Apr 3rd 2014

Stuck In An Ideological Divide

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 common characteristics and stark differences between Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s President Abbas might just explain why the current peace negotiations are stuck and not likely to lead to any breakthrough as long as they remain in power. The irony is that while a majority of Israelis and Palestinians aspire for peace, Netanyahu and to a lesser extent Abbas have become the main obstacles as they remain wedded to certain beliefs and ideologies that have long since lost their merit.

How absurd is it to think that Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort could in fact lead to a peace agreement on major concessions, including the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, national security and settlements, when Netanyahu and Abbas cannot even agree on the release of a handful of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for extending the peace negotiations to the end of the year?

Netanyahu claims that if he agreed to the release before securing the extension, his government would collapse, and Abbas feels that if he were to agree to Netanyahu’s demand, he would be accused of having caved to incongruous demands coming from a person that the Palestinians dislike and distrust.

A conflict that has exacted so much pain, human lives and material losses for over six and a half decades should not and cannot continue only because Netanyahu and Abbas presumably disagree to extend the current negotiations. It is absurd, if not outright insane.

It is even more absurd that Netanyahu is now asking Kerry to secure the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in return for releasing more Palestinian prisoners, extend the negotiations, and also freeze the building of new housing units in the West Bank. The irony is, how many more Pollards will it take to reach an agreement?

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Netanyahu will not deliver any of the necessary concessions because he is not committed to reaching a peace agreement based on two states for two peoples.

Conversely, Abbas, who appears to be more committed to peace, is beholden to old and tired narratives of yesteryear, knowing full well that he simply is not in a position to concede on any issue such as the principle of the right of return or the future of Jerusalem as a capital of two states, which he has held sacred for decades.

While Abbas has correctly taken the unilateral step of applying to 15 UN international conventions to pressure Israel, he has stated that he still remains committed to the negotiations but left the door open to join other UN agencies, including the International Criminal Court, should the talks fail, a move Israel fears the most.

Kerry must know by now what the strategy of this odd couple is. Netanyahu, who is a hardcore ideologue, is not prepared to deviate from his belief in a greater Israel that must include much of the West Bank. For that he must play for time, and he does so skillfully by making demands he knows full well that Abbas cannot accept.

He is convinced that he can go against the tide, believing that the Obama administration will simply not put the kind of pressure needed on Israel, fearing domestic repercussions.

Poor Abbas, his hands are tied behind his back, or I should say, he asked that his hands be tied behind his back. There is not one single concession he can make, be that on the future of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, the settlements, etc., without alienating one segment or another among the Palestinians, unless he first exacts significant concessions from Netanyahu.

He does not have the full support of the Arab states, Hamas is breathing down his neck, the public is divided, and many Palestinians feel that he lacks legitimacy. Therefore, his options are limited, he has no one among the Palestinian leadership whom he can trust, and certainly he has no apparent successor.

What could have been the difference if you had two leaders who are really and absolutely committed to reaching an agreement based on the only viable option of two states for two peoples?

Netanyahu and Abbas would have sat together with their top advisors for weeks or months and done whatever else it takes to hammer out an agreement that meets the necessary requirements to make peace.

Simultaneously, they would have come out and faced their own respective publics and stated loud and clear: we both must make major concessions, however painful these may be. But these two leaders are simply incapable and unwilling to do just that.

As a result of their intractability, the price that both sides will pay is beyond what either could contemplate in their worst nightmare. Many Israelis will die to protect themselves, and many more Palestinians will prefer death over continued subjugation, humiliation and despair.

It is about time for Kerry to read Netanyahu and Abbas their rights. The US cannot reform these leaders; one with a messianic mission and the other presiding over a shallow political base frozen in time and place.

Kerry has two options: first, leave the Israelis and the Palestinians to their own devices and let them slug it out at each other for another decade or two until they reach a point of exhaustion, while risking major regional repercussions.

The second option is for Kerry to present to Netanyahu and Abbas his framework and give them one year to reach an agreement on a take it or leave it basis. Should they fail, the US must be prepared to withdraw its political and financial aid from both Israelis and Palestinians alike.

The sooner the Obama administration comes to this conclusion, the better off the Israelis and the Palestinians will be; but then again it will take bold American leadership.

The catch is that Obama is not likely to take such a position, and we may have to wait for the rise of new Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed to pursuing peace because the alternative is too dire to contemplate.

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