Criticism of Leon Panetta's demand that Israel "return to the damn table," and Tom Friedman's lament that Prime Minister Netanyahu's ovation before Congress "was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby" has been broad and deep. Writers from right to center (forget the left, who applauded both) denounced them, parsed them and tried to put them "in context." It is the context that is worrisome rather than their less-than-lovely language. The context is that if Israel and the Palestinians would both negotiate seriously, they would get to the "Two State Solution" beloved of the US and the Quartet.

Grant Panetta and Friedman the "damn table" and see what happens:

IF Israel sat at the table; IF Netanyahu agreed to a permanent settlement freeze; IF the Palestinians returned to the table; IF the Palestinians came under the "moderate" mandate of Fatah rather than "extremist" mandate of Hamas; IF they started with the 1949 Armistice Lines (the so-called 67 borders); IF they talked themselves blue in the face, they STILL would not get where Panetta, Friedman, et. al. want them to go.

Israelis and Palestinians have incompatible bottom lines that cannot be satisfied with a split and hostile rump State of Palestine (and a split, rump state would be hostile) wedged between the Mediterranean Sea, a nervous Israel and a more-nervous Jordan. No "peace process" can negotiate away the actual interests of the parties. No matter how much outsiders (Friedman and Panetta are just the tip of the iceberg) try to redefine those interests as something else, or demand that they be something else, or insist that they are, in fact, something else, the two stupid parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians, simply do not realize it -- hence the need for the ever-so-much-smarter Panetta and Freidman to pontificate.

For Israel, there are three issues:

  • Recognition of the the State of Israel as a permanent and legitimate part of the region and the community of nations (known as "end of conflict, end of claims");
  • "Secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force" -- the promise of U.N. Resolution 242; and
  • The capital of Israel in a united Jerusalem.

For the Palestinians, there are also three issues:

  • International recognition of an independent Palestinian State without recognizing borders for the Third Jewish Commonwealth (no "end of claims);
  • Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state; and
  • The right of refugees of 1948/49 and their descendants to live in places from which they -- or their antecedents -- claim to have originated inside the boundaries of pre-'67 Israel.

Israel's interest in a united Jerusalem is practical as much as anything else. The 1947 Partition Agreement that left the U.N. in control of the city promised Jews access to Jewish holy places. But the U.N. not only failed to deliver access, it failed to prevent the wholesale destruction of synagogues, houses of Jewish learning and other holy sites including the Mount of Olives cemetery on the eastern side after the Arab expulsion of the Jewish community. Israel is unlikely to substitute future promises of access for its current ability to operate an open, accessible city for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas has no authority to concede the so-called "right of return" of Palestinians to Israeli territory, or to agree that Jews can live east of the Armistice line. He is beholden to his most radical elements and remains in power only because the IDF provides security in the West Bank. He has no authority at all in Gaza, which ousted his Fatah in a short, brutal civil war in 2007. Recent Palestinian unification talks are trending more toward Abbas coming under the Hamas banner than the other way around.

This is no way implies that there shouldn't ever be a Palestinian state, or that Israel must resign itself to permanent occupation. It only recognizes that "peace" is not a negotiable proposition; "peace" can only emerge – if it emerges at all – after a resolution of the issues that separate the parties. There is, after all, a just peace, a secure peace, a cold peace, and the peace of the dead. There is peace that contains the seeds of the next war, such as the Versailles Treaty, and peace that leads to long-term amity and prosperity, such as the Allied occupation of Germany and Japan.

How Palestinians and Israelis manage their interests should be of far more concern to friends of either or both than the off-target posturing of Panetta and Friedman.

Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to the Middle East since 1982. She is the former Senior Director for Security Policy at JINSA and was author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.

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