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Give the peace process a chance

There's no shortage of cynicism and skepticism about the restarted, U.S.-facilitated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

by David Harris

August 12, 2013 | 10:03 am

From left: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference in Washington on July 30. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

From left: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference in Washington on July 30. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The questions come fast and furious: 

Why, of all times, now, when the Middle East is in upheaval and its future course is anyone's guess? 

What's the American obsession with this issue, when Iran, Russia, Syria, Egypt, North Korea, and China all cry out for greater U.S. attention? 

Who's ready to believe the Palestinian Authority is any more willing today than yesterday to engage in serious, purposeful talks? 

How can anyone discuss a two-state deal when Gaza is in the hands of Hamas? 

Is Prime Minister Netanyahu, rhetoric apart, really serious about an agreement? 

And are the Israeli people likely to overcome doubts about Palestinian intentions to support a deal that would entail major sacrifices and risks – indeed, already has in the form of the upcoming, and highly contentious, release of convicted Palestinian murderers (and which, by the way, should be sufficient to answer the previous question)? 

These concerns mustn't be dismissed out-of-hand, but there's more to the story – and it leads to the conclusion that the talks are worth pursuing. 

No, I don't say this, as some have suggested, to curry favor with the Obama Administration, nor to receive more invitations to the White House Chanukah party, nor to get a pat on the shoulder from Secretary of State John Kerry. And no, I haven't succumbed to the fantasy of those on the left who believe a Middle East Woodstock is just around the corner. Not at all! 

Rather, I do so for three reasons. 

First, for friends of Israel, the status quo may seem sustainable. In reality, it's not. 

True, the Israeli economy continues to perform wonders. The IDF is at peak strength. Acts of terrorism against Israelis have been far fewer in recent months. And Israeli life is humming in a way that few on the outside, reliant on the media for their images, could ever fully appreciate. 

But where does this lead? Will the Palestinians disappear? Will their demands evaporate or end up on a back burner? Will the world, led in this case by the European Union and the automatic majority in the UN, one day stop their relentless preoccupation with the Palestinians? Will the U.S. always be there to stand up for Israeli policy, even if Washington considers it short-sighted and self-defeating? 

In other words, would Israel, assuming it wanted to, be able to retain control of the West Bank well into the distant future without taking account of some serious consequences? 

For Israel to remain a democratic and Jewish state, it is in Israel's national interest to seek a way to disentangle itself from rule over as many Palestinians as possible. 

Yes, Israel came into possession of the West Bank in a defensive war in 1967 and, had it not been the victor, the country could well have faced annihilation. And yes, the West Bank is the cradle of Jewish civilization. 

But that doesn't end the argument. Rather, it underscores the need for extraordinarily careful attention to security arrangements in any two-state deal and solid guarantees for Israeli access to Jewish holy sites. 

Second, I've long believed – and, as a result, locked horns with some on the left – that if a two-state deal is to be achieved, it's best done by a hard-nosed, right-of-center Israeli leader with impeccable security credentials. 

That's precisely the case in Israel today. 

The shrill critics of a revitalized peace process seem to have forgotten that the talks are led on the Israeli side by Benjamin Netanyahu, and supported by such top officials as Moshe Ya'alon, the defense minister and former IDF chief of staff, and Tzipi Livni, the justice minister with the Likud Party and Mossad in her résumé. 

The critics may not now trust them, but then again they wouldn't trust anyone who dared to negotiate. There will always be the rash accusations that the leaders "sold out," or "yielded to inordinate U.S. pressure," or "are seeking the Nobel Peace Prize." 

Netanyahu, Ya'alon, Livni and others have had one overarching, life-long goal – ensuring the security and viability of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. 

They know no less well than their critics on the right the immense difficulties confronting them in pursuing this aim – from ongoing Palestinian incitement and glorification of terrorists, to profound questions about the regional environment, to concerns about the viability of a future "democratic" and "demilitarized" Palestinian state. 

Have they suddenly turned fuzzy-headed, weak-kneed, or naïve about the challenge before them? No. Rather, they have reached the stark conclusion that the status quo is not in Israel's long-term interest – and that choices in life are not always between "good" and "bad," but, as often as not, between "bad" and "worse." 

And third, the chorus of right-wing critics ascribes to the United States malign motives, suggesting this process is sparked by an "unfriendly" President Obama who wants to "damage" Israel in his effort to "reorient" U.S. foreign policy. 

I don't buy the argument. And I don't say so as a partisan, since I'm most assuredly not. 

What does it take to convince the doubters that there's good will on the American side? 

Probably nothing will work, but, despite some early missteps by the Obama administration, there's some pretty compelling evidence here – the bilateral military, strategic, and intelligence relationship has never been stronger, as knowledgeable Israelis will attest; the U.S. has stood up for Israel time and again, often alone, at the UN; and Secretary Kerry's voting record over his long Senate career is a matter of public record. 

Finally, let me frame the issue another way. 

Israel must never hesitate to show up at any serious negotiating table. It does so today from a position of remarkable strength. It cannot be bullied into making a deal potentially injurious to the country's security. It has a powerful friend in the United States. And, yes, it is driven by the age-old Jewish yearning for enduring peace. 

If the Palestinians once again prove they are unwilling partners, as they did in 2000-1 and again in 2008, let the world see who torpedoed a potential deal. 

Sure, there's that enabling pro-Palestinian community – diplomats, journalists, "human rights" activists, entertainers – who are willfully blind, for whom the problem always has been and will be Israel, but others will figure it out. 

And if, miracle of miracles, the Palestinian leadership actually turns out to be a credible partner this time, then, of course, all the more reason to try. 

So, let's give the peace process a chance.

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