President Obama is understandably eager to resolve the “Palestinian question,” but Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has persisted for a century for reasons that have eluded impatient American administrations. In fact, a rush to diplomacy to reach a final settlement is precisely the wrong approach. What is needed most at this juncture is confidence-building time.
No matter how difficult the plight of the Palestinians, or how just their cause, they cannot force Israel to capitulate to their demands. Rather than adjust their expectations and seek compromise that might be palatable to Israel, the Palestinians have historically insisted on irredentist positions that no Israeli leader is prepared to accept.
The situation is complicated further by the fact that the nominal head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has more respect in Washington than in the Middle East and barely controls the west bank. While Israelis are willing to talk to him, no one believes he can either reach an agreement or implement one. Moreover, Hamas controls Gaza and has no interest in a two-state solution. Though some people, including some Israelis, believe Israel should negotiate with Hamas, it is not going to happen so long as the group is committed to Israel’s destruction. To paraphrase Golda Meir, Hamas wants Israelis dead, Israelis want to live. Between those two positions there is no compromise.
Some believe the United States should pressure Israel to give in to Palestinian demands. Obama’s determination to become more engaged than Bush, and swiftly accomplish what his 11 predecessors failed to do, has raised the spirits of those who think the United States should save Israel from itself. If Obama adopts this approach, it will fail. Israel will not compromise on its security and the American people and Congress will not support an effort to coerce Israeli concessions.
President Obama has made a settlement freeze the be-all and end-all of his policy to this point. Historically, the settlements have had nothing to do with peace, as the Arabs were just as obstinate before a single settlement was built as they are today, and became no more conciliatory when Israel dismantled settlements in Gaza and offered to evacuate most of those in the west bank.
Besides, the Israeli psyche is so badly bruised that Israelis are not prepared to take additional risks for peace. The Israeli public supports a two-state solution, and most Israelis are willing to withdraw from much of the west bank, but there is no desire to move in this direction after enduring a nearly five-year terror war with the Palestinians that killed more than 1,000 Israelis, a 34-day war with Hezbollah in which more than 4,000 rockets rained down on northern Israel towns, and three years of rocket barrages from Gaza that targeted southern Israel.
Most of this violence came after Israel withdrew every soldier and settler from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Israel tested the hypothesis that settlements and occupation are the obstacle to peace, and proved it was a myth. The obstacle to peace was and remains the Palestinians unwillingness to live beside a Jewish state.
This is why no magic formula will persuade Israelis that now is the time to cede more territory to the Palestinians. The one thing Israelis – and Palestinians – need is confidence-building time during which both people can go about their lives without bothering each other. Israelis need to see that it is possible for the Palestinians to focus on state-building rather than rocket-building. This will benefit the Palestinians as well. And Israel will leave them alone if the violence stops.
After a period of calm, which may take years rather than months, Israelis will again be ready to discuss territorial concessions. This is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pursuit of “economic peace” is the best way to begin this confidence-building time.
I believe peace is possible, but it takes time. It took 30 years for Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to have the courage and vision to go to Jerusalem and make peace with Israel. It took 15 more years before Jordan’s King Hussein accepted Israel’s outstretched hand and signed a peace treaty. One hopes that it will take less time for a Palestinian leader to follow in their footsteps. Until then, peace will have to wait.