NEW YORK — My first response on learning of Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement of the “basis” for a resumption of peace talks between Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority was the old saw, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
As the next round of the seemingly endless Middle East peace saga begins to play out, however haltingly, I can imagine Kerry taking pride in making good on his pledge, on taking office in January, to bring the two parties together for negotiations when all the experts said it wouldn’t happen. But I can also picture Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas each reassuring their key, and skeptical, aides this week: “Don’t worry, nothing will come of it.”
And that’s the problem.
In the past two decades, various rounds of these peace talks, from Oslo to Wye River to Camp David to Annapolis, came to naught because the Israelis and the Palestinians were at the table for the wrong reason, primarily to avoid being blamed by the United States for being the obstinate party. And they focused far more on holding to their demands than allowing for concessions, particularly on the Palestinian side.
Middle East experts have long asserted that if the United States wants an agreement more than the parties themselves want one, the talks will fail. President Barack Obama said it himself the last time the Israelis and Palestinians came to talk peace, almost three years ago, when he noted: “The U.S. can’t want a peace deal more than the parties.”
Those talks lasted three weeks.
Has anything changed this time around?
It doesn’t seem so, other than the fact that Kerry has done an impressive job of getting both sides to this point by bringing the Arab states into the discussions, calling for economic incentives for the Palestinians and persevering. But the prospects of an actual deal seem particularly remote, given the players and their circumstances.
Netanyahu’s truest intentions on this front remain a mystery even to those who work closely with him. He has endured criticism from those to his political right since publicly endorsing a two-state solution several years ago but has given little indication since then of expending his political capital by going any further down the peace path. And why should he, his supporters ask?
They note that the Arab world is imploding, most notably in Syria and Egypt, with Jordan and Lebanon fearful of further fallout. Why push for talks now with a Palestinian Authority that can’t guarantee any agreement it might sign, and with Hamas breathing down its neck from Gaza?
That’s precisely the time to make a deal with the P.A., say critics from the left, including prominent voices in Washington. The situation may be grim and the prospects bleak, but they will only get worse as the options diminish, goes the argument.
Surely Netanyahu is looking at the calendar, noting that September marks the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings. If there is no progress by then on the peace talks, Abbas may go forward, in those friendly confines, with legal action against Israel in the International Court of Justice for alleged war crimes. And most importantly, Iran’s push toward nuclear weapons continues even as another round of fruitless negotiations looms. The Israeli prime minister may be motivated to sit down with the Palestinians in return for much-needed U.S. support for whatever military plan Jerusalem may have to deal with the nuclear danger. But is he ready to make the “painful compromises” Israeli leaders often speak of?
On the P.A. side, Abbas is tired, and may be looking for some legacy of accomplishment before leaving the public arena. But he doesn’t want to go down in history as the leader who caved on the refugee issue, giving up the sacred Palestinian pledge to return to the land. He has little trust among his people, and some of his closest aides in the Palestine Liberation Organization and P.A. are opposed to going back to the table without preconditions.
So far, we have heard talk of Israeli willingness to release a significant number of Palestinian prisoners, including those with blood on their hands, and of the P.A. for the first time acknowledging the right of Israel to exist as “a Jewish state.” These are tough concessions for the leaders on both sides, but not insurmountable.
If Netanyahu and Abbas address their respective peoples and make a strong case for peace talks as crucial for their own national goals, security and dignity, they have a chance, however slim, of succeeding. This may be their last opportunity to do so. The danger for Israel is that if the two-state solution fails now, it may be relegated to the dustbin of history, with conditions sliding inexorably toward the fatal one-state solution where demographics would achieve for the Palestinians what war, terror and political maneuvering have not until now. That is to say, an Arab majority in the land will lead to a no-win choice for Israel between being a Jewish state or a democratic one. But not both.
There are many good reasons for Israel to resist the peace table now, fully aware that the Palestinian leadership has never reconciled to the reality of a Jewish state in the region, that Abbas still has to convince Hamas to go along, that Israel must make concrete concessions in return for rhetorical ones, etc. In fact, there is only one reason for Jerusalem to go forward. That is the recognition that the “Palestinian problem” is not going away. And the longer it is denied, shelved or ignored, the greater the chance that Israel will have no choice in the end.
Better to make a deal now when Israel is strong and the opposition is weak, before it is too late.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)