John Kerry’s current visit is different from all his earlier ones. This time, he’s no longer dealing with procedures and processes and prisoner releases. The document the U.S. secretary of state is bringing with him to Jerusalem and Ramallah touches on the core of the conflict and tries to end it. It contains the foundations on which peace is supposed to be built.
A Jewish state of Israel alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state? Jerusalem as the capital of both states? A border based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps? Kerry’s proposal is a vague Rorschach test in which each side can read whatever it wants to read.
But Kerry’s proposal isn’t empty of content or devoid of importance. It obligates both Israelis and Palestinians to say “yes” or “no” to a permanent agreement. It brings Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the moment of truth of his time in office.
For many years, Netanyahu went back and forth. He understood that without dividing the land there would be no Jewish majority in the land, but he didn’t take any real steps to divide it. He understood that an occupying Jewish state would have no legitimacy, but he didn’t try to end the occupation. He said over and over that he had crossed the Rubicon, but he never actually set so much as a foot into that well-known river. In the years since his famous speech in June 2009, Netanyahu hasn’t proposed any comprehensive diplomatic plan to realize the vision of two nation-states that he himself proclaimed and defined in that speech.
True, the Palestinians were the principal peace rejectionists. True, both the Americans and the Europeans made major mistakes in their conduct of the peace process. But Netanyahu also contributed his bit, by refusing again and again to take any binding step from which there was no return. A combination of ideological revulsion, political fear and emotional difficulty resulted in the prime minister failing to lead the country to the goal that he himself adopted four and a half years ago in his speech at Bar-Ilan University.
Thus for Netanyahu, the coming weeks will be difficult weeks. If he says “yes” to Kerry, he will be saying “yes” to the 1967 borders, with some adjustments, and to a Jerusalem that isn’t undivided. If he says “no” to Kerry, he will be saying “no” to Israel’s international legitimacy and to its ability to protect itself from Iran. If he gambles on movement toward peace, he will be leading Israel’s “national camp” to adopt the Meretz platform. If he remains loyal to the Likud’s historic positions, he will bear responsibility for Israel becoming isolated and suffering serious diplomatic and economic distress.
It’s not simple. It’s really not simple. In early 2014, Netanyahu will face a dilemma that isn’t all that different from the one faced by Menachem Begin in 1977, Yitzhak Rabin in 1993 and Ariel Sharon in 2004.
Netanyahu must not say “no” to Kerry. The reasons for this are primarily negative. An Israeli refusal would put Israel on the South African track, banishing it to the punishment corner, a disgrace to the family of nations. An Israeli refusal would endanger its intimate alliance with the United States, on which its national security and economic wellbeing are based. An Israeli refusal would play into the Iranians’ hands and enable them to cross the nuclear threshold while their main opponent wallows in the mud and is ostracized from the international community.
But Netanyahu also has one very important positive reason for saying “yes” to the U.S. secretary of state. If the principles in Kerry’s document indeed include recognition of a Jewish state in the 1967 borders with minor adjustments, this will be a Zionist victory. And Netanyahu is the one who put the demand for recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people at the top of the diplomatic agenda.
If Kerry indeed turns such recognition into a hard diplomatic fact, that is reason to celebrate. It’s also reason to swallow a great many bitter pills. And it’s a very good reason for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to walk with his head held high toward peace.