The rhetoric is flying these days in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that “there is no substitute for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and any unilateral path will only unravel the framework of agreements between us and will only bring unilateral steps from Israel’s side.”
He was responding to threats by chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat that the Palestinian Authority would ask the UN Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state in all of the post-1967 territories with its capital in East Jerusalem — part of Israel’s united capital of Jerusalem and formally under Israeli sovereignty for over four decades.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and universally acclaimed moderate, has joined the fray with some immoderate words, saying: “God willing, we will soon have an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem. … Today we are renewing our commitment to the entire Palestinian people — the martyrs, the wounded and the prisoners … to continue the path to victory, the path to a free and independent Palestine.” Given that “martyrs” refers to suicide bombers and “prisoners” to convicted terrorists in Israeli jails, these words would be regarded as endorsement and encouragement of terrorism if someone less diplomatically protected and anointed than Abbas had uttered them.
Israeli leaders have fired back some warning shots.
Even some visitors from abroad have gotten into the act. Bill Clinton, speaking at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, said: “In the last 14 years, not a single week has gone by that I did not think of Yitzhak Rabin and miss him terribly. Nor has a single week gone by in which I have not reaffirmed my conviction that had he not lost his life on that terrible November night, within three years we would have had a comprehensive agreement for peace in the Middle East.” For many Israelis who lived through the drastically increased terrorism of the early “Oslo process” and then through the three years of greatly reduced terrorism during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, the second sentence of that quote from Clinton is more than a little problematic.
To top it off, Arnold Schwarzenegger is here too, though he appears to be keeping his remarks mercifully neutral and anodyne.
What’s behind the rhetoric? The idea of a unilateral Palestinian push for statehood was broached recently by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and has been gaining steam. The Palestinians say that with the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic talks frozen, they have no choice but to try and get their state by their own means. A quirk in that position is that, ever since Barack Obama became U.S. president, it’s Abbas who has steadfastly refused to meet with Netanyahu whereas Netanyahu has been constantly affirming his readiness to meet with Abbas and start negotiations on the two-state solution.
If pressed on that point, the Palestinians say they can’t enter negotiations with Netanyahu unless he freezes all Israeli settlement activity. Yet even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that Netanyahu has already made “unprecedented” concessions on settlement construction. Nor, at any time in the off-and-on history of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since 1993, have the Palestinians made a total settlement freeze a condition for holding talks.
What’s really behind the rhetoric at least on the Palestinian side, in other words, is not any sort of legitimate grievance against the Netanyahu government, but two things. First, they’re disappointed with Obama, who they thought — especially after his June 4 Cairo speech — would “deliver” Israel by endorsing all the Palestinian demands and dismissing Israel’s; instead, the picture that has emerged is more nuanced. Second, with radical Hamas in charge of Gaza and Abbas’s own Fatah Party hewing to traditional positions of rejecting Israel and affirming “armed revolution,” the mainstream Palestinian leadership of Abbas and Fayyad is under pressure to tack toward extremism while still trying to sound politic enough to keep the Western financial and diplomatic largess flowing.
Are the Palestinian threats of unilaterally attaining statehood realistic? Even though such a move would be a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which for over four decades has established that the solution of the issue is through negotiations, Russia and some of the European states are said to be supportive of this Palestinian aim. That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, the Palestinians are really contemplating bringing their demand to the Security Council, where it would — presumably, though even this can’t be said with total confidence — face a U.S. veto, instead of just bluffing to up the pressure on Israel.
Especially when, to date, the Palestinian Authority has achieved neither water nor security independence. An Israeli official is quoted as saying that “the Palestinian Water Authority wouldn’t last a day on its own” — that is, without primarily Israeli assistance. “We allocated them a piece of land on the coast to build a desalination plant and they have decided not to build it.” As for security, given the current anarchic state of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas still needs help from the Israel Defense Forces, the Israel Security Agency, and the Israeli Civil Administration just to travel from his headquarters in Ramallah to any other Palestinian town. Or as an Israeli officer is quoted as putting it, “When Abbas travels it is like a military operation. Everyone is involved since the PA forces cannot yet completely ensure his security.”
As always, it boils down to this: Missing from the Western discourse on this whole issue is sufficient acknowledgment of the gap between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. On one side, is a Western democracy genuinely desirous of peace; on the other is a dysfunctional, bifurcated entity still riven with Islamic and Arab-nationalist hatred of Israel and a sense of grievance at its very existence. Netanyahu remains locked in a diplomatic struggle to establish himself and Israel as a reasonable, constructive party.
He’s up against the fact that, given the larger realities of geopolitics and Arab economic power, Abbas, Erekat, Fayyad et al appear guaranteed to retain their moderate image no matter how extreme their actual rhetoric, tactics, and threats.