The somber spectacle of Israel’s isolation during the United Nations debate on Palestinian statehood marks the political tsunami that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s critics warned would arrive if Israel did not propose a bold peace initiative. But, more importantly, the speeches at the UN General Assembly by the two rivals, Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, showed that any initiative to bring the parties back to the negotiating table might turn out to be futile.
Speeches do not make peace, but they can mar its prospects. Netanyahu and Abbas both showed once again how the politics surrounding “the peace process” has defeated the cause of peace. Both leaders exhibited utter indifference to the other’s core concerns, and catered to their constituencies, Hamas and Israeli settlers included, making it clear, urbi et orbi, that the gaps separating their positions are as unbridgeable as ever.
Netanyahu could not bring himself to admit the sins of occupation, or even to utter a minimal expression of empathy with the Palestinian tragedy of dispossession and dispersion. Israel’s march of folly in expanding its West Bank settlements did not deserve a hint of soul searching on his part.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s call for peace will remain hollow so long as he continues to view the solution to Israel’s legitimate security concerns as requiring continuous occupation of sizable portions of the future Palestinian state. The Jordan Valley and the hills of Judea and Samaria are, undoubtedly, strategic assets for a country whose width is that of the length of a Manhattan avenue. But demilitarization, the deployment of international forces, and rigid security arrangements could offer an answer. Security concerns can no longer be treated as a license for territorial expansion.
Eager to deliver his elementary history lessons, Netanyahu refuses to admit the validity of one key perspective. Rather than interpreting Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War as permission for annexation of territory, that triumph should be viewed as a watershed that made possible peace with the entire Arab world should Israel relinquish occupied Arab lands. This principle was stipulated by the 2002Arab peace initiative, and was previously realized in Israel’s peace with Egypt and Jordan.
So, whoever aspires to help the parties reach a settlement needs to be attentive to the fact that territorial borders are only one aspect of this conflict – and not necessarily the most contentious one. Unlike Israel’s peace with Egypt (and, one hopes, its peace with Syria), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rooted in more than a real-estate dispute. As the UN debate showed, what is at stake is a clash of irreconcilable national narratives. Egypt had to grant Israel only political recognition, but the Palestinians are being asked to recognize Israel’s moral legitimacy by accepting Jewish links to the Holy Land and hence admitting the Jews’ millenarian claim for a state in a land that the Palestinians believe is historically theirs.
Not a word, nor an omission, in Abbas’s UN speech was accidental. What was most striking was how flagrantly dismissive he was of Israel’s most fundamental national narrative. He spoke of the Holy Land as the source of Christianity and the home of sacred shrines of Islam, but intentionally ignored the Biblical roots of Judaism and Jerusalem as the home of Hebrew kings and prophets. For Israelis, that omission reveals even the most moderate Palestinians’ unwillingness to embrace the existence of a Jewish state.
Abbas’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state – on the ground that to do so would betray Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens – vindicated a key Israeli concern, and fueled skeptics’ fears of a hidden long-term Palestinian agenda to do away with the Jewish state altogether. This is likely to dishearten Israeli doves – and embolden hawks in their insistence that no progress toward peace is possible without the Palestinians’ unequivocal acceptance of Israel as the Jewish national homeland.
Thus, Abbas’s implicit message that Israel will never offer a fair deal to its Arab minority will reinforce Netanyahu’s leadership as the staunch defender of the national interest against the naïve dreamers of the left. Netanyahu has only to present Abbas’ arguments as proof that, for the Palestinians, peace with Israel is just the first stage in a grand strategy leading to one Palestine, embracing all of Israel, with an Arab majority.
Even if, as expected, the Security Council rejects the Palestinians’ request for full UN membership and Palestine ends up with observer status in the General Assembly, Abbas can already claim victory. He managed to redress the balance of power with Israel and the United States by mobilizing the vast support that the Palestinian cause elicits in the international community. If not for his bold initiative at the UN, the Quartet (the UN, the US, the European Union, and Russia) would not have become so suddenly hyperactive in searching for a formula to bring the parties back to the negotiating table.
But don’t hold your breath. Nothing will come out of the Quartet’s move unless the parties change their attitudes. Peacemaking is about courageously addressing the other side’s genuinely vital concerns.
And would-be mediators, for their part, can no longer just be “facilitators”; they need to regard themselves as stakeholders – and be prepared to exert pressure and twist arms. Left to their own devices, Israelis and Palestinians will never reach a comprehensive peace settlement.
Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo international Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.