“Right now, the peace talks are based on only one thing, only on peace talks. It makes no sense at this point to talk about the most contractible issue. It’s Jerusalem or bust, or right of return or bust. That has led to failure and is likely to lead to failure again.”
So said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, except that he said it not now, when the last round of talks between Israelis and Palestinians came to a dead end once again, but back in 2008, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were close to a deal. Needless to say, there was no deal.
Even then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was impressed by Olmert’s willingness to acquiesce to the Palestinian demands. In her memoirs, published in 2011, she recalled her incredulity: “Am I really hearing this? I wondered. Is the Israeli prime minister saying that he’ll divide Jerusalem and put an international body in charge of the Holy sites? Concentrate. Write this down. No, don’t write it down. What if it leaks? It can’t leak; it’s just the two of us.”
Leak or no leak, Mahmoud Abbas, like Yasser Arafat before him, wouldn’t take Yes for an answer. Netanyahu’s 2008 observation, then, was right, except for the wrong reason: Whether you talk about Jerusalem and the refugees’ right of return or whether you don’t, peace talks seem to always lead to nothing.
Netanyahu, now on a state visit to Japan, seems not to be drawn into such fatalistic conclusion. In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, he expressed his concerns about the failure of the talks with the Palestinians. “The status quo is not a good idea, because I don’t want a bi-national state,” he said.
Indeed, according to Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu, two weeks ago in a cabinet meeting, asked his ministers to come up with new ideas on what steps Israel might take in the new situation created by the end of negotiations and by the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.
I’m not sure that our government ministers are the most creative people, and if they are, some of their ideas, like annexing the West Bank and boosting settlements there, are a recipe for sheer disaster.
In that case, our prime minister should have extended his request for new ideas to all Israeli citizens, and perhaps appealed to anyone in the world, to email him all the brilliant ideas about how to make peace in this troublesome area. One suggestion I’m sure he’s heard already allegedly came from a frustrated American senator: “Why can’t those Arabs and Jews just sit down, and like good Christians settle their differences!”
More seriously, if Netanyahu had asked to pick my brain on this, I would have suggested that Israel pull back unilaterally to borders it insists on keeping, leave the IDF deployed in the Jordan Valley and wait for the Palestinians to come to their senses and negotiate in good faith.
I don’t know if Netanyahu would appreciate advice from a former aide. Usually, people who have worked for him were either shown the door or left banging it, swearing never to look back. One of them is Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser and a former senior officer of the Mossad.
When I discussed with him this week that idea of a unilateral withdrawal, he agreed, saying he didn’t believe it was the Palestinians’ intention to reach an agreement in the first place, hoping that they will always gain more as time passes, without making any compromises.
But then Arad added an important improvement on my idea: We shouldn’t be doing it entirely unilaterally, he said.
We should coordinate it with the Quartet.
This group, consisting of the United States, United Nations, Russia and the European Union, established to promote peace in the Middle East, will surely back Israel if it chooses to ease its grip on the Palestinians, and even reward it by thwarting any anti-Israeli international moves.
If, however, Netanyahu doesn’t trust anyone (and he doesn’t), then, as a last resort, he can turn to what he himself said in the same statement in 2008:
“We must weave an economic peace alongside a political process. That means that we have to strengthen the moderate parts of the Palestinian economy by handing rapid growth in those areas, rapid economic growth that gives a stake for peace for the ordinary Palestinians.”
Uri Dromi is director general of the Jerusalem Press Club, a former spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments and a retired colonel in the Israeli Air Force. He writes a column on Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald.