At Peace

Earlier this week, Palestinian and Israeli leaders met in Washington to launch a new round of peace negotiations.

Secretary of State John Kerry hosted an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (right, center) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (next to Linvi) this past Monday at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.

Secretary of State John Kerry hosted an Iftar dinner for Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (right, center) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (next to Linvi) this past Monday at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.

There is a cynical and skeptical Palestinian and Israeli public, but the parties agreed to meet nonetheless.

As Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the media on July 29, he told listeners that he was under no delusions.

“It’s no secret this is going to be a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago,” he said.

There are many who question Kerry’s intentions. Why now? Who wants this, and who is ready for this?

There is no question that Kerry —and the Obama administration — is ready. The question is whether the
Israeli and Palestinian publics, and their leaders, want it as much as Kerry does.

“One would have doubts,” said Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. “My doubts would be more on the Palestinian side than the Israeli side, though the Israeli side is not jumping up and down either.”

Keinon cited the pre-agreement back-and-forth as an example of how pressured the two parties felt. He said that when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas first presented Kerry’s proposal to the PLO, the group said no. Kerry had to fly back and forth between Amman, Jordan and Ramallah to strike the deal.

“The Palestinians didn’t want to do it, but were dragged into it because they were afraid of incurring American wrath if they didn’t come to talk,” said Keinon.

David Makovsky, Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, expressed similar sentiments about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He said the prime minister does not want to further isolate Israel by refusing to negotiate, and one can tell from his recent addresses that he is viewing Israel’s willingness to engage in this process not as one based on good will toward the Palestinians but on the self-interest of the Israeli state.

On the American side, however, there’s real value.

“It is an American national security interest to have Arab-Israeli peace,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Keinon explained that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “the only place in the Middle East where the U.S. can be proactive instead of reactive. It could have a beneficial impact for the U.S. if they are able to move something. It is important to America at a time when its whole Middle East policy is, as some would say, muddled.”

Makovsky cautioned, however, that solving this issue will not be an open sesame to solving Syria, Iraq and other conflicts. He also said that while thought-leaders in Jordan and other parts of the Arab world told Kerry the Arab-Israeli conflict is the core issue of instability in the news, if Kerry believes that, he is “being blind to reality.”

If anything, said Makovsky, it takes that card away from the hands of those who use it to carry out terror attacks.

Jewish American organizations have certainly jumped on the bandwagon. Overnight, most of the major Jewish organizations came out with statements supporting the talks.

“This is a great achievement for Secretary of State Kerry, who invested so much time and diplomatic effort in finally bringing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” said Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “Two states for two people cannot be achieved without strong U.S. leadership, and we are thankful.”

“The resumption of talks …. brings hope of new opportunities to move toward a peaceful resolution and an end of the conflict that has taken such a heavy toll,” said the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in a statement.

But as talks resumed and the parties met in Washington, D.C., one reality became apparent: The two sides likely are not ready to deal with final status issues.

“Do we want to bring both sides to the table and force them to make choices when they are not ready to make them?” asked Keinon.

This is especially true, given the concessions that each side already has had to make — some that are causing upheaval in their home communities.

In Israel, Netanyahu agreed to release 104 prisoners in four batches, many of whom have blood on their hands (see accompanying story, ‘You Start To Give Up,’ on page 32). This decision, which passed in the cabinet by a wide 13-to-7 margin (after a nearly six-hour meeting), has spawned a multitude of rallies — and outcry by victims of terror and their families who stand to see their loved ones’ murderers set free.

“You had a situation where Abbas had been telling the Arab public that unless Netanyahu commits to talks based on the pre-’67 lines, and unless Netanyahu agrees to a complete freeze [of construction] in the settlements, he is not going to deal with him. He had to back off from those demands,” said Makovsky. “So he said, ‘Let me have this.’”

Moreover, Makovksy noted, the Palestinian Authority had to contend with Israel’s trading 1,000 terrorists for kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Israeli teenagers get lost in the West Bank all the time, and the residents there don’t hold them hostage; the PA wanted to be rewarded for that.

On the flip side, the Palestinians committed to not bringing any charges against Israel to the U.N. during the course of the negotiations. That frees Israel from some pressure, enabling it to focus international intention on issues such as a nuclear Iran.

Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu are as strong as the leaders of the past (Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin), said Makovsky. With Abbas opposed by a virulent Hamas and both leaders looking over their right shoulders and averse to risk, public support will be vital to move the process forward.

What happens when the two sides hit a brick wall? Hopefully Kerry can massage the thing, and maybe there can be efforts to go to an interim agreement. Maybe.

The challenge is that both publics, said Telhami, don’t believe a two-state solution is possible.

“They may be open to it,” said Telhami, but the majority doesn’t think it is possible anymore. The return to negotiations does not address the profound mistrust and absence of faith in a deal.”

A poll released on July 24 by the Tel Aviv University and the Dialog Institute showed that 39 percent of Israelis would vote for a peace deal if it were brought to a referendum (which was a condition Netanyahu put forth when agreeing to talks), while 16 percent said they would probably vote for a deal. Five percent said they would likely oppose it; 20 percent were unsure.

Worse still, while Israelis report wanting peace, most feel achieving it is unlikely. An Israel public opinion poll, fielded by the Dahaf Institute and released by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution in May, revealed that 51 percent of Israelis are saying that lasting peace with the Palestinians will never happen; 40 percent say it is inevitable but will take more than five years. If the two-state solution collapses, 13 percent think it will lead to the one-state solution, 37 percent say that the status quo will remain, 35 percent expect intense conflict for years to come, and 6 percent expect that the Palestinians will give up.

In the meantime, there is a nine-month window to try to make this work. And at the helm will be former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk. Assisting Indyk will be Frank Lowenstein.

Nine months?

It’s not a deadline, said Makovsky, but it is the belief that the parties need to sit together long enough to ascertain if this is possible. The Israelis also need assurance that 2010 won’t repeat itself; in that year, the Palestinians sat for three weeks, determined they had heard enough and then went to the U.N.

Telhami said he thinks nine months sounds right. He also thinks that now is the right time.

“The people observing this situation for years are divided into two groups. One says it is too late already for a two-state solution. The other says that soon it is not going to be possible anymore,” he said. “No one says we have all the time in the world.”

See also, ‘You Start To Give Up’

Jewish and Arab Israelis: Different Perspectives

Sammy Smooha says there has been a hardening of Arab Israelis’ viewpoints on Israel.  (Provided)

Sammy Smooha says there has been a hardening of Arab Israelis’ viewpoints on Israel.

An extensive survey released late last month indicated that Arab Israelis have become more extreme in their attitudes to the state and its Jewish majority, while Jewish Israelis have maintained their positions or have become more amicable to the Arab minority.

On the surface, the statistics of the 2012 Index of Arab-Jewish Relations In Israel seem straightforward, but professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University, who conducted the study, said this is not the case. There are many reasons for the shift, and Israel has to own up to its side of the story.

“Why the hardening of the Arab view?” asked Smooha on a recent call from Israel. In the last decade, he answered, Arab-Israeli aspirations have been shattered.

“The second term of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, from 1992 to 1995, was a golden age of Jewish-Arab relations. The Oslo Accords meant for the Arabs the right to self-determination. … Aspirations for peace skyrocketed,” said Smooha. “Rabin … reduced many of the discriminations against the Arabs, he engaged in negotiations with their leaders, he respected them, and he felt the Israeli government could work with the Arab Israelis with respect and with equality.”

After Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, the Arabs’ hopes were shattered; the gap between their aspirations and reality became wider and wider.

Moreover, he said, Israeli action against the Palestinians since 2000 — the second Lebanon war, Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense — affected attitudes, too.

“Arabs were disaffected by the state’s behavior toward [the Palestinians],” he said.

What is striking is that Israelis don’t recognize this. But Smooha said, “Why would they?” The issues that affect the Arabs often have little to do with the Jews, and the Jews don’t see it from the Arab perspective.

“Let’s take the war on Gaza. While from the Arabs’ view this was against the Palestinians, against the Arabs, and they feel a part of that group … as far as the Jews are concerned, this is an act of war and security and has nothing to do with the Arabs of

Israel,” Smooha explained.

In addition, he said, as Israel becomes more democratic — and despite media reports, he said it very much has — this affects the Jewish perspective. Jews are becoming more centrist (not right or left), which leads to a more moderate viewpoint and a goal of treating Arabs more equally than before. The Arabs, who live in Israel and read and learn about political enlightenment, become more politicized. The more they know, the more impatient they become with the continual discrimination.

Discrimination is a strong word. But Muhammad Darawsha, co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, said it is the right term to use when referring to Israeli treatment of its Arab citizens. He said even the state has admitted that discrimination exists. In 2007, for example, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delivered a speech in which he accused Israel of “deliberately and institutionally discriminating against Arabs.”

Darawsha is not short on examples of this discrimination.

Israel’s Land Authority has a policy of preferential treatment of Jews in land appropriation and ownership. Jews control 97 percent of the land; Arabs, who make up 21 percent of the population, 3 percent.

Double the amount of the municipal budget goes to development of Jewish infrastructure. There are gaps in the education budget; Arabs children learn in schools without enough classrooms and with outdated curriculum. The result is that only 12 percent of Arab children (as opposed to 25 percent of Jewish children) attend a university.

And after college, there is discrimination in the workforce.