Earthquakes, tsunamis, and a nuclear meltdown in Japan have pushed aside news of Muammar Qaddafi's mad rampage, the domestic upheaval throughout the Muslim Middle East, and the butchery by Palestinian Arabs of five members of a sleeping Jewish family in Itamar. Meanwhile, unfazed by such global realities, the United Nations General Assembly has turned its great hall into a theater for the March 14 premiere of an anti-Israel film, and Israel's wobbly friends in Europe and the U.S. are renewing their pressure on Jerusalem to "do something" about the "unsustainable" stalemate in the "peace process." As German Chancellor Angela Merkel scolded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "You haven't made a single step to advance peace."
Not a single step? Not Netanyahu's dramatic 2009 appeal to the Palestinians and the Arab nations to begin negotiating a two-state solution with no prior conditions? Not the lifting of 400 security checkpoints up and down the West Bank (including near Itamar), the ten-month moratorium on most settlement building, the willingness to extend the freeze another three months? None of these, to be sure, has had much of a diplomatic shelf-life, having failed to move Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian faction an inch away from their refusal to end their two-year boycott of negotiations. But, in the topsy-turvy world of Middle East peacemaking, not they but Israel is blamed for the impasse.
Are the Jewish settlements in the West Bank the sticking point? If Abbas were actually willing to negotiate permanent boundaries with the Jewish state, that issue would be resolved. But he, unlike Netanyahu, is under no pressure—and why indeed should he negotiate, when his intransigence, internationally backed, promises to deliver an Israeli withdrawal to the euphemistically designated "1967 border"—that is, the wholly indefensible armistice lines of 1949? Impelled initially by President Barack Obama, Abbas has simply stuck to the position that the Palestinians cannot negotiate so long as any Jewish construction whatsoever continues anywhere beyond those lines.
For his part, Netanyahu, under withering pressure to assuage the smoldering irritation of the settlement-obsessed Europeans and Americans, has reportedly been planning a major address to expand upon his 2009 vision of peace for two peoples. Yet it is difficult to see what, short of capitulating to every one of Abbas's demands, he can say or do to win over the EU and Washington, and all too easy to see disaster for Israel in steps leading ever closer to such a capitulation. With the Hamas-led Palestinian faction in Gaza explicitly and unalterably committed to the destruction of the Zionist enterprise, and with Abbas resolutely committed to an internationally imposed solution and refusing either to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to compromise on refugees, what can Jerusalem offer?
Netanyahu's predicament recalls Ariel Sharon's in 2003. The latter's plan to disengage from Gaza was partly intended to head off pressure from the Bush administration and the EU, which, at the very height of the second intifada, were similarly pressing Israel to "do something." Essentially, Sharon sought to buy time, reap diplomatic approval, and garner an American commitment to back Israel's retention of strategic settlement blocs in the West Bank. In the event, after the Gaza disengagement went through, all these putative gains proved ephemeral.
Given this precedent, and given the almost certain fact that any Netanyahu peace offering would be dead on arrival—indeed, no sooner had Netanyahu's office leaked the possibility of Israel's recognizing a Palestinian state within temporary borders than Abbas utterly rejected the idea—is this really the time to present a new Israeli peace plan? No and yes. No to further concessions that buy neither peace on the ground nor the support of Western powers. Yes to a different approach that might at least stand a chance of winning both.
Arguably, the plan that most needs to be articulated is one that should be placed not before the world but before Israel's own people. The fundamentals of such a plan have already been laid out by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon, now Israel's minister for strategic affairs, and its main point is easily summarized: security and defensible borders first, all else secondary. Building on this foundation, the government might most usefully take it upon itself to spell out concretely to its citizenry what the Jewish state can realistically offer to the Palestinians, and what it must realistically expect in return.
Obviously, a key provision of any such plan would concern the areas in the Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria that Israel needs to retain under any conceivable peace accord. Israelis living in these areas have a right to know which parts will be kept and which abandoned, and it goes without saying that the former must not be subject to any building freeze. As it happens, Netanyahu, ostensibly in response to the outrage in Itamar, has signaled his own understanding of this issue by announcing approval of several hundred new housing units in the strategic settlement blocs.
But the central point is this: instead of allowing Europe and the Obama administration to railroad it into concessions that will deliver neither peace nor security nor even short-term diplomatic breathing space, Israel's better course may well be to engage in a forthright internal dialogue aimed at strengthening an already existing consensus in support of a plan yielding a state for the Palestinian Arabs and real security for Israel. Toward that end, the government might present to the electorate a revised, fully detailed version of Ya'alon's blueprint and seek a clear mandate for its implementation—if need be, by means of new elections. Israel's mainstream political parties would likely have no trouble embracing Ya'alon's outline; if and where they dissent, let them explain why.
Is it too much to hope that, were a clear electoral mandate to emerge, and were Israeli decision makers, backed by that mandate, empowered to speak coherently and consistently on these matters, the country could garner support for its position in Washington and in fair-minded EU countries? As steps forward go, this would be a giant one.
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