The perennial Arab war on Israel — which we dignify with neutral titles like “Arab/Israeli conflict” — tries the patience of bystanders, yet politicians are continually tantalized at the prospect of another round of talks, and predictably support what are termed Israeli “confidence-building measures.” Two recent examples:
- Jerusalem Post, February 3: “Quartet envoy Tony Blair is involved in intensive talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about putting together a package of economic gestures to keep the Palestinians directly engaged with Israel in low-level talks in Jordan.”
- Agence France Presse, February 2: “[UN Secretary-General] Ban [Ki-moon] has this week urged Israel to make ‘goodwill gestures’ to tempt the Palestinians back to talks.”
Note that Israel is not being asked to make these “gestures” in return for anything. It is urged to do so merely to entice the Palestinian Authority (PA) to negotiate with it. In other words, the intended “gestures” are unilateral Israeli concessions. Unfortunately, peace has never been facilitated by Israeli unilateral concessions. Quite the contrary.
Last October, Israel freed 1,027 Palestinian prisoners — including hundreds of convicted terrorists — in exchange for kidnapped Israeli serviceman Gilad Shalit. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal greeted this not as a step on the road to peace but as a great victory over Israel.
Note: this was the reaction of Israel’s enemies to a negotiated (though stunningly lopsided) deal. Following this behavior, imagine how unilateral Israeli concessions are received by the same people: not as laudable efforts to bring peace closer, but as acts of weakness heralding eventual Israeli defeat.
Take the biggest Israeli unilateral concession of them all — the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. How was this received? Here is the view of senior PA official Muhammad Dahlan:
The withdrawal from the Gaza Strip is a victory for the Palestinian people’s will. … The withdrawal should take place without an agreement and with no political gains [for Israel].
The estimate of Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri:
We are completely confident that … the Palestinian resistance will kick them out of the Palestinian territories, and we will continue our resistance.
In 2009 came another major — indeed, “unprecedented” (Hillary Clinton’s description) — Israeli confidence-building measure at the behest of President Barack Obama: a 10-month unilateral freeze on the construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank. Did negotiations take off? No. The PA stayed away from talks until well into the tenth month, spoke across the table to the Israelis for a few days, and then broke off — and demanded a permanent freeze.
Worse than failure, Israeli confidence-building gestures can also be dangerous. Freed terrorists have often returned to terrorism and murdered more Israelis. Removing security checkpoints and roadblocks have enabled terrorists to carry out attacks and escape. A study by the Almagor Terror Victims Association showed that 177 Israelis were killed in 30 terrorist attacks since 2000 by previously freed terrorists — many of them freed within the framework of confidence-building gestures. The murder of Israeli Meir Chai in January 2010 occurred in an attack made possible by the removal of a road closure and checkpoint, part of confidence-building measures previously urged upon Israel by the Obama administration.
Above all, there is an overarching reason Israeli gestures fail: as do Palestinians as a whole, Abbas’ Fatah Party — which controls the PA — has never accepted Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and has loudly proclaimed that it never will. Abbas has said it plainly (“I do not accept the Jewish state, call it what you will”) as have other PA officials. Numerous polls, like the July 2011 Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll, demonstrate this fact (61% rejection against 34% acceptance of Palestinian statehood in peace alongside Israel). Unsurprisingly, the PA has yet to make good on its 17-year old obligations under Oslo to arrest terrorists and to end incitement to hatred and murder against Israel.
Israeli gestures that are divorced from a genuine process of give and take also cause harm: they bolster a Palestinian entitlement mentality that militates against moderation. The other week, the PA even rejected a unilateral Israeli offer to free 30 Palestinian prisoners and cede further powers to the PA in parts of the West Bank in order merely to resume negotiations. Internationally, Israeli gestures enable the misapprehension that Palestinians have done all they need do, and that the ball is therefore in Israel’s court. Indeed, merely to talk of the need for Israeli confidence-building measures serves to keep the real issues of Palestinian rejection, terrorism, and incitement off the agenda. And where Israeli concessions do not occur or are rejected, the conclusion is that the Israelis, rather than the Palestinians, are unwilling to do what is necessary to make peace.
There is no sign that the Obama administration wishes to take note. It is a fully paid member of the church of believers in the prophylactic virtues of Israeli pliability. There are, however, some signs that the Netanyahu government is seeking to finesse the latest wave of pleas for confidence-building measures.
An official in Netanyahu’s office has said:
The idea is not for Israeli unilateral confidence-building measures. Rather, we are ready [to act] within the framework of a peace process that is working for mutual confidence measures.
Just so. Israeli confidence-building measures — unilateral giveaways — are proven failures. Barring a transformation of Palestinian politics and society, they always will be.