I had a lively debate with the founder of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, April 11 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, and as much as we disagreed sharply on many issues relative to Israel, there was one item on which we were in complete agreement: The Palestinians’ steady march toward unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September is a disaster-in-waiting for Israel.
We disagreed on what Israel should do: Ben-Ami thinks Israel should try to entice the Palestinians back to the peace table with another temporary settlement freeze, while I think the United States should pressure the Palestinians to come to the peace table without preconditions.
If that approach fails, however, Israel must do something, and do it fast.
Before Israel can figure out what that “something” is, it must admit to itself that it has lost the battle of the narrative. Right now, Israel is seen, almost universally, as the main obstacle to peace. You can cry foul all you want about this, but it won’t change the reality. From the moment two years ago that President Obama elevated the settlements as the main impediment to peace, the die was cast.
Israel has been scrambling ever since, but it’s been an impossible battle. No amount of clever diplomacy or lobbying could undo the lethal vise that Israel is in — not even last year’s partial settlement freeze.
Simply put, the Palestinians have hidden behind the United States’ initial demand for a settlement freeze to stay away from peace talks, while developing their enormous international support to do an end run around Israel and further isolate the Jewish state.
By repeating their U.S.-sponsored mantra — “We will not negotiate until Israel freezes all settlement activity” — the Palestinians have managed to camouflage the real obstacles to peace. To name just one, there is the obvious obstacle that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs the West Bank and could still engage in peace talks, has absolutely no control over the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.
In fact, one of the absurd aspects of this peace process is that Israel is acting like the buyer when it should be acting like the seller. If peace is the “product,” then Israel owns it and should be selling it. Because it can control its army, it can deliver peace. Who can say with a straight face that the PA will be able to control its “army” (including Hamas) and hence be able to deliver peace?
Another obstacle is the fact that the PA has never prepared its people for a compromise on the sacred “right of return.” Sure, it may have made private statements to Ehud Olmert a couple of years ago suggesting flexibility on borders and Jerusalem, but the analyses that I have seen of the “Palestine Papers” suggest that they are far from compromise on the issue of the right of return. And that is a deal killer.
But it is the bright glare of the settlement issue that has created the perception that Israel is the major obstacle to peace. It may not be fair, but it is what it is.
What should Israel do now?
The first thing is not to expect the Palestinians to return anytime soon to the negotiating table. They won’t. They’ve got their eyes fixed on the U.N. and the world community, where they are treated like kings and never have to compromise. They want a lot more than what Israel could offer, and they think the U.N. will give it to them.
The second thing is to stop arguing. We’ve lost the argument. We can make cogent arguments until we’re blue in the face, but it won’t help.
The only way for Israel to regain the initiative is with real, dramatic action.
If I were Bibi, I would dust off a peace plan, call a press conference, and tell Abbas simply and clearly: “Sign here and the conflict is over.”
Which peace plan? The plan that’s got one of the world’s most credible names on it: The Clinton Parameters. Bibi might make a few security-related adjustments to reflect new realities, but the thrust of the plan should be unchanged.
Will Abbas sign it? Let me put it this way: The Jewish Journal will become the voice of right-wing fanatics before Abbas signs this peace plan. Why? Because he can’t. The Clinton plan is his nightmare. It forces him to compromise on too many things, including the right of return. It gives him a lot less than he has already rejected.
Compared to the Rolls-Royce he is about to be handed by the U.N., the Clinton plan is a Yugo that needs repairs. It’s dead on arrival.
Israel should present the plan not because it believes the PA will sign it, but because Israel desperately needs to present a credible alternative to the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N., a diplomatic disaster that Ehud Barak said would bring a “tsunami” of further pressure and isolation on the Jewish state.
If Palestinians say no to the Clinton plan, they then automatically become the “major obstacle” to peace.
At the very least, this might shock them back to the negotiating table.