My image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was shaped to a large extent during a dinner we had 25 years ago in Jerusalem.
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Netanyahu had finished a very impressive stint as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, and it was clear that a bright political future was awaiting him. We talked that evening about Israel and the Palestinians, and I asked him what he thought would be secure borders for Israel. He took out a pen, picked up a paper napkin and drew a map outlining what he believed to be secure borders along which a future peace agreement could be made. He then stated clearly, without a second of hesitation, "Make no mistake. I will be the man to make the peace."
Today, Netanyahu can fulfill the vision he outlined to me 25 years ago. He has an opportunity granted to few leaders: He can guarantee that Israel remain both a Jewish and a democratic state in perpetuity. And right now, he might well be the only man in Israel in a position to do that.
Knowing Netanyahu for so many years. I am confident that he is aware of the frightening implications of Israel’s demographic predicament. He recently stated that one of the main goals facing Israel in light of the renewed peace negotiations is to “prevent the creation of a binational state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River that would endanger the future of the Jewish state.” He is, of course, neither in the camp of the far right nor of the far left, and his commitment to Israel's security is known to all.
That is precisely why he is the person with the credentials to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Israelis on the moderate right will trust that he will only make concessions if he is confident that Israel will remain secure. Israelis on the left will be pleased to see an Israeli prime minister from the right, as was the case with Menachem Begin, willing to give up land in exchange for peace.
During the course of the 25 years since that unforgettable dinner with Netanyahu, I have had hundreds of hours of meetings with many Arab, Israeli and American leaders, including the current and past Palestinian leadership. I have been especially impressed with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' (Abu Mazen) commitment to peace and I am absolutely convinced that Israel has a real partner for an historic peace accord.
As recently as September 23, at a meeting with over 40 American Jewish leaders, in which everything said was on the record, Abu Mazen declared that it is a cardinal Palestinian interest to reach a historic agreement with Israel that will end the conflict and end all claims. He also said, “Make no mistake, no one gains more from reaching an agreement than the Palestinians, and no one loses more if we fail to reach an agreement. Failure is not an option for us.”
My own operative conclusion following these countless talks over the years is clear. Israel can reach a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the following principles:
* Two states for two peoples.
* The Palestinian state will be demilitarized, without an army.
* Palestinian refugees will have a right to return to the new state of Palestine. A compensation package will be developed by the international community.
* Borders will be based on the 1967 lines with land swaps equal in size that will take into considerations Israel's security needs. Israel will maintain the large settlement blocs under Israel's sovereignty.
* Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem will come under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty.
* The Old City of Jerusalem within the walls will be without sovereignty and will be jointly administered by the United States, Israel and the Palestinians. The holy places will be under the same religious supervision as they are now.
* The agreement will mean the end of the conflict and of all previous claims.
Polls conducted over the past decade have shown again and again that a very large majority (70-80 percent) of Israelis would favor an agreement along these lines.
Will it be easy for Netanyahu to convince all his partners on the right to go along with this deal? No. He is surrounded by a fair number of ideologues who simply don't want to give up land in order to make peace. It will require extraordinary courage. Then again, he won't be the first prime minister to face this problem.
When Prime Minister Menachem Begin brought the peace agreement he had reached with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt before the Knesset, 18 legislators voted against it, virtually all of them Begin's former allies and some very close friends. An additional 17 MKs, they too from the ranks of his allies, abstained. But 84 MKs went along with Begin.
Begin took a historic decision that saved thousands of Israeli lives. In the 30 years before that agreement, Israel had fought five wars with the Egyptians and thousands of Israelis had died. Since that agreement, more than 30 years ago, no wars with Egypt have been fought.
Now it’s Netanyahu's moment. Will he follow Begin’s choice and secure Israel's existence as a Jewish, democratic and prosperous state?
At the end of our dinner 25 years ago I told Netanyahu how much I wished that he would one day have the opportunity to lead Israel to peace. Now he can. That moment has arrived. It is Netanyahu's moment. But it is also the moment when Israel's fate will be decided.
S. Daniel Abraham is an American entrepreneur and founder of the Center for Middle East Peace www.centerpeace.org in Washington. Follow the center on Twitter: @AbrahamCenter.