What he gave with one hand, he took back with the other. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state this week was overdue and necessary, but it was weighted down by so many qualifications that it may have doomed negotiations before they could be revived.
Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, has made a political career of opposing Palestinian statehood, and one wonders how many times he had to practice in front of the mirror to get the words out of his mouth without choking. When he finally did utter them Sunday, under U.S. pressure, a lot was missing. He ignored prior negotiations over two decades, particularly the road map agreement under President George W. Bush. He offered no Obamaesqe acknowledgments of Israeli occupation or of suffering by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu invited the Palestinians to begin peace negotiations “without preconditions” but then immediately dictated what sounded like his own conditions on the central issues. He said Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which most Palestinians believe ignores Israel’s Arab population and is tantamount to accepting that Arab refugees from 1948 will not be allowed to return. Netanyahu also insisted that the state of Palestine be “demilitarized,” without an army or control of its airspace. He said Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel, although Palestinians claim it as their capital too. And he rejected Obama’s call to freeze construction in West Bank settlements, which to Palestinians are part of a continued land grab prior to an agreement on borders. Not surprisingly, Palestinians rejected these terms.
To be sure, the Palestinians present their own obstacles to peace negotiations. Their leadership is split, with President Mahmoud Abbas in charge of a truncated West Bank and the militant Islamic movement Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas doesn’t recognize the state of Israel, let alone its Jewish character. And Netanyahu must contend with hard-liners in his own coalition of Jewish settlers, religious parties and conservative Israelis simply fed up with years of suicide bombings and rocket attacks.
Yet more than two-thirds of the Jewish public in Israel thinks that a two-state solution is the only path to peace with the Palestinians, according to a poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center at Tel Aviv University. Now, Netanyahu is on record agreeing with that approach. So are we, and there is only one way to get there: negotiations without preconditions. President Obama must continue to work as an honest broker to push the two sides back to the bargaining table.