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The View from J Street: Time for the Peace Talks to Get Serious

January 31, 2014
by Alan Elsner ce40f_w-abbas-netanyahu-cp-930906There are only weeks to go until critical decisions are to be made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative. The outcome of Kerry’s bold effort hangs in the balance, and both leaders need to stop political posturing and get serious. Fortunately there are welcome signs that Abbas understands this, and a recent interview he gave in Arabic to the Israeli think tank, The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) contained some very encouraging words. “I’m telling the Israeli people that we’re neighbors, we’ve fought many wars, and I pray to God that the wars between us have stopped,” Abbas said. “Write this down: I’m willing to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at any time. I’m not ruling out Netanyahu speaking at our parliament or me speaking in front of the Knesset. The matter should be checked.” There was also some substantive meat to the interview. Abbas for the first time said he was willing to accept Israeli military presence in the West Bank for a transitional period of three years and added that he would be willing to have a third party, possibly NATO, take responsibility for security after an Israeli withdrawal in order to “soothe our concerns and Israel’s. Although this falls short of Israel’s demand to keep its troops along the Jordan River for ten to fifteen years, it clearly represents a big step forward. If the parties are bargaining about the number of years, surely a compromise is possible. Unfortunately, the Israeli political right chose this moment to engage in a deeply unedifying internal debate, sparked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comment that he would not dismantle a single settlement in the context of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. “I have said in the past, and I repeat today: I do not intend to remove a single settlement and I do not intend to displace a single Israeli,” Netanyahu said. This position undermines the talks, which have always proceeded on the concept that the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state should be drawn on the basis of the 1967 line with some small land swaps so that major settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem could become part of Israel. Insisting that far-flung settlements be allowed to remain in the heart of the future Palestinian state is a non-starter that risks condemning the negotiations to failure. As Donniel Hartman, who runs the Shalom-Hartman Institute of Jerusalem, argued in a Times of Israel Op Ed, “the issue is not whether Palestine should be Jew-free, but whether Israel has a right to claim further real estate from the Palestinian state.” When right-wing opponents of a two-state solution, including members of his own party, attacked Netanyahu for even suggesting that Palestinian sovereignty could be established over part of the West Bank, officials in the Prime Minister’s Office just made matters worse, saying that the critics were getting in the way of the prime minister’s effort “to reveal the true face of the Palestinian Authority” as an unwilling peace partner. If that was Netanyahu’s strategy, he probably did not count on Tzipi Livni, his own chief negotiator, exposing its fundamental dishonesty. In her speech to the INSS, Livni suggested that Israeli officials have been baiting the Palestinians so as to provoke responses that could be construed as rejectionist. “The point is not to expose the other side’s face, but to reach an agreement with them,” she said. We take the increasing tensions within the Israeli government as a sign that the talks are reaching a critical point, exposing the fissures within the coalition which includes both supporters and opponents of a two-state solution. In the middle, trying to straddle both sides, is Netanyahu. But soon he will have to decide. Is he going to lead the nation toward peace — or will he just put forward impossible demands in hopes of blaming the other side when the talks collapse. Does he really support the two-state solution — or is he just a supporter in name only? Alan Elsner is Vice President of Communications at J Street.