Netanyahu 2, Abbas 1, & Obama 0
If we were keeping score on the question of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel based on the New York meeting on Tuesday, we would have to award Prime Minister Netanyahu two points, the Palestinian President Abbas one point, and President Obama no points. Obama certainly did not get much joy from Netanyahu in New York. In the peace process, as an American negotiator, you can gauge how well you are doing by the number of right wing Israeli settlers protesting outside the Prime Minister's residence after a round of talks. The streets were empty today. Of course, you can always count on the Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman to tell it like it is without the diplomatic coating that Netanyahu is so careful to preserve. According to the Israeli press, Lieberman said on Wednesday that Netanyahu's summit with Obama was a victory because it took place even though Israel rebuffed Obama's demand on settlements. Member of Knesset Danny Danon, from Likud's right flank was obviously jubilant and, at the same time insulting to President Obama when saying that he hopes "the summit stops the Hollywood movie in which Obama lives."
We do not know what went on in private between Obama and Netanyahu. We don't know if there were promises made. But Dennis Ross, who was in on the meetings, went down this road with me before in negotiations with Netanyahu the last time he was Prime Minister. So Dennis knows that what is said in private does not always occur in fact. And, to be honest, how could the Prime Minister of Israel accommodate a full settlement freeze or a serious lockdown on expansion given the government he has cobbled together. No Israeli Prime Minister has been able to do this in a sustained way in the past, and Netanyahu is a most unlikely candidate to be the exception. Look at the numbers and tell me how Netanyahu could sustain his government if he compromises on the settlements issue. He can't even count on the right wing of his Likud party, let alone Yisrael Beitenu, Jewish Home, or the United Torah Judaism party. George Mitchell knows better. He made it clear after the meeting that a settlement showdown is not a precondition for resuming negotiations. And Netanyahu made clear that the settlements issue can only be considered in the context of the final status negotiations. "But we have to talk in order to talk about it," Netanyahu said.
But what will they talk about? That is the question Obama has to face. If the Israeli coalition government would fall over the settlements issue, would it not be more likely to fall over any compromise or even any gesture on Jerusalem? Or on refugees? And how are we going to negotiate borders without impinging on settlements? This is déjà vu for me. We seem to be fighting our way back to Menahem Begin's formula for Palestinian autonomy - a Palestinian government in the mind but not on the ground. That no doubt would satisfy Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition.
But what about the Palestinians? The pressure was not on them in this round. They have just as many internal political problems as the Israelis do. Only in Abu Mazen's case the costs of compromise are likely to be renewed civil war and violence and possibly even his life. So the Palestinians probably sighed a sigh of relief that they got out of New York without having to challenge Hamas and without undercutting their relationship with President Obama while leaving Israel to take the blame.
Perhaps President Obama will have to stop thinking about this problem in the short term and stop looking for a quick fix. It seems clear that no progress is possible on the critical issues so long as the Israeli government continues in its current configuration. And in all probability no progress can really be expected so long as the Palestinians are a hair's breadth away from committing mutual suicide. So perhaps the Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyed has it right. This may be the time for the Palestinians to get their act together and form a credible government in the service of the Palestinian people. And it may be time for Israelis to consider their future and decide whether or not they want peace to be held hostage by a rigid minority of the settler movement. Or we can just mark time until Palestinians living on land from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean outnumber their Jewish neighbors. Then what?
As a part of the package the Obama Administration is working out with Israel on the settlements freeze and return to negotiations, there is reportedly a promise of some gestures from the Arab world in the form of opening trade offices and providing overflight rights for Israeli commercial aircraft to link Israel to Asia. Arguably, these would be positive steps in creating a better atmosphere for peace, but would they make a significant difference? In fact, they are not likely to change attitudes where they count the most - in Israel and Palestine.
Last June, The Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace published a poll of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian attitudes toward peace (http://truman.huji.ac.il/poll-view.asp?id=279). The results were not very encouraging. While the majority of Israeli Jews felt that the conflict with the Palestinians imposed a high to unbearable cost on Israel, a similar number believed that Israel could bear that price for decades and even forever. What those numbers should be telling the Arab rejectionists and the hostile regime elements in Gaza is that Israel can live with a sustained level of violence indefinitely. Too many Palestinians got the wrong message from the Israeli excursions into Lebanon and their withdrawal under pressure. In fact, if the shelling from Gaza starts up again, most Israelis believe a military solution to that problem is possible. 30% would reoccupy Gaza and over half of all Israelis think that Israel can overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza if it so desires.
What I found striking about the poll was the fact that 62% of Jewish Israelis thought that the aspiration of the Arabs, in the long run, was to conquer the state of Israel and of that number, 42% thought the goal was to destroy a significant part of the Jewish population in Israel. If that is your assumption about the people you are expected to negotiate with, then the price for any concessions would seem to be too high. This cynical attitude about the prospects of living in peace is reflected at many points in the survey on both sides. 65% of Palestinians and 63% of Israelis believe it is impossible to reach a final status settlement these days.
Gestures by the Bahrainis or Qataris, or any other Arab state, are not going to change these numbers. To imagine that peace is possible on this foundation of deep mutual antipathy and mistrust really stretches credulity. Peace may be a function of Prime Ministers and Presidents, but it is ultimately dependent on the people of both sides. Confidence has to be built from somewhere below zero where it currently resides. That will only happen when the voices of reason can out-shout the voices of intolerance and irrationality, when children are taught facts rather than slogans, when the media no longer points the camera at the loudest voice in the room, and when we get back to efforts to purge ourselves, our schools and our media of incitement.
We tried it once in 1998 as a result of the Wye agreement. We formed an anti-incitement committee and even had meetings for several months. Unfortunately, only the Americans took it seriously. As a result, it was still born. Perhaps the Obama Administration should consider leading a new effort, but this time with the energy and eloquence of the President of the United States. Peace is not going to come from clever formulas and untenable compromises. It will only come when the people who are most affected want it to come, and believe in it. That is not the case today.