Monday, September 6, 2010

The Farce Behind the Freeze

Formal face to face peace talks have begun, again, between Israel and the Palestinians and with all history, skepticism, and cynicism aside, I know that I share the hope of the overwhelming majority of Israelis that they will succeed. Yet, even before the talks began this week, the Palestinians were looking for excuses to run away from the table. Claiming that ending Israel’s ten month construction freeze in the disputed West Bank makes it impossible to continue talks, predetermining the outcome of the talks before they had started, the Palestinians entered talks with one foot out the door. But talk of the construction in these Jewish communities is a red herring. It’s a farce that has, and should have, no bearing on the talks, even though the freeze itself was a magnanimous and unprecedented gesture to the Palestinians to get them to enter direct negotiations to begin with. That the Palestinians waited until now, it’s even possible to imagine that they waited to sit down to begin talks deliberately in order to use this excuse as a way to end the talks three weeks later. As much as the Israeli position was magnanimous and unprecedented, the Palestinian position is intransigent and obstructive. Before addressing that, it’s important to note that much of the reason why the Palestinians took and maintain their position is due to President Obama's making “settlement” construction the issue that he did. Once he did that, the Palestinians could not be less “Palestinians than the President” and they adopted, and ran with, this hard line and unprecedented position just as a pre-condition to sit to negotiate face to face. The simple reality is that President Obama provided the ladder and pushed Abbas up the tallest tree in Palestine, then pulled away the ladder and left no way for him to climb down. It would be honest and useful if the President acknowledged such to Abbas, even privately, and made it clear that he was wrong. Since then, one Palestinian spokesman after another continue the mantra that it’s “impossible” to negotiate while settlements are being built, forget the fact that it’s Palestinians who do most of the construction and make a livelihood in building these communities, or the fact that it’s just not true. This is another excuse for their not negotiating in good faith, and makes one wonder seriously whether they in fact want an end to the war, violence, and disputes that have served as an impediment to their goal of a Palestinian state, or not. The reality is that until Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 2009, the Palestinians HAVE negotiated with Israel at the highest levels, on a regular and ongoing basis, all the while settlement construction continued. Not only is it not “impossible” to do so, but it’s been done! Underscoring this, an right leaning Israeli group recently bemoaned that they missed Prime Minister Olmert, never a fan of the Israeli right, as under Olmert, there was far more “settlement” construction than in Netanyahu’s tenure. Not only did negotiations take place, refuting Palestinian claims that these talks are “impossible,” but Israel demonstrated that settlements are not an obstacle to peace by unilaterally destroying dozens and evacuating nearly 10,000 of their residents. It is a precedent that was established in 2005 and one that is expected to be repeated under a final agreement with the Palestinians. Denying this reality is like denying that the Jewish people have a legitimate, historical and religious right to Israel that dates back thousands of years even before King David built Jerusalem 3000 years ago. And if the Palestinians weren’t negotiating peace and talking about a resolution of the conflict (which even Abbas admits took place because he said that Olmert’s offers and the Palestinian’s demands left gaps that were still too wide), then Prime Minister Olmert, President Abbas, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, and Ahmed Qureia had one of the highest level, and least publicized, book clubs in the world. Netanyahu is correct. One cannot set conditions of terms that predispose the outcome and an agreement on all the issues just to sit down and negotiate. Publically, both Netanyahu’s and Abbas’ remarks were conciliatory. One expects that the thawing of the building freeze notwithstanding, there will be many issues on which the sides differ. But the question is whether the parties want to charter a new path, or revert to historical problems. Most Israelis believe that Netanyahu is sincere about his desire to make peace, yet most Israelis do not believe that about Abbas, or his ability to do so. Historically, September is not an auspicious month in which to begin peace talks based on the September 13 anniversary of the ultimate failure of the signing of the Oslo agreements and mutual recognition between the PLO and Israel (1994), and the failure of the Clinton hosted Camp David negotiations in 2000 that precipitated the Second Intifada leaving thousands of Israelis killed and injured. Other anniversaries of events when moderation was missing – Black September (1970) when the PLO threatened the Jordanian monarchy and were driven out of Jordan in a bloody massacre, and albeit while not directly connected to the Palestinians, the September 11 (2001) attack on the United States, carried out by Muslim extremists, as a brazen act of terror and intolerance. There’s no more vivid reminder of that than the September 5 anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the now infamous Munich Olympics (1972), not only of the terror but in the turning on its head of an international event meant to be about good will and competition as another forum for hate, intolerance and anti-Semitism. This week’s murder of four more Israelis continues that trend. Yet in spite of it all, and the historical odds against peace, one hopes that 2010 will bring a more positive outcome and that the death and bloodshed will end once and for all.