Monday, March 14, 2011

Bar-Ilan 2.0 -- Does Israel Need a Peace Plan?

Earthquakes, tsunamis and a nuclear meltdown in Japan top the news pushing aside mad Muammar Gaddafi, upheaval throughout the Arab world, and the butchery of five members of a Jewish family in their sleep by Palestinian Arabs at Itamar. Rest assured, however, that in short order Israel's wobbly friends in Europe and the U.S. will be back to press Jerusalem to "do something" about what Washington sees as the "unsustainable" stalemate in the "peace process" over which German Chancellor Angela Merkel scolded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

Not a single step?

Israel's lifting of 400 security checkpoints up and down the West Bank including near Itamar, its ten-month moratorium on most settlement building, its willingness to extend the freeze another three months, and Netanyahu's 2009 Bar-Ilan University address have, to be sure, not had much of a diplomatic shelf-life. In the Topsy Turvy world of Mideast peacemaking, because none of these moves enticed Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian faction to end their two-year boycott of negotiations, Israel is blamed for the impasse.

Abbas – recklessly impelled, initially at least, by President Barack Obama – has adhered to the position that the Palestinians simply can't negotiate so long as any Jewish construction continues anywhere beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines. Of course, the West Bank settlements issue would be resolved were Abbas willing to negotiate permanent boundaries with Israel. But why should he have to compromise in direct negotiations with Netanyahu when his internationally backed intransigence promises to deliver an Israeli withdrawal to the euphemistically called "1967 border."

Netanyahu, under withering pressure to somehow assuage the smoldering irritation of Israel settlement-obsessed Europeans and Americans, has reportedly been planning a major address to expand upon his Bar-Ilan "vision of peace" for "two peoples" speech. Yet it is difficult to see what Netanyahu could say or do – short of capitulating to all of Abbas's demands – to win lasting EU and Obama administration acclaim.

With the Hamas-led Palestinian faction in Gaza explicitly, unalterably, committed to the destruction of the Zionist enterprise; with Abbas refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, compromise on refuges, and resolutely committed to an internationally imposed solution that would completely disregard Israel's legitimate territorial rights and basic security needs, what realistically could Netanyahu offer?

Put another way: Can Israel placate its irritated allies while not committing national suicide?

No sooner had Netanyahu's office leaked the prospect that he would present (either to the Quartet or in a Washington speech) a new plan that would promote an interim arrangement with the Palestinians by recognizing a Palestinian state within temporary borders then Abbas utterly rejected the idea.

To complicate matters, if nascent pressure from young Palestinians for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation were to gain traction the result would undoubtedly be yet a further hardening of the Palestinian position rather than a softening of the Islamist one. No one in Fatah is talking about Hamas recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and adhering to previous diplomatic agreements signed by the PLO, the requisite demands by the Quartet for Hamas to join a Palestinian unity government.

Netanyahu's predicament recalls Ariel Sharon's whose disengagement plan announced in 2003 was partly intended to head-off pressure from President George W. Bush, who during the height of second intifada terror in 2002 "envisioned" a roadmap to a Palestinian state. Sharon was also profoundly worried about growing international support for the EU-backed Geneva Initiative and, notwithstanding Palestinian violations, for the Quartet's Road Map. All these schemes were designed to push Israel back to the old, hard to defend, armistice lines. Essentially, by "doing something" Sharon had sought to buy time, reap diplomatic approval and garner an American commitment for strategic settlement blocs in the West Bank. All these gains proved ephemeral.

Given this experience and the fact that any Netanyahu peace offering would be dead on arrival, is this really the time for him to present a new Israeli peace plan?

Yes and no.

Israel does need to put forth a coherent plan – to its own citizenry. Netanyahu should turn inward to broaden the domestic consensus on what the Jewish state can realistically offer the Palestinians and what it must expect in return. Fortunately, the fundamentals have already been laid out by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon (now Minister for Strategic Affairs).

Rather than take chances with Israel's security, Netanyahu needs to take personal political risks. He should appoint Ya'alon defense minister and together present a revised, fully detailed version of Ya'alon's blueprint to the electorate. If need be, Netanyahu should call for new elections seeking a clear mandate for the Ya'alon plan.

In coalition negotiations, Israel's mainstream political parties would likely have no trouble embracing Ya'alon's outline, but if they expect to – let them explain why to the electorate.

Instead of allowing Europe and the Obama administration to railroad him into proffering concessions that will not deliver peace and security – or even short-term diplomatic breathing space – Israel's best bet is to have a forthright internal dialogue aimed at building domestic cohesion for Ya'alon's plan that can offer the Palestinian Arabs a state and Israel security.

Areas that Israel needs to retain in any peace accord should not be subject to a any building freeze. Israelis living in Judea and Samaria have a right to know which parts of the Jewish heartland will one day be abandoned in the event an Arab partner for peace emerges.

Were Israeli decision makers -- with a clear electoral mandate -- to speak coherently and consistently, the country could garner support in Washington outside the administration and in fair-minded EU countries.


-- March 14, 2010

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