Opinion |

An Open Letter to Netanyahu: It's Time to Speak to Abbas

When the Palestinian president said he would not return to Safed, he sounded a new note - one that requires a different level of attentiveness, writes Israeli author David Grossman.

David Grossman
David Grossman
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David Grossman
David Grossman

What are you waiting for, Benjamin Netanyahu?

Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, said in an interview on Israeli television that he is willing to return to Safed, his hometown, as a tourist. Implicit in his words is the most explicit renunciation of the "right of return" that an Arab leader is capable of uttering at this time, before the start of negotiations. So, why are you waiting?

True, Abbas did not expressly say the words "renunciation of the right of return." He was also quick to qualify his remarks afterward, stating in an interview in Arabic that this is only his personal opinion and that no one has the right to renounce the "right of return." We are familiar with this Palestinian minuet: one step forward in English, two back in Arabic.

Still, there is something new here, there is a hint. There is a new sound amid the regular cacophony of shouts and mutual recriminations which the two sides hurl at each other's deaf ears. A note has been sounded here which obliges a different level of attentiveness and a more complex and creative response.

And you are not responding.

This is a bit embarrassing, but I will remind you, Mr. Netanyahu, that you were elected to lead Israel precisely in order to discern these rare hints of opportunity, in order to transform them into a possible lever to extricate your country from the impasse in which it has been stuck for decades.

You surely understand, Mr. Prime Minister, what it means for the leader of the Palestinian people to speak even these hesitant words publicly. You can surely imagine - even beyond the barriers of hostility and suspicion which loom between you and him - what it means for the person Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed, who for his whole life has yearned to return to it and live in it as his home, to declare that he is renouncing that dream. You can, of course, write off his words as a manipulation, but deep in your heart you, too, as a leader who is subject to the pressures of extremists and fanatics, can appreciate the courage that is required of him to say aloud what he did, knowing full well the price he is liable to pay.

But you barely responded to what Abbas said. Your foreign minister instantly flowed into the vacuum of your non-response, and with the delicacy that characterizes him lambasted Abbas and trampled him and his words into dirt and dust.

Excuse me - you did respond, very briefly, almost offhandedly, at the beginning of the cabinet meeting: If the Palestinians want to talk, you said, the way to negotiations is open, only without prior conditions.

That automatic reaction, spoken trippingly on the tongue, reminds me of what Dayan said after the Six-Day War: “We will wait for a call from Hussein and Nasser.” We waited. We got the Yom Kippur War.

If we continue to wait, Mr. Netanyahu, we will get a disaster. True, the Palestinians are totally passive at the moment. Forty-five years of occupation have crushed and atomized and muted them. And because they are so battered and apathetic, the illusion of complacency is swelling among us in Israel ? the feeling that this is the way things will continue for all time.

But where there are people, there is no real deadlock. And where there are millions of oppressed people, there is no real “status quo.” The sense of defeat and the feeling of despair have their own dynamic and power. They will go on intensifying, building up ever more in the dark recesses, until they erupt suddenly with volcanic force.

And when the next confrontation with the Palestinians occurs, will you be able to tell us honestly that you did everything to prevent it? Turned over every stone? Responded to every call, however feeble and hesitant?

You are probably thinking that this is an election period, this is not the time to rock the boat, and every step taken toward the Palestinians is liable to undermine the right wing’s solid majority. You, as a practiced politician, know that there are also strong practical and utilitarian arguments precisely in favor of your entering into negotiations with the Palestinians, and precisely now. But I do not want to get into a discussion of those arguments, because this discussion has to be conducted on a different plane, in a different dimension: at a place in which you are called upon to be a leader and not a politician. A place in which you have to recognize that Abbas is perhaps the last Palestinian leader for a long time who declares that he will not allow a third intifada or terrorism; and that what he said in that interview - even if he “softened” and qualified it immediately afterward (well, he too zigzags between politician and leader) - is perhaps the last chance to launch a process which might extricate Israel from the decline and error in which it has been trapped for a generation.

This is a place that requires large and bold movement, not election tremors. Politics, we know, is the art of the possible. But statesmanship, sometimes, is truly art. It is to create something from nothing. Between us and the Palestinians there now stretches a desert of nothingness and void. A Palestinian president who tells you that he knows he will be able to return to Safed only as a tourist is sending you a signal from the depths of that nothingness. Possibly it is an empty signal. Possibly it will be extinguished in another moment. Possibly it is only a manipulation (though, to judge by the furious reactions on the Arab street, many Palestinians are taking his words very seriously). Everything is possible. But in Israel’s present situation, you, Mr. Prime Minister, are obliged to respond to that signal. Because if you do not respond, if you do not intend to respond seriously to this fraction of a chance, I find it a bit difficult to understand why it is you want to be elected prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.Credit: Ronen Zvulun , AP , Mohamed Torokman, Reuters



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