Despite Pundits, Netanyahu Wants Peace

By March 11, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 101

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israelis, as well as the current Netanyahu government, deeply desire peace. Netanyahu expressed a willingness to reach a territorial compromise through a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s readiness to compromise has been met by continued resistance from the Palestinians, who have displayed a lack of political pragmatism that is a prerequisite for reaching a compromise. It is wrong to blame Netanyahu for the current political impasse, as it is the Palestinians who have displayed inflexibility in their approach to peace.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, wants peace and is interested in negotiations with the Palestinians. The Netanyahu government enjoys popular support because a large majority of Israelis agree with this view. All polls show that Israelis deeply desire peace and this issue influences their voting behavior. Indeed, every Israeli government must demonstrate to the electorate its seriousness in the peace process in order to be reelected. Moreover, preserving American support for Israel requires showing seriousness in the pursuit of peace.

True, what is required to convince Israelis about their government’s determination to pursue peace is not always enough to impress the outside world. This gap is the source of much of the criticism leveled against Israel. But the critical and/or hostile circles, which are heavily influenced by misguided notions propagated by the discredited Israeli left and Palestinian propaganda, are not in sync with regional realities and entertain unrealistic expectations.

In his June 2009 speech at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu successfully redefined the Israeli consensus and became a mainstream political leader. Despite the Jews’ ancient claim to their historical homeland, the Land of Israel, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to reach territorial compromise – a two-state solution – in order to satisfy the national needs of the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state has been conditional, however. His insistence on a demilitarized state reflects ingrained Israeli fears of their dangerous neighbors. Netanyahu also demanded the long overdue recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. The Palestinians still have to reciprocate the recognition of “Palestinian legitimate rights” of 1978 by Menachem Begin. In line with Israeli consensus, Netanyahu insisted on Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of the Jewish state.

Over 70 percent of Israelis agreed with Netanyahu’s address – quite an achievement for any Israeli prime minister. The Israeli consensus revolves around the willingness to repartition the Land of Israel. There is enormous skepticism about the Palestinians’ ability to reach an historic compromise with the Zionist movement and subsequently implement the agreement. Israelis are most concerned about Palestinian compliance with Israel’s security requirements. Israelis want defensible borders, understanding that the peace process is predicated upon a strong Israel.

Most of the hawkish faction within Netanyahu’s Likud party feels comfortable with Netanyahu’s positions. This faction even supported the ten-month partial freeze on new housing construction in Judea and Samaria that was announced on November 25, 2009 – an unprecedented Israeli concession. Netanyahu’s government is strongly enforcing the moratorium.

Netanyahu believes that progress on the road to peace can only be achieved by a slow process of institution-building and economic growth beginning from the bottom-up. Indeed, his government has done its best to facilitate economic growth in the PA by removing dozens of roadblocks in the West Bank, thereby putting the lives of Jews at risk, and by supporting international and Palestinian economic activity. Moreover, the Israeli prime minister declared at every opportunity his willingness to enter into unconditional talks with the PA. He has even accepted proximity talks despite Israel’s traditional insistence on direct talks.

So far, those advocating great Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians in order to bring peace have been proven wrong. Two Israeli prime ministers offered to cede virtually all of the disputed territories. The offers of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were respectively rejected by Yasser Arafat in 2000 and ignored by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008. Moreover, in 2000 the Palestinians launched a campaign of terror and recently they have threatened to renew it. Similarly, after the Sharon government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all settlements in 2005, the Gaza Strip was converted into a launching pad for intensified missile attacks.

The Palestinians seem to have a great territorial appetite. Historically, they have displayed a lack of political pragmatism that is a prerequisite for reaching a compromise. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have no Ben-Gurion-type leaders capable of making difficult decisions. The contrast to Israeli leadership is striking, particularly when history shows that Ben-Gurion was ready to accept the convoluted 1947 partition borders and a Jewish state without Jerusalem.

Blaming Netanyahu for the current impasse assumes that the insatiable Palestinians must be placated at the expense of vital Israeli security interests, such as demilitarization of the West Bank and maintaining Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and Greater Jerusalem. Ascribing responsibility to Netanyahu for the impasse with the Palestinians also wrongly assumes that the Palestinians have displayed flexibility in their approach to Israel. Yet it is the Palestinians who insist on preconditions for resuming the talks. Even Netanyahu’s decision for the ten-month freeze on building in the settlements was rejected by the PLO.

As a matter of fact, it is the Palestinians that are dragging their feet in the peace negotiations. Only after heavy American pressure did the West Bank leadership agree to negotiate with Israel, albeit “proximity talks,” refusing to sit in the same room with the Israeli interlocutors. Mahmoud Abbas in his May 2009 Washington Post interview emphasized that he is in no hurry to negotiate with Israel and that he expects the Americans to force Israel to accept the Palestinian conditions. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced a plan to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state in two years instead of a state emerging from negotiations with Israel. Both “moderate” leaders honor suicide bombers as martyrs and provide their families with state pensions. They allow the PA-controlled media, education system and mosques to continue to promote rabid anti-Semitism. Both reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Noteworthy, the PA hardly represents all Palestinians as Gaza is ruled by Hamas and is partly discredited by corruption and ineptitude. Yet, all Palestinians are united by the belief that Israel is the source for all their troubles. Palestinian society in Gaza and in the West Bank is under the spell of Hamas, which has not accepted Israel’s right to exist. Consequently, the Palestinians are not moving in the direction of compromise and reconciliation.

Netanyahu’s government probably has no illusions about the ability of the Palestinians to reach an agreement with Israel and implement it in the near future, but Netanyahu keeps the option of negotiations open. In contrast, the Palestinians’ goal is to extract Israeli concessions without negotiations, hoping that Washington and/or the international community will pressure Israel into accepting Palestinian demands.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.