On 4 March 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the 2014 American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, DC. In a strongly pro-peace speech, he said that he was “prepared to make historic peace” with Israel’s Palestinian neighbours. To the surprise of many pundits, Netanyahu painted a picture of a thriving and peaceful Middle East in which the lives of millions would be improved by co-operation between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
Last year, I attended the annual ECFR meeting in Vienna and spoke on the Middle East forum. My fellow countryman, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and I were the only council members who expressed faith in the prospects of the two-state solution. ECFR’s Two-State Stress Test also shows bleak prospects for the two-state solution, in spite of the renewed US-led diplomatic efforts. However, some optimism is warranted as long as key international stakeholders play a constructive and supportive role in the new round of peace negotiations and direct negotiations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that will take place in the near future.
Debunking the Netanyahu myth
For years, so-called Middle-East experts have made the Israeli prime minister out to be a hawk that would never agree to talks with the Palestinians; they also depicted him as an unreliable politician who does not believe in a two-state solution. His speech at the Bar Ilan University, where he committed to a two-state solution, was merely a sop for Europe and the United States, critics said. It’s time to debunk that myth.
The “experts” were wrong. Netanyahu, that “enemy of peace”, has turned out to be more reliable than they would have us believe. He joined the negotiations without preconditions and committed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners, including some abhorrent terrorists. In his speech at the Saban Forum, Netanyahu declared that he was ready for a “historic compromise that ends the conflict […] once and for all” and that he was willing to “make even harder decisions to achieve peace.” Netanyahu has shown willingness to pay a steep political price for the ongoing negotiations. Of course, Bibi will not simply concede – he will demand something in return for every last inch he relinquishes. Yet, no one can deny that hawk Netanyahu has taken his seat at the table, though via his friend and long-time envoy, Yitzhak Molcho.
On the other side stands Abbas, the now elder statesman who is staying on only to make this historic deal, provided it's an honourable one for his people. Unexpected by most in the European Union, however, it was President Abbas who insisted on “confidence-building measures” before entering into the talks (though he did also concede to Netanyahu not to take Israel to the International Criminal Court).In these preconditions the ever-savvy Abu Mazen asked for the release of pre-Oslo prisoners instead of limitations to the settlement enterprise. President Abbas knows that EU member states will press for a settlement halt for him.
That said, Abbas can be trusted because he cannot afford the process to fail. Although he is the only Palestinian leader capable of uniting the Palestinian factions, with the exception of Hamas, his popular support is in decline, and the success of his appeal for statehood at the United Nations was not only short lived but also exacerbated the rift between him and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The EU might appreciate Abbas, but he and his Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) know all too well that EU support does not amount to much. While the EU is happy to give accolades to boost the PR-apparatus of the PLO when asked, it is also currently applauding measures that are in no way beneficial to the Palestinian Authority such as the sanctions against companies active in the settlements. This kind of superficial support does not offer any solutions.
That leaves us with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the two main actors who know full well what needs to be done. Both men will slowly but surely approach a stage where it will be hard for them to backtrack from the peace process: Whoever walks away from the table first will be condemned, and, more importantly, their own constituents will reject both a bad result and a stalemate. Abbas, unelected for seven years, can only open the polls if he can demonstrate success, and Netanyahu will be defeated in the next round of elections if he hasn’t made progress.
The key issues are clear – recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem – as well as the broad outline of a potential agreement: reciprocal recognition, land swaps, a military presence in the Jordan Valley, the right of return for a limited number of Palestinian refugees to Israel, and the division of Jerusalem under international oversight.
And we've seen some interesting novelties being spun in the media, including people-swaps apart from land-swaps and leasing settlements.
Now these lead actors need to reach the point of no return. A framework would be a good start, preferably one that does not require a signature. Such a non-committal scheme removes any valid reason for either of the two men to back away. In reality, though, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas can afford to do so. They´re stuck in the same – American-made – boat and need to sail on.
The American bid
Can this American initiative prevail? The odds of failure in this process are always higher, making it easier to preach gloom than to express hope. But, there is no alternative left, and neither Netanyahu nor Abbas wants to be the reason the process fails.
More importantly, we are almost out of time, because everyone is fed up. The Arab world is preoccupied with a worsening Sunni-Shia rift, and the US and European countries are losing their inclination to devote more time and effort to resolving this conflict, especially given the surfeit of other issues demanding their attention, including Syria, Iran, and Ukraine. If the US and Europe get tired or otherwise side tracked, any deal that is made will be less beneficial to the Palestinians.
Israel needs an agreement as well. Its main concern is whether a Palestinian state will improve its security or not. I believe it will. Israel and the PA have been successfully co-operating in security efforts in the West Bank. Additionally, the radical elements in the Palestinian territories that most threaten Israel’s security benefit from a weak PA and a frustrated Palestinian people; an agreement would weaken the radicals. More importantly: Israel wants to remain a liberal democracy, maintain the rule of law, and retain its Jewish character. If Israel does not concede land, it will fatally damage its democracy, the only one of its kind in the region. The only way to not let demographics abolish the Jewish majority is to put in place discriminatory legislation, strengthen the occupation, and deny the Palestinian right to self-determination. It functions as a zero-sum triangle. To keep land, Israel would have to forsake its Jewish character or its democracy. In short, both Israel and the Palestinians need an agreement, sooner rather than later.
Even Avigdor Lieberman – Israel's hardline foreign ministerwho is widely regarded as a major obstacle to peace with the Palestinians – has urged his country to accept the deal currently being brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry as the best offer that Israel will ever receive. Yet, some Israeli hawks are vocally pushing back against these “pointless peace talks”. For example, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon has made disparaging comments about Kerry; Likud members Danny Danon and Ofir Akunis have stated that a Palestinian state will never happen; and supreme hawk, member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett has been a broken record about his party’s refusal to support a Palestinian state. Why panic, one might ask, if the peace talks amount to nothing more than a sham?
EU follows suit
Assuming the talks are in fact making progress, the EU still needs to decide on its position. Like with many other issues, there is no such thing as a European consensus on Israel and Palestine, nor should one be sought. Europe, unfortunately, is not much more than a meaningless flunky to the Palestinians, and an extreme nuisance to the Israelis. In contrast, individual European countries, above all France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have established relationships with both parties and have thrown their support behind Kerry’s initiative enough to be able to play a role.
Those EU countries that still have some leverage, and want to keep it, need to ignore any red herrings, such as the perverted and escalating effects of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. They should wholly support Kerry’s initiative – the only show in town – and incentivise both parties to keep going. BDS will not help achieve an agreement. Such campaigns only divert attention from the only real course of action: direct negotiations, with a durable peace agreement as a result.
From this perspective, the majority of Europe would be wise to immediately halt their deplorable behaviour and make room for master of ceremonies Kerry and the two parties at the centre, which have both the opportunity as well as the duty to end this seemingly endless tragedy. We, as Europeans, need to take on responsibility in a truly supportive way. The Netherlands is willing to take up this gauntlet – are its other European partners willing to do the same?
Peace negotiations are a road well-travelled, and it has become passé to be hopeful. But I believe that peace, at the end of the day, is man-made. And the men who can make it are Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. To do so, they will have to engage in direct negotiations without the interference of ghost riders. So let us finish the side shows and we just might have reason in the end to applaud in earnest.
Han ten Broeke is a Dutch MP and Foreign Affairs Spokesman for the VVD(People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), and ECFR council member.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.