Jun 5th 2014

Charting A New Course

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The success or failure of the newly established Palestinian unity government rests on its ability and willingness to chart a new course in its relations with Israel and its commitment to peace. Having Hamas as a partner in this government is critical because the Palestinians can now present a united front and Hamas may have finally come to terms with the reality of Israel.

While the road ahead remains cluttered with many logistical, political and ideological differences, it offers a historic opportunity to reach a breakthrough in future peace negotiations with Israel. The fact that the new government was recognized by a majority of the international community gives it the opportunity not only to unite the Palestinians but make genuine efforts to realize their long-held dream of establishing an independent state.

To that end, the unity government must begin by addressing the most critical issues that have blunted the Palestinians’ efforts in the past to realize the two-state solution.

There is probably nothing more relevant to the success of the unity government than earning the trust of the Israeli public. The government must recognize that the average Israeli believes that the Palestinians do not seek real peace and are still committed to Israel’s destruction. As a result, the Israelis have resigned themselves to live with the status quo and have become completely complacent. The lack of imminent threats, the absence of terrorist attacks, and the economic boom have further removed any sense of urgency to change anything.

Nevertheless, Israelis remain security-conscious and will support any government on the question of national security. Indeed, regardless of how powerful the Israeli military is, the public still feels insecure; this goes back to its collective historical experiences. This state of mind makes the Israelis extremely sensitive and inflexible on matters of national security, and the unity government would be wise to take this aspect of the Israelis’ psychological vulnerability seriously.

Under any circumstances, the unity government must maintain its security cooperation with Israel, build on it, and maintain its credibility and commitment on matters of security. This is one area where the Israelis have praised the Palestinian Authority in the past for their full cooperation. Moreover, Palestinian internal security should do everything possible to prevent violent attacks against Israel from Gaza and the West Bank. The purpose here is to disabuse the Israeli public of the commonly-accepted dictum that the Palestinians cannot be trusted.

In this respect, regardless of how abhorrent some of the settlers’ provocations may be, it would be extremely unwise on the part of the Palestinian government to engage in a tit-for-tat. The government, however, must condemn any premeditated acts of violence, as it has done in the past, to demonstrate to the Israeli public in particular that it takes Israel’s security very seriously.

What I am suggesting is to engage in a diplomatic offensive with a focus on security, because threatening the use of or resorting to force against Israel has not worked and it will not work in the future. Israel is a formidable military power and is capable of dealing with any threat, regardless of its source and intensity.

Moreover, the Palestinians’ worst enemy has been their own repeated public condemnations of Israel and their failure to distinguish between the public and the government’s action and policy toward the Palestinians. It is critical that Palestinian officials tone down their public denunciation of Israel because as long as expressions of animosity and hatred are constantly leveled against Israel, it will only reinforce the Israelis’ perception that the Palestinians were and remain the ultimate enemy.

Saeb Erekat, who is a member of the PLO Executive Committee and head of the Palestinian negotiating team no less, causes more damage to the Palestinian cause than any sworn enemy of the Palestinians because of his constant condemnation of Israel and irresponsible public statements. In the past two days alone, Erekat issued several statements including one under the title: “The Israeli government is celebrating 47 years of occupation and war crimes with the approval of thousands of new settlement units in the Occupied State of Palestine.” Another is titled “Israel is marking 47 years of Israeli occupation: ‘We are marking another year of occupation, oppression and colonization.’”

This particularly has had an adverse effect on the Palestinian cause as it plays into the hand of the Israeli government, especially one led by a right-of-center party such as Netanyahu’s, who would readily capitalize on the continuing (perceived or real) Palestinian enmity, regardless of its merit.

For this reason, the Palestinians need to drastically change their public narrative to demonstrate to the Israeli public, whose support of the peace process is central, that there is a genuine change of attitude in the pursuit of peace and that the Palestinians can be trusted, which is in their best interest.

Only the Palestinians can modify and subsequently change the Israelis’ mindset. Only the Palestinians can make the Israelis understand that the status quo is not sustainable, because as bad as the occupation is for the Palestinians, its continuation will be worse for the Israelis.

The Palestinian government must capitalize on the different political ideologies in the Israeli coalition government. They must keep in mind that Netanyahu is not politically immune; he relies on a coalition government of four parties that give him a majority of 68 Knesset members out of 120.

Two of these parties, Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid with 19 members) and Hatenua (led by Tzipi Livni with six members), are committed to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. Even without the two Arab lists, there are four other parties in the opposition from the center and left. Those parties combined with Yesh Atid and Hatenua would total 52 members. After including Shas and United Torah Judaism, they would muster a solid majority of 70 members.

Netanyahu’s rejection of the Palestinian unity government and his refusal to negotiate with it will only further isolate Netanyahu both domestically and internationally, as it stands in total contrast to the position of all major powers that are willing to give it a chance to demonstrate its readiness to seriously negotiate with Israel.

Thus it is immensely important for the Palestinian government to be cognizant of the fact that if it demonstrates determination to negotiate in earnest and is ready to make important concessions, and Netanyahu still refuses to negotiate faithfully, both Lapid and Livni are on record saying they would leave the government. This would open the door for new elections or the formation of a new coalition government that can actively pursue a peace agreement.

In an op-ed published in Time, Lapid stated that “Our goal was and remains to continue talks until an agreement is reached. But before that, we must know something very basic: with whom exactly are we talking?”

Lapid was clearly alluding to the unity government and to what extent Hamas’ commitment is to peace. The unity government must capitalize on the “fragility” of the Netanyahu government by demonstrating their readiness to end the conflict politically based on mutually accepted terms.

Finally, the unity government must now strive to earn and solidify the continuing American and EU support, which will depend on the Palestinians’ keenness to adhere to the above points.

Furthermore, the Palestinian government can make it easier for Obama, who wants the unity government to succeed, by ensuring that Hamas embraces the Arab Peace Initiative, which could offer both a face-saving way out for Hamas and a way for the US to potentially remove Hamas from the terrorist list.

To be sure, the Palestinian unity government provides a historic opportunity to either advance peace and realize the long-hoped-for Palestinian state, or destroy any hope for the resumption of talks toward that end. What matters is the action the unity government takes, the public narrative it engages in, and how constructive a role Hamas will play.

All must be designed to persuade the Israeli public that time and circumstances have changed and neither Israel nor the Palestinians can allow themselves to be prisoners of the past.

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