Originally published on April 24, 2014 by Chicago Sun-Times
What does an Israeli leader do when he gets what he said was a pre-condition for a peace agreement with the Palestinians?
Change his position, of course.
And so it was on Wednesday when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of Palestine and leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, announced that a unity agreement had been forged between the PLO, which governs Palestine, and Hamas, which governs Gaza. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the agreement saying it would make further negotiations impossible.
To those who don’t follow the ins and outs of Israeli/Palestinians closely, Netanyahu’s statement might appear to have merit. After all, unlike the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, which for the past decade have cooperated with Israel fully and kept the peace, Hamas has maintained a militant attitude and questioned Israel’s legitimacy.
Yet, it is the division between Gaza and the West Bank and the lack of unified leadership that has been used by the Israelis over and over again as a reason to avoid negotiations and the ending of their occupation of Palestine.
I have visited Israel (and the West Bank) twice in the last two years. Virtually every center-right leader with whom my delegations met cited the division between Hamas and the PLO as the situation that made real negotiations impossible. These leaders, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Industry Minister Naftali Bennett, routinely complained that negotiating with Abbas was meaningless as he didn’t represent even “half the Palestinian people.”
As recently as last November (when I last was in the area) Mideast Monitor reported their comments.
“According to right-wing extremist Avigdor Lieberman, Abbas himself is “an obstacle” to peace. “Does he represent all the Palestinians?” asked the foreign minister rhetorically. “Clearly, he does not represent Palestinians in Gaza and his legitimacy in the West Bank is questionable. Signing an agreement with Abbas is merely signing an agreement with Fatah, the faction which he heads.”
Industry Minister Naftali Bennett, also an extreme right-winger, said that Abbas does not represent more than 40 percent of the Palestinians. “If we reached an agreement with him, more than 60 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza will not accept it,” he claimed.
So Netanyahu and others’ denunciation of Wednesday’s unity agreement should really be taken for what it is — another excuse to prolong Israeli occupation of West Bank lands, continuing to add to thousands of homes and other barriers that choke Palestinian villages, land and lives.
The majority of Palestinians, Israelis and American Jews who view the ending of occupation and the creation of independent Palestinian and Jewish states with equal rights for all minorities in each as critical to a secure future for Israel and Palestine should greet Wednesday’s announcement with as much optimism as caution.
Wednesday’s agreement is a good one for Abbas, as it not only solves any perceived or real legitimacy problem for him. It provides a way for Hamas to moderate its position, as demanded not only by the U.S. and the Quartet, but by the Arab nations that also see the end of Israeli occupation as critical to Mideast peace.
And despite Netanyahu’s comments, Wednesday’s announcement is good for Israel, providing the ‘single, sovereign entity” the country’s leaders have continuously said was the precondition to peace negotiations. Kerry too should rethink comments made on his behalf; unfortunately they echoed Netanyahu’s own. Instead of hinting at withdrawal, he should move forward more aggressively than ever by putting forth “a statement of principles and specific requirements” that would test the commitment of both the new Palestinian leadership and the Israelis.
As J-Street points out, all parties know what is required — it’s all been spelled out before.
1. Borders based on pre-1967 lines with limited, agreed-upon land swaps of equivalent size and quality.
2. Robust security provisions and guarantees from the parties, as well as international partners including the United States.
3. Compensation to Israeli settlers who relocate to within the future border of Israel to make peace possible.
4. Options for Palestinian refugees, including settlement in the future state of Palestine or third countries, compensation and a symbolic level of family reunification in Israel itself.
5. Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Palestinian neighborhoods as the capital of the future state of Palestine. Holy sites would be protected under international law and accessible to all.
6. Recognition of the right of the Jewish people to statehood and the recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, without prejudice to the equal rights of the parties’ respective citizens.
Like many, I consider Wednesday’s announcement a great opportunity for forward movement. For those whose public comments portray it as a crisis, I suggest they take the wisdom of Paul Romer, as made famous by a former White House staffer who cautioned that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Kerry must make certain we don’t waste this one.
Marilyn Katz is president of MK communications and a founding member of J-Street Chicago.