Can Netanyahu, Abu Mazen Make Peace?

Israelis and Palestinians have agreed on renewing negotiations, but the obstacles constitute an endless list of questions for which answers have been found, but will leaders agree to implement them?

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L) attends a special cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of late Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin July 21, 2013. Photo by Reuters/Uriel Sinai.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar

@shlomieldar

Topics covered

peace, secretary of state john kerry, negotiations, hamas, gaza, benjamin netanyahu

Jul 21, 2013

So, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Amman (and not in Jerusalem or Ramallah) on Friday night [July 19] that the negotiations would resume. For anyone who forgot or who happened to suppress it, he was referring to peace negotiations that would last nine months, with the option of an extension, but which would end with the Palestinians and Israelis signing an agreement resulting in the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

So now let’s look at the relevant questions, each of which could result in a crisis and the breakdown of the talks:

Will Israel agree to evacuate most of the settlements in Judea and Samaria?

Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be able to evacuate the settlements and receive the backing of his ministers, regardless of what government he heads?

Will Netanyahu withstand the pressure of right-wing demonstrations, even after seeing hateful signs, hearing the calls of “traitor,” “cheater,” and “liar”? Or perhaps even seeing the demonstrators depict him in SS uniform, just as they did to former Prime Minister late Yitzhak Rabin?

And will the Palestinians declare an end to the bloody conflict, which has lasted for over one hundred years?

Will they be prepared to accept the State of Israel as a Jewish state?

And how will Israeli Arabs react if the Palestinians recognize the Israeli state as a Jewish state?

Will they not attack Palestinian Chairman Abu Mazen for selling them for “a pot of soup” [as in ''pottage of lentils," Genesis 25:29-34]? Will he be able to stand up to their vitriol?

Then there is the Arab League. Given its current state of affairs, will it even be able to back this historical process, given all the difficulties and every imaginable obstacle that the parties have put in place, each in their own way, to trip up the other side? Will the Arab League even survive all the great changes taking place throughout the Arab world here in the Middle East?

And what will happen to the city of Ariel? Even if the peace agreement includes provisions for an exchange of territories, so that the large settlement blocs remain in Israeli hands, could the settlement of Ariel, which is more than 30 km from the international boundary line, remain within the boundaries of the Palestinian state?

Will Netanyahu be prepared to accept a Jewish city within the Palestinian state?

Furthermore, will the parties be able to reach agreement over some arrangement concerning Jerusalem, when generations of Israeli leaders have declared ever since it was annexed [in 1967], that Jerusalem would never be divided again?

And will Abu Mazen and the Palestinians be able to reach a compromise over Jerusalem, when every Palestinian leader from PLO leader Yasser Arafat (who shouted Hata al-Quds! “Onward to Jerusalem”) to the most inconsequential member of his organization has gotten so used to declaring, “A Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Once the negotiations are over, and a gala signing ceremony is held on the White House lawn, will the Palestinians be prepared to forgo declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine?

Will they be able to find some formula for the problem of the Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return?

Will Abu Mazen have the wherewithal to listen to the grievances of millions of Palestinian refugees now living in the diaspora if no agreement is reached to return them to their lands or at least to compensate them? We already saw what they did to him when he declared that he had no desire to return to Safed, the town of his birth, but would rather just visit it instead and return to the territory of the Palestinian Authority.

Will Israel agree to release Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands?

Will Netanyahu and his ministers, from the right and from the left, agree to the construction of the first Palestinian airport in the West Bank?

And what will happen if all the generals keep shouting, “Security! Security!” and issue warnings that airplanes taking off and landing at Ben Gurion Airport can be shot down from just about any hill within the territory of the Palestinian state? Will it be possible to assuage their fears?

Will they be willing to transfer territory in the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians? What about water from the Jordan River?

Will Hamas and other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip attempt to impede the agreement, which will inevitably leave them out? We have already seen what they do and how they respond when forced into a corner, and when put in the same situation they were in before the signing of the Oslo Accords [1993].

