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

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Israel has taken considerable security risks by removing more than 400 West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks.
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The improvement in the security situation has provided concrete economic benefits, with Israeli Arab shoppers flocking to West Bank cities.

Editorial: Yes to Peace

More than a year has passed since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly accepted the two-state solution. Since then, he has made many statements affirming his determination to advance peace with the Palestinians. He has backed up these statements with concrete actions that have proved his seriousness and dramatically improved the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank.

These important measures have yet to be reciprocated. Thus far, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has rejected both Netanyahu’s and the Obama administration’s calls to enter into direct negotiations with Israel—the only possible framework for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace.

For the first time in his political career, Netanyahu announced in June 2009 that he accepts—and is prepared to negotiate—a two-state solution to the conflict: a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel. The Palestinian response to the prime minister’s groundbreaking address was disappointing. PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said, “The speech has destroyed all peace initiatives and [chances for] a solution.”

Undeterred, Netanyahu proceeded in November to announce a 10-month moratorium on the construction of new homes in the West Bank, calling it a “far-reaching and painful step.” No Israeli prime minister from either side of the political spectrum had ever agreed to such a freeze on settlement activity. The Obama administration praised Israel’s decision. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the moratorium as “unprecedented” and said that it “helps move forward toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” However, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that Palestinian leaders had rejected the Israeli move.

Nonetheless, the government of Israel has enforced the moratorium. At considerable domestic political risk, it has sent inspectors to demolish houses that settlers had set up illegally after November—sometimes in the face of violent opposition by radical settlers. This strict enforcement was reflected in an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics announcement that there were no housing starts in the West Bank during the first quarter of 2010.

Furthermore, Israel has taken considerable security risks by removing more than 400 West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks since April 2008, improving the freedom of movement for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Israel dismantled 52 of those barriers in the past few weeks alone.

The Israelis also have worked in close coordination with the United States and the PA to enhance security in the West Bank. Thanks to these efforts, the capabilities and effectiveness of PA security forces have vastly improved. They are now taking positive steps against Hamas terrorists in the West Bank and have coordinated hundreds of security missions with their Israeli counterparts.

The improvement in the security situation in the West Bank has provided concrete economic benefits to its Palestinian residents. Israeli Arab shoppers are flocking to West Bank cities, and last year, there was a 30 percent increase in housing and business real estate projects. The GDP in the West Bank’s Palestinian areas grew last year by more than 9 percent, and the PA stock market’s al-Quds Index increased by nearly 12 percent.

During his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu rebutted the claim that he regards this “economic peace” with the Palestinians as a substitute for political peace. He said that in addition to the “bottom-up” economic process, there needs to be a “top-down” political process. “It can only be done by the leaders themselves,” he stated.

Netanyahu repeatedly asserted his support for a Palestinian state. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he said, “The solution of legitimacy means that we recognize the Palestinian state as the nation state of the Palestinian people, and they recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.” For the first time, he said explicitly that the Palestinians “should have their own independent country.”

Countering allegations that he is seeking excuses to avoid peace talks, Netanyahu remarked, “I could tell you, ‘We’ll never negotiate with the [PA] as long as Hamas is in Gaza.’ That’s not my position. I think we should get on with it and seek to negotiate peace between Israel and the [PA]. We’ll have to deal with Hamas later.” He also stated repeatedly that he’s willing to negotiate with the PA on all of the core issues: territory, settlements, refugees, security, water and even Jerusalem.

President Barack Obama, who held a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister for more than an hour, recognized his sincerity. “I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants peace,” he said. “I think he’s willing to take risks for peace.”

Netanyahu’s most recurrent theme during his Washington visit was his eagerness to move promptly to direct negotiations with the PA. “We’ve begun proximity talks,” he said during White House remarks with President Obama. “I think it’s high time to begin direct talks. I think with the help of President Obama, [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas and myself should engage in direct talks to reach a political settlement of peace, coupled with security and prosperity.”

President Obama agreed, saying, “We expect those proximity talks to lead to direct talks, and I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks, and I commend the prime minister for that.”

As of this writing, Abbas has rejected both Netanyahu’s and Obama’s calls to enter into direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions. Thus far, there are no indications that the Arab states are willing to support such a move. Yet, peace can only be achieved through direct negotiations. As Netanyahu stated, “We all have our grievances…. But the most important thing is to get together, sit down in a room and begin to negotiate peace. You cannot resolve a conflict, you cannot successfully complete a peace negotiation, if you don't start it.” BACK TO TOP