The Magazine

Obama's Middle East Gambit

There are far greater obstacles to peace than the Israeli settlements.

Sep 28, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 02 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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The sort of action that is long overdue and almost certainly not slated anytime soon, say an invitation from the Saudis for the Israeli foreign minister to visit Riyadh, would be a momentous one. It might not instantly produce crowds in Israel demanding substantial withdrawals from the West Bank, but it would transform public debate. The sight on TV screens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem of an Israeli foreign minister shaking hands with his counterpart in the Saudi capital would spark enthusiasm for major concessions in a nation that has not ceased to yearn for peace even as it has, with each passing year, grown more resigned to persevering in the absence of a willing and able peace partner.

But suppose Obama's gambit, if gambit it is, pays off. Suppose Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees to a settlement freeze sufficient to bring Abbas back to the negotiating table. What then? Most likely the Obama administration will relearn the sobering lesson taught to the Bush administration during the frustrated quest for a peace agreement that began at the 2007 Annapolis Conference. As in 1949, 1967, and 2000, Palestinians are unprepared to make hard decisions and accept the painful concessions necessary to bring into existence a Palestinian state.

People of good will and understanding on both sides of the conflict have for several years recognized the broad outlines of a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Having in 2005 withdrawn from every last inch of the Gaza Strip and in the process removed 10,000 civilians from 21 settlements, Israel will, in exchange for "secure and recognized boundaries," return most of the West Bank territories that it seized in 1967 when Jordan attacked it during the Six Day War. The suburbs of Jerusalem and a few large settlement blocs will remain under Israeli sovereignty, but Israel will evacuate tens of thousands more citizens. Jerusalem will stay Israel's capital, even as accommodations will be made for Palestinian self-government in East Jerusalem. And, because if implemented it would spell the destruction of Israel, the Palestinians will need to abandon their claim that all Palestinians--not merely those who left or were forced out of their homes between 1947 and 1949 during Israel's war of independence, but the millions of their children and their children's children living in Gaza, the West Bank, and in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria--have the right to return to Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa.

It was an even more generous offer--including the dismantling of most of the settlements and Palestinian sovereignty over half the Old City of Jerusalem--that Ehud Barak delivered to Yasser Arafat in July 2000 at Camp David. Rejecting the offer outright, Arafat proceeded a few months later to launch the Second Intifada and to release against Israel wave after wave of suicide bombers. While it is unlikely that, if Obama administration-initiated negotiations fail to yield an agreement, Abbas will launch a third intifada, little has changed that would allow him to sign the very generous deal rejected by Arafat, let alone the undoubtedly more restricted offer which would come from Netanyahu.

A wide swath of Israelis in and out of the national security establishment believe that Abbas does not want to go down in history as the Palestinian leader who yielded land or Jerusalem to the Jewish state. Abbas, they believe, will settle for nothing less than a return to the 1949 armistice boundaries or Green Line, which would place the entire Old City of Jerusalem under Palestinian authority and give Israel indefensible borders. And Abbas has given no sign that he is prepared to abandon the Palestinians' uncompromising belief in their right of return. Indeed, according to Giora Eiland, a former head of the Israeli National Security Council, the right of return is not merely non-negotiable for the Palestinians, but it and not a state of their own has all along been the Palestinians' main goal.

The inability of their leaders to compromise on crucial issues is only the beginning of the obstacles to peace emanating from within the Palestinian people. Even if their leaders were able to summon the courage to compromise, the dozens of hostile Fatah factions show no signs that they could be persuaded or compelled to go along. And there are more formidable obstacles to implementation.