NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

Editorial: Israel’s Bold Steps

Since being sworn in as prime minister in March 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu has broadcast his commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he supports the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel—an idea that Netanyahu, a lifetime Likudnik, had never publicly endorsed until his June 14 speech.

The Palestinian Authority was, of course, unmoved by Netanyahu’s change of heart last summer. Nonetheless, in November, Netanyahu went a step further, declaring a 10-month moratorium on all Israeli construction in the West Bank—a concession that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “unprecedented” in advance of negotiations.

The PA was unmoved by that gesture, too, because the moratorium did not include a halt to construction in eastern Jerusalem, which includes neighborhoods such as Gilo and Har Homa as well as the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and student housing near Hebrew University.

While the PA’s political leadership has been stuck on no, Netanyahu has, since his first day in office, taken steps to ensure that life improves for Palestinians in the West Bank. In the past several months, for example, Israel has dismantled 185 roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank, enabling greater freedom of movement between Palestinian cities.

Such openness was unheard of during the height of the Palestinian campaign of terrorist attacks that began in 2000. Suicide bombers from cities such as Jenin and Nablus were targeting Israeli cities with frightening regularity. But the security situation has improved dramatically in recent years. Where masked terrorists once roamed the streets, today PA police deliver law and order. Ha’aretz reporter Avi Issacharoff told NER last August that Ramallah is “almost like a Palestinian Tel Aviv” and that “restaurants are full in the afternoon.”

Israeli Arabs now routinely shop in the West Bank, boosting the economy of the entire region. In fact, the West Bank economy grew at a rate of about seven percent last year.

Abbas Pledges to do Nothing

What did the PA do in the past year to indicate its desire for peace with Israel? Nothing. This has been the PA’s strategy for some time. And the PA’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been quite open about his do-nothing strategy. He told The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl last May that he expected the United States to pressure Israel while he sat and waited.

“I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” Abbas explained. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life.”

In the same interview with Diehl, Abbas revealed how far-reaching then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer was in late 2008. Abbas said that Olmert showed him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank. Abbas also confirmed that Olmert “accepted the principle” of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees—something no previous Israeli prime minister had done—and offered to resettle thousands in Israel.

But Abbas did not accept Olmert’s offer. Why? “The gaps were wide,” Abbas said.

Erekat Says that Abbas Will Not Budge

Abbas was not lying. The gaps between Israel and the PA remain wide because the PA maintains a maximalist position that is irreconcilable with Israel’s most far-reaching proposals. In fact, Abbas has raised the bar even higher than it was last year. Today, the PA demands that Israel, as a precondition for direct negotiations, commit to withdraw to the boundaries that were created in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in 1949 and lasted until the Six-Day War in 1967.

“We Palestinians have always said that we are willing to negotiate,” Abbas told Der Speigel, “but only if Israel stops settlement construction completely and recognizes the 1967 borders.”

It’s almost laughable. Recognize in advance what we want, Abbas says, or we won’t negotiate. What, then, is left to discuss? The answer, according to PA officials, if you pay attention to what they say in Arabic, is not much.

For evidence of that, let’s look at an interview on Al Jazeera that aired last year, when chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat proudly recalled how Abbas rejected Olmert’s generous offer.

“I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar,” Abbas said, according to Erekat. “I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine—the June 4, 1967 borders—without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the holy Christian and Muslim places.”

In plain English: Olmert was trying to find a compromise, but Abbas wanted his demands accepted without reservation.

Why This Matters Today

On a topic as complicated as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s no surprise to see how many people forget the history of Israel’s previous offers to the PA.

Ehud Barak’s offer to Yasser Arafat in 2000, Ariel Sharon’s painful withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Ehud Olmert’s offer to Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu’s bold steps in 2009—who discusses these things in the context of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of today?

Netanyahu recently summed up the absurd reality. “Israel has been trying to get the Palestinians to enter the negotiating tent,” he said. “The Palestinians have climbed up a tree. And they like it up there. People bring ladders to them. We bring ladders to them. The higher the ladder, the higher they climb.”

So for now, it seems, the United States and Israel will have to settle for what are being called “proximity talks.” This means that U.S. diplomats will shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah—a radical departure from the way Israelis and Palestinians have done business for nearly 20 years. (Netanyahu met with Arafat in the ‘90s, don’t forget.)

The PA refuses to talk directly with Netanyahu unless it knows in advance that all of its grievances against Israel will be redressed. And the PA pays no price for its obstinate stance. Don’t blame Israel for the lack of progress. BACK TO TOP