Despite earnest efforts by American President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas, it will be extremely difficult for a final peaceful resolution to be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future. The major obstacle to peace is the international community led by the United Nations. The international community has emboldened Arab leaders into believing that Israel can be delegitimated and weakened through international pressure, and that if the Palestinians hold out long enough, they can achieve their ultimate goal: Namely to end Israel's existence as a Jewish state accepted by the international community.
This was made plain by a statement issued this week from Damascus and signed not only by Hamas but by several secular Palestinian groups that had previously favored direct talks. The current position of these groups is to oppose negotiations and wait for Israel to be isolated even further. Here is the way the statement put it: "Insisting on direct talks throws a lifeline to Israel as its isolation deepens... A return to direct talks serves the US and Zionist aim to liquidate the national rights of the Palestinian people." By "the national rights of the Palestinian people," the groups that signed the statement mean the right of Palestinians to "return" to what is now Israel and to turn it into yet another Muslim-Arab state. Hamas leader Khaled Meshall praised the meeting that produced this negative statement as "exceptional," because it united eleven disparate groups, some religious, others secular, that he claims represent a majority of the Palestinians.
Why negotiate from a position of relative weakness, the signers of the statement ask rhetorically, when the international community is strengthening the position of the Palestinians, while weakening Israel? Delay, it is believed, will help the Palestinians get a better deal, perhaps even preserving their so-called right of return--a "right" no Israeli government could ever accept.
Even the more moderate Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, is escalating its demands from what it sees as an increasingly isolated Israel. It is now demanding more than what it was offered by President Clinton and then Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000-2001. And it is offering considerably less in return. Back then, the Palestinian Authority could have offered Israel real peace on all of its borders. Today it can offer peace only on Israel's eastern border with the West Bank. Peace with the Palestinian Authority will not bring peace with Hamas on Israel's southwestern border with Gaza. Nor will it bring peace on its northern border with Lebanon, which is now controlled by Hezbollah, a proxy for Iran. And speaking of Iran, the virulently anti-Israel regime which now controls that country is the 800 lb gorilla in the room.
On a recent month long visit to Israel, I met with every Israeli political and military leader. During the course of our many hours of discussion, the issue of the Palestinians was clearly secondary to the threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran. Unless that threat is eliminated, or considerably delayed, many Israelis believe that they have little to gain from a partial peace with the group that threatens them least, namely the Palestinian Authority. And they have something to lose, because peace with the Palestinian Authority will require the dismantling of most West Bank settlements. This will not be easy for Israel to bring about, because there will be hostile resistance from at least some of the settlers. The vast majority of Israelis support the dismantling of the settlements, even if it requires civil turmoil, but only if they get real peace in return.
The Israeli government is now more conservative than it was in 2000-2001. Yassir Arafat was warned by then President Clinton, as well as by Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, that the Palestinians would never get a better deal. Nonetheless he rejected that generous offer and started the second intifada which caused the death of thousands of people including nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians. How then can the Palestinians expect to get more for less after rejecting a generous offer and starting a mini-war? That is the question many Israelis are asking. The answer has not been forthcoming.
A related reason why peace will be difficult to achieve in the short run, is that life is pretty good both for most Israelis and for most West Bank Palestinians. The Israeli economy is thriving, there has been little terrorism, and recent polls suggest that Israelis are among the happiest and most contended people in the world. I am aware of no polls regarding West Bank Palestinians, but I recently visited Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad, and what I saw was a thriving city with fancy cars, high tech shops, bustling restaurants and many other indications that life is also good in Ramallah, which is the functioning capital of the Palestinian Authority.
When times are good for both sides, neither side may be willing to make significant concessions. For Palestinians, such concessions include giving up any right of return, a demilitarized status and a willingness to accept some Israeli communities on the outskirts of Jerusalem on land captured by Israel during the Six Day War. For Israelis, such concessions, in addition to dismantling the settlements, include a strengthened Palestinian military and some loss of control over the borders of a Palestinian state.
Were the Obama administration able to assure the Netanyahu government that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons--even if that required a military strike as a last resort--the Israelis would be more willing to take risks in order to achieve peace with the Palestinian Authority. In the absence of such an assurance, the attention of the Netanyahu government will remain focused on the only existential threat Israel faces: namely, a nuclear Iran.
There are those who theorize that if Israel were to strike a deal with the Palestinians, that would make it easier for the Obama Administration to prevent a nuclear Iran. Whether that is true or not, the Israelis with whom I spoke want more than theorizing. They want an assurance that they can achieve real peace and safety, not only in relation to the Palestinians but also in relation to Iran, if they are to surrender control over territories they won in a defensive war.
To say that peace will be difficult to achieve is not to suggest that the parties stop trying. But in order to succeed, they must take into consideration the risks and realties on all sides.