It might not be apparent at first glance, but something important has shifted in the Middle East in the past few weeks that could, with wisdom and luck, change the dynamic of Israeli-Palestinian relations for the better. For the first time in years, the top leaders on both sides have come out with forceful diplomatic initiatives that challenge their own constituencies to bend on a matter of cardinal importance to the other side.
The concessions they propose are concrete and fundamental. Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, has announced plans for an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, aiming to end Israel’s rule over the Palestinians. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has challenged his people — specifically his legislature, controlled by the rejectionist Hamas — to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, alongside Israel.
Their words hint at their initiatives’ magnitude — and their similarity. Olmert, addressing Congress last month, declared that Israelis “have to relinquish part of our dream to leave room for the dream of others.” Abbas delivered the same message to the Palestinian legislature the next day. “This is what we have,” Abbas said of the post-1967 territories. “We cannot talk about dreams.”
Each man has taken considerable risks, stretching his nation’s consensus as far as politically possible and then some. Each faces furious opposition from both front and rear. Each is challenged from behind by religious rejectionists who insist the entire land is holy and cannot be divided. In front of them they face — well, each other, and the weight of the other side’s public opinion.
Each finds his concessions denounced on the other side as hopelessly insufficient, even fraudulent. Palestinians deride Olmert’s realignment plan as a thinly veiled land grab, since it would keep some settlements. Israelis view Abbas’s initiative as a warmed-over version of the old 1974 “stages” plan, in which the Palestine Liberation Organization accepted statehood within the 1967 borders as a first stage toward Israel’s destruction.
Both dismissals are overstated. Olmert’s realignment is a starting position, the best arrangement Israel can make for itself in the absence of a Palestinian partner. If Israel could expect a peaceful neighbor on the other side of its new border, it could be far more flexible in drawing the border. Abbas, for his part, has made plain that the plan he is promoting, the so-called prisoners’ document, is the closest he can get to his preferred starting position, the 2002 Arab League plan, which promises Israel full recognition in return for full withdrawal. Indeed, as the PLO’s 1974 “stages” plan was the first step toward Oslo, the prisoners’ document is meant to drag Hamas onto the slippery slope toward accepting Israel. That is why Hamas fears it so.
Of course, the analogy between the two men’s positions is far from perfect. The opposition that Abbas faces from a ruling Hamas is far more formidable than anything Olmert faces from a defeated, demoralized settler movement. Nor do settlers, with their overzealous real-estate schemes, pose a moral threat anything like the murderous tactics of Hamas.
And yet, the differences can be overstated. Hamas, it must be recalled, won power with just 44% of the popular vote, thanks to the quirks of the electoral system; of that 44%, at least half voted not for Hamas rejectionism but against Fatah corruption. Most Palestinians accept coexistence. Abbas’s challenge is to reach over the heads of Hamas to mobilize his silenced majority. It is tough, but not impossible.
As for Olmert, his opposition is gravely underestimated. Dislodging the 8,000 settlers of Gaza last summer was one of Israel’s largest and most wrenching military operations. The planned West Bank withdrawal will be seven times larger and many times more wrenching. The stage is set for a massive civil confrontation, a prospect that daunts even moderate Israelis.
Cautious heads on both sides are holding back, waiting to see how far the other side will go before taking a leap. That is precisely the wrong move. Each side sees the other side’s step as insufficient, and vows it will offer no more, reinforcing the other side’s reluctance to give. Each expression of derision reinforces the other side’s feeling that no concession is ever appreciated. Each side is waiting for the other side to show some optimism.
This is a moment when ordinary people on both sides can make a difference by giving voice to that optimism. Israelis and Palestinians have taken important steps to demonstrate that they can be partners. What’s needed now is some applause.