The Case for Peace Process Optimism

The Case for Peace Process Optimism
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Steven Rosen

The recent election shifted the balance in Israel’s Knesset significantly. Most elections in Israel, frankly speaking, may change the personalities, but they’re often the same old wine in a new bottle. The basic balance between left and right doesn’t change.

In recent years, the Knesset has had majorities of the right and ultra-Orthodox bloc. But actually, the most recent election changed that. There was a net shift of seats from right to left. This new Knesset has nearly exactly a 50-50 split between left and right.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has formed a new government that’s a very different fish than the one it’s replacing.

The Netanyahu Government from 2009 to 2012 was more conservative than the government that Menachem Begin headed, it was more conservative than the government that Yitzhak Shamir headed, it was more conservative than the government that Ariel Sharon headed.

And it had difficult relations – it’s no secret – not only with President Obama but with the Europeans and others, including the Australian government.

And, I must tell you that I have a different take on Bibi Netanyahu than other people. [While] I don’t claim to be his best friend, I have a feel for this guy.

Netanyahu has had one central purpose in his career, from the time he was very young – anchoring Israel in the Western family of nations. So I assert that the last four years have been painful for Netanyahu.

I don’t think Netanyahu actually wanted the government he had from 2009 to 2012. When he formed his government in 2009, he reached out first and foremost to Tzipi Livni, who was the head of Kadima, and he asked her to join him and form a government that the Europeans would call a “grand coalition” between left and right.

As it happened, the negotiations with Livni didn’t work out, and he ended up forming the only other government that could be formed, which was a hard right government. But I assert to you that wasn’t actually what he wanted.

The new government is of the right and centre-left. It’s a government where Netanyahu’s biggest partner is Yair Lapid, who is definitely a centre-left guy. Tzipi Livni, who now heads a much smaller party, has been given responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians.

There will also be right-wing parties in the government. But it will be a right and centre-left government and a different creature than the one that it’s replacing. This fact has not escaped the notice of the Obama Administration.

I think the world is headed towards a surprise. I think the United States and Israel are converging on a fresh initiative towards the Palestinians. I don’t think this is merely being imposed on Netanyahu from the outside – I think this is what he wants.

Why would Netanyahu want negotiations with the Palestinians? Has he suddenly become a woolly-eyed liberal?

No. It’s because he doesn’t believe that the unstable situation that exists today between the Israelis and Palestinians can go on forever and he also doesn’t believe that the right wing – especially not himself – will be in control of Israel forever. He believes that one of these woolly-eyed liberals of one of Israel’s parties to the left will sooner or later win an election and they will sooner or later sign a peace agreement that will be unsafe for Israel. He believes that they have naïve ideas about peace and they will sign a piece of paper and put Israel in great danger. And as a result he believes that there has to be a stabilisation of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians and only he can be trusted to sign that piece of paper – because he understands what kind of peace agreement will be safe and what kind of peace agreement will be dangerous.

President Obama also has come to some realistic conclusions. There is a new peace team around Obama. They are coming around to the idea that the Oslo dream of one big grand bargain in which Israelis and Palestinians sit down and solve every problem is not going to happen. This is partly because of all the distrust, and partly because each side would have to make compromises on impossible issues.

In the case of the Palestinians, they would have to sign away the right of return. For them, the individual that signed that piece of paper that says we are not going back to our homes in Jaffa or Haifa is a traitor to the most sacred values of the Palestinian people.

For Israel, to be the Prime Minister who divides Jerusalem, who gives away the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, is just too big a bite to swallow.

But there is something we can do. It’s called an interim Palestinian state with temporary borders. It’s a partial agreement, it’s a phased approach, in which, it’s true, you don’t end the conflict by resolving all differences, but it’s also true that neither side has to give away its most sacred values. As a matter of fact the two sides already agreed to it in the 2003 Road Map. So the notion of an interim Palestinian state with temporary borders is already accepted at a conceptual, general principle level.

I have three predictions. First, that there’s going to be a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – not right away, but over a period of time. Second, that these negotiations are not going to focus on the comprehensive solution to the conflict or accord but on an interim Palestinian state with temporary borders, and third that this is what Netanyahu wants, and he’s going to lead the way.

Dr. Steve Rosen is Director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project, and previously served as director of foreign policy issues for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1982-2005. He recently visited Australia as a guest of AIJAC. The above is a rapporteur’s summary of remarks by Dr. Rosen in Melbourne on March 15 prepared by Ahron Shapiro.