The American politician Tip O'Neill once famously observed "that all politics is local." Had O'Neill been an Israeli, he might have added: "but local politics often has international consequences." The as yet uncertain results of the Israeli election have considerable implications internationally. They suggest a movement toward the center and away from the extremes. This, in turn, makes it more likely that the Israeli government might have more flexibility in dealing with the Palestinian Authority and in moving toward a two-state solution. There is also some suggestion that the Palestinian Authority may be prepared to soften its refusal to sit down with the Israelis until after a total settlement freeze is agreed upon.
In September I spoke to President Abbas and suggested to him a formula for restarting negotiations: He would agree to sit down and begin negotiations without Israel having frozen settlements, with the understanding that only after he began good faith negotiations, would Israel initiate a settlement freeze. The plan also contemplated a quick and rough division of the West Bank into three areas: those that would almost certainly remain part of Israel; those that would almost certainly become part of a Palestinian state; and those that are reasonably in dispute. As to the first, there would be no limitation on building; but as to the second and third, a freeze would remain in effect until final borders were agreed upon, so long as the negotiations continued in good faith.
Abbas agreed to this formulation, after conferring with Saeb Erekat. He even signed a paper that set out this plan.
We both agreed that it was unlikely that negotiations would resume until after the Israeli election. And I said that I would reraise the issue at that time. So I am.
The current combination of factors—the centrist tilt of the Israeli election, the reelection of President Obama and the recognition by the United Nations of Palestine as an observer-state—makes this a propitious time for negotiations.
Resuming negotiations would send a powerful message to President Obama that Israel does indeed know its own best interests, since resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute, with assurances of Israel's security, is clearly in Israel's best interest. Most Israelis seem to agree with that assessment, as polls and election results strongly suggest. Most Palestinians also seem to support a two-state resolution, though the poll numbers there have weakened considerably over the past months.
There are many in Israel who doubt that the Palestinian leadership is really prepared to make the kind of sacrifices that will be required to bring about a resolution, especially with regard to the so-called refugees. And there are many Palestinians who doubt that the Israeli leadership, even following the election, will be prepared to make the kind of territorial compromises necessary to bring about peace.
The only way to know for sure is to begin negotiations, with no preconditions and with open minds and open hearts.
The world must remember that it was the Palestinian leadership, under Yasser Arafat, that rejected the generous offer by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in 2000-2001. And the world must remember that it was the Palestinian Authority, under President Abbas, that failed to respond to the even more generous offer made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert just a few years ago. If the current Palestinian leadership now refuses to sit down and negotiate in good faith, or if it refuses to accept a realistic offer from the new Israeli government, the international community—which has a notoriously short memory when it comes to Israel—will once again see who wants peace and who does not.
Nothing is likely to happen in the days to come, while Prime Minister Netanyahu tries to assemble an enduring coalition. But in the process of building such a coalition, the Prime Minister should think globally as well as locally. He should opt for a coalition that maximizes his flexibility in dealing with the Palestinian Authority. I know that Prime Minister Netanyahu very much wants to be the person who brings about peace with security between Israel and the Palestinians. In order to do so, he must work hard to construct a coalition that does not tie his hands. This will not be an easy task. Nor are the Palestinians his only international concern. Iran poses a far greater danger to Israel's security than do the Palestinians. The unraveling of the Arab Spring and the unpredictable situation in Syria pose additional challenges.
The United States and the rest of the world will be watching to see how Prime Minister Netanyahu deals with his local issues—namely constructing a viable coalition—while giving himself maximum flexibility to deal with global issues.
In the end, the Israeli people and the leaders they elect will prove to the world that Israel knows its own best interests and is in the best position to implement them. That is what democracy is all about, and Israel's recent elections display democracy at its best.
This article first appeared in Ha'aretz on 1/23/13