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Thursday, August 28, 2014

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Two states now, peace later

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Arie Raif

Too many have given up on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They simply write it off as a Gordian knot that will forever bedevil the region. They seem reconciled to the status quo, without concern about how it’s weakening Israel internally and internationally.

Israel can’t afford the luxury of sitting back, hoping the Palestinians will one day become an acquiescent partner in the pursuit of peace. In the absence of any pragmatic initiative, time is not working in Israel’s favour.

Despite a situation that often seems bereft of hope, despite the current negotiations that start today between Israel and the Palestinians, and despite seemingly irreconcilable demands by both sides, the current stalemate can be overcome, provided Israel is ready to make a significant, long overdue move.

Of course, it won’t be easy.

“It’s doable,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said recently. “But if we put it off, we will roll backward instead of advancing. People understand that another war will not help. Its price will be high and its outcome low.”

To claim there’s no solution is ludicrous and self-defeating. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophesy with no lack of right-wing pessimists ready, if not eager, to see it that way.

An interim agreement with the Palestinians is attainable by a division of land now and actual peace later – perhaps much later. It’s not only possible, but imperative.

Sadly, it’s only after a catastrophe that Israel seems able to make painful but necessary concessions.

The way forward has been evident for years now. Israel must reach an agreement with the Palestinians on two states for two peoples if this conflict is ever to end and Israel not recede further into a cataclysmic morass. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must rise to the occasion and demonstrate political courage and leadership he’s not yet shown. He must remove settlements, withdraw from most of the territories and make concessions over Jerusalem.

Can he do it? The answer is yes, because he now has a governing majority and he’s well acquainted with the Catastrophe Law.

Too often in the past, only after catastrophes did Israeli governments make painful concessions for peace.

Israel reached an agreement with Egypt in 1979 only after the Yom Kippur War, even though Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had offered prime minister Golda Meir a similar deal eight months before war erupted in 1973. The cost to Israel: 2,700 killed and a bitter taste of failure.

In 1993, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to shake Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s hand and sign the Oslo accords only after the first intifadah.

In 2000, prime minister Ehud Barak withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon 18 years after the 1982 Lebanon War that was supposed to last only 48 hours. The cost to Israel: 1,200 killed and a bitter taste of failure.

In 2005, prime minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israelis from Gaza following the second intifadah.

An interim Israeli-Palestinian agreement will require Netanyahu to compromise on some of his bedrock “principles.” He has no choice if he wants to make peace now rather than waiting until after a catastrophe and paying more.

First, he should yield on his precondition that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Do we really need their recognition? No.

Second, Netanyahu’s refusal to grant the Palestinians sovereignty over five square kilometres in Jerusalem (the Temple Mount) is an unnecessary obstacle that will be regretted later.

Third, Netanyahu must overcome his resistance to evacuating settlements and reach an agreement on borders and land swaps. Without it, nobody knows which settlements will be annexed and therefore all are entitled to construction permits and public funds. How can the Palestinians sign an agreement with Israel without knowing where one state ends and the other begins?

Instead of bargaining with Washington about a partial, temporary construction freeze in the settlements, why not transfer to the Palestinians the settlement areas in the northern West Bank that Israel evacuated as part of the disengagement plan?

Why not transfer to the Palestinians some of Area C that Israel is keeping for expanding the settlements? Forget the Gaza evacuation as an argument against withdrawal. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not Hamas. Sharon executed the Gaza withdrawal without any agreement with the Palestinians. It served Israel’s and Sharon’s interests to leave the problematic territory. A master of deception, Sharon knew he needed to show “progress “ to Washington and improve Israel’s image in world opinion. As former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said: Israel does not have a foreign policy, but rather a domestic policy.

It’s worth remembering what Sharon told a meeting of Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, in May 2003. “Controlling 3.5 million Palestinians cannot go on forever… You might not like the word but what’s happening is occupation. It’s bad for Israel, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for the Israeli economy.”

Expanding settlements can’t be reconciled with a two-state solution, which Netanyahu promised to advance. You can’t justify occupation or military operations. It always looks bad and even good PR (hasbarah) is pointless. War is dirty and so is the media war. You can’t polish dirt. If you try, you’ll only end up with dirty hands.

The United Nations will eventually recognize a Palestinian state, defined by the 1967 borders. Israel will call it ”regrettable” but will eventually negotiate to prevent another catastrophe.

Arie Raif is an Israeli political activist and former Israeli diplomat, including –consul to Canada  from 1976 to 1981 . He’s currently vice-chairman of the Canadian Peres Center For Peace.

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