The audacity of not losing hope

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Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to resume in the near future. Both sides will reluctantly pay a price to enter the room even though neither side is too anxious to actually be there.

Netanyahu’s price tag will be the extension of the settlement building moratorium (even though he will try to continue building in east Jerusalem in areas that he believes will be part of the annexed areas). Abbas’s price tag will be the removal of all the pre-conditions for direct negotiations that he has held onto for the past seven months. Both sides faced the weight of White House pressure in order to come to the “right” decision. So the negotiations will begin. But let’s face it, since the launching of the Oslo process, the problem in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has never really been how to begin negotiations – the problem has always been how to conclude them.

IS THERE a starting point for these negotiations? Abbas demands that the negotiations should resume from the point where they ended in the previous round between himself and then prime minister Ehud Olmert. Before being indicted, Olmert presented Abbas with a plan complete with maps that included establishing the Palestinian state in 94 percent of the West Bank with territory exchange of lands inside of Israel proper in the amount of almost four percent. There would be two capitals in Jerusalem. There would be a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees called family reunification, appropriate security arrangements and coordination at all levels, and an agreement on the end of conflict and claims. Those talks did not reach an agreement because they were cut short before they had chance.

Abbas wonders why we have to start from the zero point. In 16 years of negotiations, some progress has been made, why should there not be continuity from one round of negotiations to the next? Netanyahu keeps on saying “try me – you will be surprised,” but with Netanyahu’s own ideological positions and his coalition constraints, it is unlikely that any offer he puts on the table can be accepted by any Palestinian leader.

With this in the background, the direct negotiations seem rather futile. The Palestinian hope is that after the US midterm Congressional elections in November, President Barack Obama will table his own set of parameters for peace that will enable the negotiations to move forward.

But unfortunately looking at the performance of Obama and his team so far, it seems rather unreasonable to expect or to hope that the increasingly unpopular US president will delve into something as difficult as resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The chances of success are much less than failure. With the need to focus on the economy and the with war in Afghanistan sending home an increasing number of dead NATO soldiers, no new government in Iraq, a dangerous war on terrorism in Pakistan and Yemen, and a percolating global crisis in Iran, why should Obama even attempt to rescue the Israelis and Palestinians from their own inability to resolve their own conflict? Obama used to describe the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict as a “vital US national security interest.”

Today, it seems that the Israeli Palestinian conflict has been downgraded to a nuisance that won’t go away but one that we can live with. That might be the view from Washington, but from Jerusalem, for both Israelis and Palestinians the resolution of our conflict is an existential reality. One of our problems is that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians do not believe that peace is possible; neither believes that there is a partner for peace on the other side and both sides are experiencing an unprecedented period of calm and economic growth. The “status quo” seems pretty good – why upset it? Israelis seems quite content to ignore the continuation of the conflict, they don’t feel it nor do they see it. Palestinians have become invisible for most of them and aside from Israel’s increasing international isolation life seems pretty good. In the West Bank, Palestinians are enjoying security and calm which they have never known. The new-found stability has created economic growth which provides the same sense of “leave us alone and let us live.”

There will be no ground swell of public outcry to make peace neither in Israel nor in Palestine.

WHERE ARE the responsible adults who will understand the urgency? Time is not on our side and time is also not on the side of the Palestinians. Last month I wrote that our peace timetable is linked to the US elections calendar. I personally have lost the hope that Obama will save us from ourselves. I am not expecting any real US presidential engagement. My revised time table is linked more to the lifeline of the moderate Palestinian leadership. No leader remains in power forever, although some of the leaders in our region seem to look that way. The leadership timeline of Abbas and Fayyad is nearer to its end than to its beginning.

Abbas will soon retire and Fayyad lacks a political movement behind him. While Fayyad’s success in creating stability and economic growth is admired equally by Palestinians as it is by rest of the world, without a political movement behind him and because he has effectively closed the finance faucet to Fatah, his political lifeline, unfortunately, may not be too long as well.

The opportunity to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will never be better. A deal can be reached, all issues in conflict can be resolved and I am quite sure that at the end of the process, the Palestinian side will be prepared to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. If we lose this opportunity we may have to come to the conclusion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will never be resolved.

There is a majority on both sides in support of the “twostates for two-peoples” solution. There is no other solution to this conflict. The next generation of Palestinian leaders is likely to be less moderate, less pragmatic and less willing to accept the limitations of the only existing solution.

Missing the opportunity to divide the land into two states leaves us with the reality of two peoples living under one state.

Netanyahu and Abbas are responsible. They can both reach a deal and they can both deliver. Is it completely audacious to hope that they will? Probably, but hope may be all that we have left.

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