Even Without Partners We Must Work Together

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 27, 2007, issue of June 29, 2007.
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‘Peace? Of course we want peace. But we cannot have peace without a partner, and we have no partner.”

We’ve all heard those words over and over again, perhaps even spoken them. Imagine, then, my shock at hearing them the other day from a West Bank Palestinian. Nor could there be any mistake: There was no irony in his tone or his words; it was even possible to imagine that he wasn’t aware of their very common use by Israel and its supporters.

Among my friends in Jerusalem, some know Palestinian society very well, others are expert in the back and forth — mostly back these past few years — of the peace process itself, When I tell them of the “no partner” formula by “the other side,” they are surprised that I think it worthy of remark.

None dismisses the words as copycat rhetoric. Chapter and verse, they go through all the reasons that most Palestinians do not believe that Israel wants peace — or, more precisely, that Israel wants a genuine peace, a negotiated peace, a peace that involves real concessions by both sides, a peace that enables an independent and viable Palestinian state.

The traditional Israeli complaint that Israel has no partner relies on an array of evidence that includes “the three nos” of Khartoum in 1967 — no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no peace with Israel — includes Arafat’s rejection of the Barak peace proposal at Camp David in 2000, includes the unyielding rhetoric of such groups as Hamas and, of course, includes the terrorism that started long before 1967 and continues to this day. A plausible bill of complaint.

And the Palestinians? They, too, have a bill of complaint. It includes most prominently the settlements, which continue to grow in size and in number. There are more than 100 illegal outposts. Their illegality is beyond dispute.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Bush that 24 of them would be removed; instead, all but a few continue to grow. The government-sponsored Sasson Report, published in 2005, informs us that between 2000 and 2004, these illegal outposts received $16.7 million in government subsidies. Many of them have been built, with government connivance, on land privately owned by Palestinians.

And then one comes to the settlements and settlement blocs actually authorized by the government: The Jewish population of the West Bank, excluding the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, has by now grown to 270,000. At current rates of growth, there will be 400,000 Jews in the West Bank in just a few years.

Eighty percent of Ma’aleh Adumim’s 12,694 square kilometers were privately owned by Arabs. It is now the second largest Jewish settlement in the West Bank, with a current population of 32,000. In it and its environs, one readily sees massive and ongoing new construction, well beyond any needs dictated merely by family growth.

Such construction is not a secret to the Palestinians. It helps explain why Khalil Shikaki, the pre-eminent Palestinian pollster, reported this week that 70% of Palestinians rate the chance of there ever being an independent Palestinian state as nonexistent or very low.

And then there are the checkpoints, 500 or so of them — notorious and in large part gratuitous. They are not only a major inconvenience and an ongoing humiliation, they wreck any chance of economic progress in the West Bank.

More still, such as the ongoing development of new Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, from which I write this week and next; Israel’s stated intention to build in area E1, thereby connecting Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim and effectively dividing the putative state of Palestine into two parts; and, not least, the hateful rhetoric and religious zealotry of some Israeli leaders — not as hateful as the worst of Palestinian rhetoric, but hateful enough to persuade moderate Palestinians that they “have no partner.”

After all, they hear the Israeli analysts and journalists who report that the Israeli public will not support the arrangements that all agree would be required in a permanent settlement of the conflict. Why should they not take such reports seriously?

So be it, a friend says to me. If there is no peace process, and no peace, we will simply go on as we have until now. The status quo. But that suggests the current situation is sustainable, and it is not.

As last week’s events in Gaza demonstrate, the status quo can shift dramatically in a minute. If nothing is done to transform it, it will deteriorate, lurch by lurch, beyond a point of no return.

Yet the odd thing is that there is suddenly a chance — no more than that — for the beginning of the needed transformation. Because of what has happened in Gaza, a small porthole in the listing ship is today accessible.

One of the three principals — Ehud Olmert, Mahmoud Abbas, Bush — must have the audacity and the imagination to squeeze through it, and then to reach back to the others and help pull them through. Together — unilateralism will not do — they can make their way to the wheelhouse and seek to set right the vessel.

Their own histories offer no reason to believe that they will. And even if they do muster the courage, Hamas will not go quietly into the night and the Jewish zealots will rage against the dying of what they fervently believe is their right.

Modest gestures can help, but more is urgently required. As it fortuitously happens, a newly energized and wholly serious peace process is Olmert’s only route toward political and personal redemption. How utterly ironic it would be were he and Bush inhibited from pursuing the current opportunity by an American Jewish leadership too timid to endorse the effort. Ironic, and at least potentially, tragic.


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