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Where Are The Leaders To Answer The Call?

Where Are The Leaders To Answer The Call?

Alon Ben-Meir -

20 January 2014

No one can accuse Secretary of State John Kerry of not doing his very best to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. His tenacity, commitment and perseverance are exemplary, and if anyone can remotely succeed in ending the conflict, Kerry unquestionably tops the list. Logically, if Kerry did not believe in the prospect of reaching an agreement, he would not have invested this much time, resources and political capital on an enterprise that has eluded so many before him.

The question is why I, like so many other observers, doubt that the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will lead to a solution in spite of Kerry’s Herculean efforts and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s and President Abbas’ presumed “commitment” to peace.

There is no easy answer, but what has characterized the intractability of the conflict in the past remains in play today, which is further aggravated by a faulty framework for the negotiations and a lack of commitment to reach an agreement that would of necessity require mutually painful concessions.

The rules of engagement: Kerry stated that “[the negotiations] would address all of the core issues that we have been addressing since day one, including borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, mutual recognition and the end of conflict and of all claims.” This sounds compelling, but in reality it is a recipe for failure.

To begin with, the inherent flaw in setting these “rules of engagement” is that it did not place negotiating the conflicting issues in a sequence where a resolution of one would facilitate a solution to another.

Although the negotiations involved all the issues that Kerry enumerated, Netanyahu insisted that Israel’s national security must top the agenda. His demand, however, that Israel retain residual forces in the Jordan Valley only reinforced the Palestinians’ suspicion that the Israeli occupation will indefinitely continue only in another form, which naturally evoked stiff resistance.

Had Kerry insisted that reaching an agreement on borders must come first instead of succumbing to Netanyahu’s demand, he could have paved the road to coming very close to reaching an agreement, not only on Israel’s security concerns but the settlements problem as well.

Ironically, Netanyahu has consistently invoked the need for defensible borders while adamantly refusing to discuss borders first, because he simply does not want to establish at the onset the parameters of a Palestinian state, to which he has not really subscribed.

An agreement on borders would have provided both the practical requirement and the psychological comfort the PA needs to engage in a quid pro quo with the Israelis. This would have allowed Abbas to demonstrate that he has achieved something that has never been achieved before and make him far more flexible to permit certain residual Israeli forces to remain in the Jordan Valley as a part of a UN peacekeeping force for a specified period of time.

Netanyahu’s argument that such a major concession will certainly unravel his government does not explain or justify why holding onto the coalition government is more important than peace. Reaching an agreement with the Palestinians requires a dramatic change in the political landscape and discourse inside Israel.

Any Israeli political leader must place peace on top of his political platform and any prime minister must risk his position or even his life and lead the people to peace, not to the abyss where Netanyahu is leading the country. As of now there is still no agreement on this contentious issue of keeping residual Israeli forces along the Jordan Valley; instead, it is compounding the overall difficulties in negotiating other thorny issues which may well be Netanyahu’s intention.

The Settlements Expansion: Although the rules of engagement did not stipulate that Israel must suspend the construction of new housing units during the negotiations, Kerry’s failure to persuade Netanyahu to suspend construction, or at a minimum do so discreetly and at a slower pace (without deliberate provocation of the Palestinians), has poisoned the atmosphere and deepened the PA’s doubts about Netanyahu’s real intentions.

For good reasons, Abbas was furious when he said “We will not remain patient as the settlement cancer spreads, especially in Jerusalem, and we will use our right as a UN observer state by taking political, diplomatic and legal action to stop it.”

Here too, an agreement on borders first would have established the status of most settlements and determined which will become a part of Israel proper and which will not. Such an initial agreement would allow Israel to expand any of the settlements that fall under its jurisdiction by agreement on the basis of equitable land swaps, even before a comprehensive accord is achieved.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state: What has further complicated the negotiations is Netanyahu’s demand that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The irony here is that Israel does not need any Palestinian government, now or in the future, to recognize Israel as a Jewish state in order for Israel to maintain its Jewish national identity.

There are undoubtedly sinister intentions behind Netanyahu’s demand and unfortunately Kerry fell for it, however illogical and counterproductive it may be. Whether Netanyahu is making this demand to please his hardcore conservative constituency or as a ploy to play for time, or even if he believed that such recognition has real merit because of shifting demographics in Israel’s disfavor that would affect its future national identity, he is being disingenuous at best.

As I have said in an earlier.

*************

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

alon@alonben-meir.com                                                   Web: www.alonben-meir.com

ENDS

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