Will they launch another series of terrorist attacks to prove that they are a legitimate part of the Palestinian leadership, and that the PLO is not the sole representative of the Palestinian people?

And if Hamas fires off Qassam and Grad rockets, will Israel respond with an extensive operation in Gaza? And if Israel does respond, how will Abu Mazen respond to that?

And what, exactly, will be the scope of the peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? Will it encompass just the West Bank, without the Gaza Strip? In other words, will it be half of an agreement with half a people? Will it be considered admissible? Will it be legitimate?

And how will Netanyahu respond to his supporters and his opponents alike, when they ask him what will happen when elections are held in the Palestinian state, and Hamas wins them, making it the ruling power in the West Bank too?

Will it be possible to keep the agreement after it is signed, if Israel must commit itself to returning to the 1967 borders with some minor adjustments or other?

And if such an agreement is reached, will Netanyahu submit it to the people in a referendum, just as he promised to do?

Will the Israelis, who have been forced for years day and night to hear that there is no partner for peace and that there is no one to talk to, be prepared to pay the price and vote for the agreement?

And will Netanyahu, whose opponents describe him as susceptible to pressure, stand up to the demonstrations that the right will inevitably organize against him? The same can be asked about Abu Mazen. He also failed to show great courage when faced with demonstrations against him.

Will they? Will they? Will they? All of these questions and issues show how complex and intricate everything really is.

But the biggest question of all, which will determine whether there really is some chance to reach an agreement after intense negotiations between the parties is whether Abu Mazen and Netanyahu can really be sufficiently strong and determined enough to confront all the obstacles along the way. Given their status and political circumstances, compounded as they are by all the chains that encircle them (whether these were created around them, or whether they created them themselves, for their own reasons) will they have what it takes to proceed? To fulfill the agreement? To even reach an agreement?

From the very moment that the return to the negotiating table was announced, with the agreement that everything, but everything, will be confidential and secretive, a series of intentional leaks has begun. So, for example, the Palestinians leaked that Netanyahu succumbed to all the pressure put on him, so that the negotiations will be based on the 1967 borders. Then they leaked that Netanyahu is prepared to release 350 prisoners, and that there will be a secret freeze on construction in the West Bank, which will not be announced publicly, and that the Americans will provide the Palestinians with guarantees, because Abu Mazen doesn’t trust Netanyahu.

And on the other side, Netanyahu has denied that there were any preconditions to relaunch the negotiations. Even if prisoners are released, he said, their number would be considerably less than reported, and in any event, no Israeli Arabs would be among the newly released prisoners.

And there were more leaks and more spins for the media, intended to strengthen the weaker sides, even if it is obvious that they lack the strength and the political and public backing to start negotiations that would require them to make significant compromises and enormous concessions.

Both parties are threatened by such powerful oppositions that the very start of the negotiations is a burden too heavy for them both. Were it not for the massive amounts of pressure and the threats of economic and diplomatic sanctions, it is highly doubtful that John Kerry would take up a position outside the playing field and make his announcement that understanding had been reached to enable the two parties to commence talking, and to do this in King Abdullah’s kingdom of all places.

It will be interesting to see whether they have the strength and courage to make peace and pay they price for it. I already know the answer, and most of us think the exact same thing. That is why there was no cheering to be heard in Ramallah or Jerusalem. That is why Ramallah and Jerusalem both started leaking. It is only in Washington, at the end of the newscasts by an American media that has long since grown tired of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, that Kerry received kudos for having released the stopper that no one thought could be released. Now all that remains to be seen is whether sitting together at the negotiating table will be enough to bring the extremes together, and if they will provide answers to the questions asked here.

Even if they do manage to find some magic formula and come up with solutions to half of these questions, we will be able to say, “That is enough for us.” If that is the case, then a peace agreement will be reached rapidly, in our lifetimes.

Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

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