I have to wonder what it is about the mere presence of Jews in the West Bank that prevents Mahmoud Abbas from sitting across the table from Benjamin Netanyahu? If these people, these odious “settlers,” were not Jewish would they still represent a reason not to negotiate final borders? What if they were Laotian Buddhists instead of Jews? Would that make a difference?
Now, I understand that some settlers have committed crimes. Some Jews have acted violently and some have, allegedly, uprooted olive trees belonging to their Palestinian neighbors. Well? To the extent that any Jews in the West Bank are committing crimes they should be arrested and prosecuted. I feel reasonably certain, tho, that there are people outside of the West Bank, who happen not to be Jewish, and who sometimes commit crimes, as well. I would even venture to guess that the occasional Palestinian commits a crime. But the mere presence of Jews in the West Bank is not what has undermined the possibility of negotiations.
The settlements are not the problem. They may be a problem, but they were never considered a reason not to negotiate in the past. Yassir Arafat never claimed that he could not negotiate if Jews moved into the West Bank.
What screwed up the possibility of negotiations was Barack Obama’s demand for a total freeze on settlement activity to begin with. By demanding a total freeze on settlements Obama demanded something that Netanyahu could not deliver without bringing down his coalition government. It was thus, in effect, nothing less than a demand that Bibi step down as the Prime Minister of Israel. Needless to say, Netanyahu was never going to comply with such a ridiculous demand from the American president, no head of state would, and the Israeli people backed him to the hilt.
By demanding a total settlement freeze Obama also forced Abbas into a very difficult position. Abbas, like all politicians, has his constituency to think of and given the realities of Palestinian politics he cannot be seen as being softer on Israel than the American president. His own position as chief of the Palestinian Authority is also at stake. To be seen as weaker on Israel than Barack Obama would have been political suicide... if not actual suicide. He couldn't do it, so he did not.
This is not meant to suggest, by the way, that the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is a good idea. The settlements are the cause of considerable stress within Israeli society and are an appropriation of land meant for a Palestinian state... although it remains entirely unclear why Jews should not be allowed to live in that state and if Jews will be allowed to live in the state of Palestine their current presence there should be irrelevant to the question of talks.
Nonetheless, President Obama fell flat on his face coming directly out of the gate. The demand for total settlement freeze has placed the kabash on negotiations and both sides are hardening their positions. Netanyahu is now demanding the presence of Israeli security forces along the border of Jordan in order to make sure that weaponry is not transported into the West Bank. For his part, Abbas is now claiming that the Palestinians will unilaterally declare a state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
I, for one, do not have a problem with a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. I very much want to see an autonomous state of Palestine next to Israel. The problem, however, is East Jerusalem. It's one thing for Ehuds Barak and Olmert to offer parts of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. It's another thing entirely for the Palestinians to attempt seizure of East Jerusalem. Netanyahu would never allow this and he shouldn't allow it.
So, what can Obama do now to get back on track toward a negotiated settlement? Some believe that the US should put further pressure on the Israelis, perhaps economic sanctions, but it is not the Israelis who are refusing to negotiate. It is the Palestinians who refuse to do so. Thus the thing to do is make prodigious use of both carrots and sticks to encourage the Palestinian leadership, sans Hamas, to come to the negotiating table.
Given the fact of occupation, and given the fact of Palestinian poverty, one would think that the Palestinian leadership would be eager for a state and for a normalization of economic relations with Israel. Unfortunately, neither the Palestinian leadership, nor the Arab leadership, has ever agreed to a Palestinian state at any moment when it counted. They have turned down offers of statehood in 1937, in 1947, in 2000, and most recently when Ehud Olmert offered Abbas one hundred percent of the Gaza, over ninety percent of the West Bank (with land swaps) and with parts of East Jerusalem as its capital.
It is difficult to see what more Olmert could have offered Abbas. (Tel Aviv, perhaps?) It makes me wonder if the Palestinian leadership truly want an autonomous state next to Israel? Or do they want the whole shebang? Further, it is unlikely that Netanyahu would be inclined to offer as much as Olmert did. The Palestinians, however, can have a state and should have a state and would get a state if they would simply sit down to negotiations and agree to the final status.
Israelis want peace, but somehow I do not see it happening so long as Obama’s government will not apply sufficient pressures and incentives on the Palestinian Authority. Usually the question is, what must Israel do in order to secure peace? Sometimes we have to ask a different question, though. Sometimes the question really should be, what must the Palestinians do in order to secure a state?
That’s an excellent question, I think... because things are not always and forever up to Israel... and the answer is obvious.
Agree to one.