Monday, 31 December 2012
An Israeli-Palestinian meeting of minds
We hear a great deal about the issues that separate Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). A question asked less often is: how much overlap is there between them?
If the vast range of opinion within the Israeli body politic were to be taken into account, the question would become meaningless. Within Israel one can find strands of political opinion well to the right of Ghengis Khan and well to the left of anything Mahmoud Abbas has yet articulated. The only practical approach is to assume that Israel’s position is that currently adopted by its democratically elected government − the government led by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If opinion polls have any validity, this seems likely to remain the situation after the forthcoming general election.
The position of the PA must be taken as that publicly stated by its current President, Mahmoud Abbas, to non-Arab audiences. There is no denying that like his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, he has made directly contradictory statements for domestic consumption, and the gap between his two positions is wide indeed − so wide that he would face a problem in carrying Palestinian public opinion with him in any substantive peace negotiations. Nor is there much point in referring back to the founding charter of Fatah, Abbas’s party, where the ultimate objective is clearly the elimination of Israel. History has its place in the overall scheme of things, but politics is a game for the here and now.
It is equally of little value to place too much emphasis on the total rejectionism of Hamas, the extreme Islamist de facto government of the Gaza strip. The apparently irreconcilable split between Hamas and Fatah certainly weakens Abbas’s position on the world stage, but curiously it is also one of the factors binding the PA and Israel together. Both parties would like nothing better than to see the PA re-establish its authority in Gaza, although neither is prepared to do very much about it. Cooperation has so far been confined to countering attempts by Hamas to gain a foothold in the West Bank. To go further would involve Abbas in a damaging loss of credibility with the Palestinian man-in-the-street. Indeed, he pays lip service to the concept of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but the two are chalk and cheese as regards an acceptable strategy towards Israel. Hamas refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist; Abbas has taken to asserting it.
It is an undoubted fact that both Israel and the PA are publicly committed to the two-state solution. Netanyahu declared his support for the concept in a speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, as well as when he addressed the US Congress in May 2011. He reiterated his position in a letter he sent to Mahmoud Abbas a year later, following the establishment of his national unity government.
Speaking to the joint meeting of the US Congress, Netanyahu said:
“Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples − a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. This is not easy for me. I recognize that we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland in Judea and Samaria. The Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land. But there is another truth: The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel's subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state.”
For his part, Abbas was widely quoted following his interview on Israeli TV in November 2012: “Palestine for me is the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital…the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.”
Before the end of the month, he was addressing the UN General Assembly, asking for Palestine to be recognised as a non-member state. He said: “We did not come here seeking to delegitimize a state established years ago, and that is Israel; rather we came to affirm the legitimacy of the state that must now achieve its independence, and that is Palestine. We will accept no less than the independence of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on all the Palestinian territory occupied in 1967, to live in peace and security alongside the State of Israel, and a solution for the refugee issue as per the operative part of the Arab Peace Initiative.”
The differences between the stated positions of Israel and the PA seem paper thin. Why then has the peace process been in the deep-freeze for so long? Perhaps because both leaders are well aware that peace is a dangerous game, and that there are lunatic extremists in both camps. After all, each has a chilling reminder of predecessors who moved too far or too fast. It would require exceptional courage on the Palestinian side to stand up and do what the late president of Egypt, Anwar Saddat, did – to say 'It’s over, enough with the bloodshed.' And no doubt Netanyahu also has the fate of his predecessor as Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in mind from time to time. So, yes, caution is to be commended, but caution to the point of immobility has brought us to the present impasse.
Paralysis of the peace process may suit the leadership of both parties, but opinion polls reveal that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians favour an end to the conflict and the chance to live in peace, side by side. The result of two parallel polls released this morning indicate that two-thirds of Israelis would support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, if a referendum on such an accord were held by Israel's government.
There is the true meeting of minds.
Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 31 December 2012: