari, Clinton lambasted the Palestinians’ conduct. Only the radical left blamed Barak and his comment that “there is no Palestinian partner.” But that comment was true at the time, and it may still be true today.
The second time was the negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas. Olmert went quite far in his offers to Abbas. His flexibility even surprised the Americans, as recalled by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her memoir. But the Palestinians also declined to give Olmert an answer.
Based on these incidents, and on Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state – a formulation based on the UN’s resolution of November 1947, to which the Palestinians belatedly clung – Benny Begin concluded that there’s no one to talk to, especially given the Palestinians’ inflexibility on the refugee issue and the fact that Palestinian schools educate their children on an ethos of taking over the entire Holy Land, including pre-1967 Israel.
Begin’s arguments are logical, but he doesn’t go beyond the confines of this debate. He doesn’t ask, like the Biblical general Abner Ben Ner, “Shall the sword devour forever?”
Yet this question deserves to be asked, at least since the establishment of Netanyahu’s current government, which leaves the Palestinians no opening to change their position. The implication of Begin’s conclusion is that Israel is like Noah’s ark during the flood. But unlike Noah, Netanyahu isn’t sending out any doves to keep testing whether “the waters were abated.”
For the government, the current situation is comfortable. It is gripped by the illusion that the Middle East is like a swamp with stagnant waters, in which nothing can change, so there’s no place for questions like “Shall the sword devour forever?” But that’s a mistake. Beneath that stagnant surface, the diplomatic arena is boiling. Netanyahu’s 2017 is a replica of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s 1972.
Golda refused to accept and implement Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s initiative for a partial withdrawal by agreement from the Suez Canal, even though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat accepted the proposal. She also rejected a proposal by UN envoy Gunnar Jarring for a comprehensive agreement. (Dr. Meir Boimfeld’s new Hebrew-language book, “Kfitza Lemayim Karim,” discusses this at length.)
But even if it’s true, as historian Uri Milstein argues, that it wasn’t possible to prevent the 1973 Yom Kippur War because Sadat needed it to restore Egypt’s honor, this doesn’t change the fact that Golda refused to consider any possibility for an agreement. Just like Netanyahu today.
Then, too, it was possible to point to the actions of Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who bears responsibility for the 1967 Six-Day War because he unilaterally violated every international agreement, and argue that “there’s no one to talk to in Egypt.” But Prime Minister Menachem Begin didn’t do so. When he received the opportunity Golda had passed up for a deal with Sadat, he employed Dayan and Aharon Barak, ignored his political partners and brought Israel the most important peace agreement of its 70 years of existence.
Therefore, it’s not enough to point (correctly) to Abbas’ responsibility for the winds of war; it’s also necessary to prepare for the day when the diplomatic climate changes, by not building in the West Bank outside the major settlement blocs. We should return to the Barak and Olmert proposals, with a few improvements. Otherwise, it will be possible to write an Arabic version of Benny Begin’s article and make the same accusations against Israel that it makes against the Palestinians.