The results of the Israeli elections, as expected, have brought us more of the same. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to establish a new government that will be very similar to the previous government. The policies of the new government are also likely to be very similar to those of the previous government. The one wild card is US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” which will presumably be presented in the coming months. It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will be surprised by the Trump proposal. I expect that it has been fully coordinated with Netanyahu. The Trump plan, which will likely be rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab world, could lead us to unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, and that will lead to violence.
Likud and Blue and White got the same number of seats in the new Knesset. The other right-wing parties far outnumbered the left-wing parties, and the Arab parties are not counted as possible coalition members by either the Likud or Blue and White. Almost no party put the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the public debate prior to elections. Almost no party mentioned any form of a solution to the conflict. This is probably both because none of the leading parties have a solution to offer the public, and because a majority of Israelis believe there is no viable Palestinian partner for peace anyway. (The Palestinians believe the same about Israelis).
When we eventually get back on the road to a viable peace process that the public can support, it will happen only once they believe there is a partner on the other side. The belief in the existence of a peace partner will happen when they hear it and witness its existence from public figures and from the leaders. I was convinced of this in the elections four years ago, which is why I created a secret back channel of negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog months before the elections. My hope was that if the Palestinian leader and the head of the Israeli opposition could reach an agreement, it would demonstrate that peace was possible and that there were partners for peace.
Those negotiations were actually carried out for Herzog and Abbas by former deputy minister of defense Ephraim Sneh and Palestinian Sharia High Court President Dr. Mahmoud Habbash. At the beginning of those negotiations, Herzog met Habbash in my home. Two days later he went to Ramallah to meet Abbas to agree on the secret back channel. They did reach a consensus of principles on all of the permanent-status agreements, but then the Knesset disbanded itself and Israel went full swing into the elections. Herzog’s strategists convinced him not to make any mention of the agreements, or even the Palestinian issue, and Herzog refused to meet Abbas in public, even though Abbas was prepared to hold a public meeting. I believe he would have won those elections if he had followed through on his agreement with Abbas.
ABOUT 18 months ago, I met with Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay. My message to Gabbay was to stop competing with Netanyahu in voicing right-wing anti-Arab messages (why should Israelis support the copy instead of the original?), and instead begin demonstrating that there was a potential partner for peace on the Palestinian side. Gabbay refused the suggestion that he meet with Abbas, either in private or publicly. He said he would be willing to meet some Palestinian businessmen, but that meeting never took place. He also said he would be willing to say anything necessary to get elected. We have seen the results!
I have always believed that Israelis want peace and would support peace if they believed there was a real partner, and that a peace agreement could be made that would ensure their security, even if they have to accept wide-reaching concessions. I think the same is true for Palestinians. If a leader or political party that could convince the public this was the case, they would win the elections.
It will take a lot of actual proof of partnership to shift public opinion (on both sides) to believing that peace is viable and that there are genuine partners for it. The wounds and pains of Palestinian terrorism, especially during the Second Intifada – along with the rejection by Palestinian leaders of Israeli negotiating offers, and Hamas’s terrorism after the Gaza disengagement – are all still too vivid for Israelis to be able to march blindly into a new peace process. The encroaching Israeli occupation in the West Bank, with all of the direct and indirect means of Israeli control; the 12-year siege on Gaza; the violence coming from parts of the settler movement; the brutality of Israeli military strikes against Palestinians, especially in Gaza but also in the West Bank; and the continued election of right-wing governments are all a constant reminders to Palestinians that they do not have a partner for peace in Israel.
I do believe that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians genuinely want peace and would be willing to take risks to reach it, if they believed that the other side could be trusted. Negotiating peace and devising a peace process, following the failures until now, must be predicated on a lack of trust, and therefore, must be based on mechanisms of monitoring and verification of the implementation of treaty obligations. Furthermore, peace agreements must be implemented gradually, with increasing risks taking place only after the parties have fulfilled agreed-upon obligations, which must be verified by trusted third parties.
Regarding security, I do not believe in having international peace-keeping forces in our conflict. No one will protect Israel better than Israelis. If the Israelis and Palestinians want security, they are going to have to do it together – Israelis inside of Israel, Palestinians inside of Palestine, defined and operational joint security in designated areas with designated tasks, Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian security cooperation along the Jordan River, and even Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian security cooperation along Gaza’s borders.
There is a lot that could be done by public figures on both side to reinforce the message that we are all interested in peace. Both sides continue to need validation of their national legitimacy for independence and self-determination. Rather than ignoring the conflict because it is controversial, or because politicians think they will lose votes, public figures who claim to be leaders need to speak to the people on the other side of the conflict. They need to speak to their own people and say that we will never give up the aspiration of achieving peace, and therefore they have a responsibility to work on rebuilding partnerships every day.