March 22, 2014
On June 3, 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry formally announced his plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, D.C. His remarks were greeted with a standing ovation by more than 2,000 people representing Jewish communities around the world. The next speaker, Israeli Justice Minister and current chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, enthusiastically welcomed the Kerry initiative. It was a hopeful moment.
Eight months later, we are approaching the April 29 deadline Kerry set for completion of the peace negotiations. Significant gaps remain, and Palestinian leadership is threatening to abandon the talks. Should negotiations fail, many will blame Israel. Doing so, however, would reinforce a toxic dogma that perpetuates this conflict.
Poll after poll has confirmed that a majority of Israelis favor a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. Most recently, for example, a New Wave-Nielsen Alliance poll reported that 72 percent of Israelis would welcome an agreement that leads to an independent Palestinian state. So would Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who stressed in early March that he is “prepared to make a historic peace . . . that would end a century of conflict and bloodshed.”
But what would such a peace look like? Israelis want recognition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, resolution of all claims arising from the conflict, and assurances that they will enjoy a secure and peaceful future. The basic elements of an agreement — borders, settlements, refugees, security, and Jerusalem — have largely been agreed upon in prior negotiations. No one anticipates that the terms Kerry will set forth in his peace proposal — nor in any final deal — will differ substantially.
Yet, there is a troubling asymmetry in today’s peace process that has been largely ignored outside of Israel. For Palestinians to realize their core aspiration for an independent state, Israel would withdraw from much of the West Bank, according to previously agreed upon terms. Once they do, however, most of Israel’s major population centers and Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s lifeline to the outside world, will be close to the new border and within range of missiles and small arms fire.
These vulnerabilities will be of no consequence if a stable peace emerges. But this will not be easily accomplished. Palestinians are divided between supporters of Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction, and supporters of Fatah, only some of whom support a final settlement. Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement remains a regular feature of Palestinian media and political discourse. And, after years of rampant corruption, the Palestinian Authority lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many of its constituents. The result is a weakened Palestinian polity that is poorly positioned to make promises, much less keep them.
There are also external constraints to a stable post-agreement peace. Only two weeks ago, a freighter was captured carrying advanced Iranian missiles destined for use against Israel. Iranian efforts to attack Israel will continue, and they will likely be assisted by a number of nearby states, as well as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and an array of Islamist groups that are contributing to unprecedented religious, ethnic, and tribal turmoil across the Middle East.
These circumstances underscore that a settlement could entail grave risks for Israel. Any deal must include assurances by the United States and others that these security threats can be mitigated. Nevertheless, the data show that Israelis remain committed to the peace process. Regrettably, it is not altogether clear that the Palestinians share this goal.
Palestinian leaders are now threatening to abandon the talks and bring their case to the United Nations, if a final agreement is not reached by the end of next month. This strategy is driven by the expectation of overwhelming support from an international community that has frequently replaced balance and fairness with harmful narratives that challenge Israel’s very legitimacy. Should the Palestinians follow through on their threat, it will mark the end of the current peace process and almost certainly lead to greater polarization and despair on both sides.
Efforts to demonize and delegitimize Israel will not lead to a Palestinian state. The politics of polarization is a dead end. Now is the time for Israelis and Palestinians to renew their commitment to the process that Secretary Kerry is facilitating. A successful result will not come easily, but what is the alternative?
Robert Leikind is director of the American Jewish Committee in Boston.