It is unfortunate that the direct Palestinian-Israeli peace talks that got underway this week are saddled with an Israeli prime minister who has made clear his unwillingness to reach an equitable two-state solution.
Nine years ago, in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, Benjamin Netanyahu was secretly recorded voicing his opinions of the Oslo accords reached during negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in 1993. “They asked me before the election if I’d honor [the Oslo accords],” he said. “I said I would, but ... I’m going to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the 1967 borders.” The result according to Netanyahu? “I de facto put an end to the Oslo accords.”
This kind of talk is consistent with Netanyahu’s actions when he was last prime minister during the late 1990s. Challenged by then-President Clinton to make peace, Netanyahu instead upended the Oslo talks by exploiting every loophole he could find.
The prime minister did not enter negotiations then, nor does he enter them now, in good faith. If he can derail the talks, he will. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton surely knows his history.
I am not alone in being pessimistic. Most Palestinians are. Young people in particular have been betrayed. A whole generation of Palestinians has grown up watching as talks failed. They have seen deepening colonization rather than freedom.
To succeed this time, the international community, and the U.S. most particularly, will have to press Netanyahu. Despite a good start to his presidency, Obama has spent the last few months complying with the demands of right-wing Israelis. His recent rhetoric and actions indicate he lacks the intestinal fortitude to stand up to Netanyahu. And, were he to unexpectedly challenge the prime minister on settlements, as he did early in his administration, he would be excoriated by members of the U.S. Congress who tolerate little opposition to Israeli policy.
The direct talks are likely to falter quickly. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has already written to Obama that a resumption of settlement activity by the Israelis will doom these negotiations. Abbas was very clear: “If Israel resumes settlement activities in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, we cannot continue negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s right flank continues to assert its determination to get back to colonizing the West Bank. A minimal moratorium on new settlement construction is set to end later this month, and National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau has declared his support for new construction. “Everyone will build as he wants to and needs to,” he said in a radio interview.
Unless Netanyahu bucks his base and extends the moratorium, direct talks are likely to be abruptly stopped.
Assuming talks fail, Netanyahu will undoubtedly pin the blame on stubborn Palestinian negotiators, Palestinian rhetoric or violent Palestinian resistance to decades of subjugation. In the short run, he and his expansionist outlook will prevail.
But what comes tomorrow, when the West Bank and East Jerusalem are so filled with entrenched settlements that no Israeli leader will dare to pull settlers out from their illegally established strongholds? Then Israel will rue the day it did not seize the opportunity to negotiate a two-state solution that was honorable and just for Palestinians and Israelis alike. This possibility will not be there forever.
For successful negotiations, Israeli leaders must move away from “divide and conquer” strategies and treat Palestinians, both in Israel and the territories, as equals. Negotiations that split the West Bank from East Jerusalem will fail. So too will negotiations that divide the West Bank from the Gaza Strip. Finally, no Palestinian negotiator I know of will bow before the Israeli demand — put forward only recently, but increasingly adamantly — that Israel be recognized as an exclusively Jewish state.
This is an unreasonable demand, as it requires Palestinian negotiators to relegate more than 1 million Palestinian citizens of Israel to an inferior standing. Already, there are more than 30 Israeli laws that serve to discriminate against Palestinians. Abbas cannot be expected to sign off on such an injustice. Not only would he be consigning Palestinian citizens of Israel to second-class citizenship, he would be stripping away the right of return from Palestinian refugees who long to return to homes and farms stolen from them 62 years ago.
The only way out of the impasse is for Jews to recognize Palestinians as their equals and negotiate with them on that basis. A fair two-state solution requires the abrogation of all laws, both in Israel and the occupied territories, that raise Jews above Palestinians. This is a point the United States, notwithstanding the recent dangerous demagoguery of some of its politicians in seeking to elevate Christian and Jewish religious rights over those held by Muslim Americans, should still understand.
Whether in the United States, Israel or the occupied territories, equal rights before the law is a powerful and crucial concept. And it is one that should be at the forefront of the next round of talks. Obama is a marvelous American choice to deliver the message to an Israeli “democracy” decades late in implementing fundamental legal equality.
Ahmad Tibi is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and is deputy speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.