Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Encountering peace: They must reach an agreement

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Both sides are quite aware that another failure could easily open the door to another horrific round of violence.

Public opinion research in Israel shows that a majority of Israelis support peace with the Palestinians based on “two states for two peoples.” This has been consistent since the signing of the Oslo agreement 20 years ago this week. The research also shows that a majority of Israelis (and Palestinians) don’t believe that it is possible to reach such an agreement.

Both sides put the responsibility for that sad conclusion on the other side.

While few Israelis believe that the Palestinians are real partners and are prepared to sign a treaty which would end the conflict and all of their claims, that would not include the right of return for millions of Palestinians, few Israelis also believe that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is truly sincere in his attempt to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.

Sure, Netanyahu wants peace, but if he is not even willing to go as far as Olmert went, how could anyone believe that the Palestinians would accept anything less than what they already rejected? I am of the opinion that it is possible to reach an end of conflict and claims treaty with the Palestinian leadership that goes a little bit further than Olmert went (both Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concur on this) without the right of return for significant numbers of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper. I believe that such an agreement, which would set Israel’s permanent borders on 78 percent of the land between the River and the Sea and create two capitals in Jerusalem, will get majority support among both Israeli and Palestinian citizens.

It is even possible to agree on the formula under which both sides will ultimately recognize each other as the national homeland of their peoples. Such an agreement will also receive about 70 votes in the Knesset. The current coalition government will definitely fall apart but a majority of the members of Knesset will stand behind it.

This is one of the biggest questions I am asked by Palestinians and by most diplomats I meet (Americans included): Is Prime Minister Netanyahu really sincere about making peace with the Palestinians? If he is, he must know the parameters of a peace agreement – is he ready to go that far? I obviously don’t have the answer to that question.

Netanyahu is quite intelligent.

He must know that he will not ever be able to convince the Palestinians to accept an agreement which does not include Jerusalem. They will not accept an agreement under which their state is less than 22% of the land between the River and the Sea. They will not accept a state which is controlled by Israel and whose entry and exit points are under Israeli authority. The Palestinians will never agree to end the conflict for a more benevolent occupation. The Palestinians will also not sell their national rights and aspirations for money or promises of a better economy (under Israel’s control).

Did Netanyahu enter into negotiations only with the hope that they would not produce an agreement and he could then blame the Palestinians for the failure? There are those who believe that the Palestinians entered the negotiations knowing Netanyahu is not capable of reaching an agreement only so that they would not be blamed for the failure.

Both sides are quite aware that another failure could easily open the door to another horrific round of violence. It is quite clear that neither side wishes that to be the outcome.

Both sides are aware that this may be the last opportunity for a long time, and perhaps forever, to actualize the vision of two states for two peoples. There is no onestate option which is possible unless both sides give up their dreams and aspirations for a territorial expression of their identity. Neither side is willing to give up the demand to have a state of their own. Neither people wishes to live in a homogenized state and no one should have the illusion that a bi-national Jewish-Palestinian state is possible.

Failure in these negotiations means more years of conflict, more pain, more suffering, more destruction and loss of hope for something better. No one has a better option than two states for two peoples on the land between the River and the Sea.

The horrible irony of our situation is that while a majority of Israelis and Palestinians would support such an agreement, given their lack of belief in its possibility, they are not willing to go to the streets to demand from their leaders that they don’t leave the table without an agreement. It is possible that without the demand of the public to reach an agreement, the leaders will not feel the same level of determination to reach one as if there were thousands out in the streets every day demanding peace.

I would like to believe that Netanyahu did go into the negotiations after making the decision that he is fundamentally willing to pay the price.

People who know the prime minister personally have told me that he seems to have moved in that direction. His decision to release 104 Palestinian prisoners from before Oslo almost all of whom killed Israelis seems to indicate that he is in fact truly behind the Kerry initiative to reach an agreement within nine months.

It is impossible to imagine that the man who is so committed to never releasing terrorists from prison did so only as a gesture or only under US pressure. This was not for the exchange of an Israeli soldier alive in Gaza. It was a step to begin negotiations, not for a peace agreement. But nonetheless, Netanyahu seems to understand the vast significance and importance of the prisoner release for the Palestinian public.

The negotiations are being held in complete secrecy and despite what appear to be a few leaks from the Palestinian side, the continued media blackout around the talks is yet another indication of their seriousness.

There are very few people involved in the talks. Almost none of the ministers in the Israeli and Palestinian governments have any real knowledge of what is going on in the talks. Those who are talking don’t know, and those who know are not talking.

This is very good. There is no way genuine Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could take place without this level of secrecy.

Each side would have to spend most of their time negotiating within their own coalitions and even within their own parties. As long as the negotiators continue to meet and they continue to schedule additional meetings, this is a positive.

Now what is left to do is to convince both publics that reaching a negotiated agreement is really possible and not to allow our leaders the opportunity of missing another opportunity.

The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew.

Published in The Jerusalem Post

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin