Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo from Reuters
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week unequivocally rejected the French proposal for a Middle East peace conference involving some two dozen nations to be held in Paris this summer. He said the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by “direct bilateral negotiations.”
And he declared he is “ready immediately to begin direct negotiations with the Palestinians without any preconditions.”
He’s just kidding.
He says that all the time, but he doesn’t really mean it. He has more preconditions than Donald Trump has pre-nups.
He says he supports the two-state solution.
That’s even funnier.
The French have invited the Middle East Quartet (United States, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations), the Arab League, and some 20 foreign ministers to Paris on May 30 to set the agenda for the summer conference, but the Israelis and Palestinians were told to stay home.
At this writing, the United States has not accepted the invitation, but it is hard to imagine Secretary of State John Kerry staying away because he’s about the only one in the Obama administration who still believes in the peace process.
The purpose of the conference is to revive negotiations for a two-state solution.
Since Netanyahu announced his support for the concept at Bar Ilan University in 2009, he has not once asked his coalition, not even his inner Cabinet or his own Likud Party, to endorse the policy. And despite calling for negotiations without preconditions, he has been piling on the conditions, some valid and others simply designed to elicit Palestinian rejection.
Netanyahu speaks in Washington, D.C., and in foreign capitals about the two-state solution, but in his last election, 14 months ago, he promised voters there would be no Palestinian state on his watch. In the wake of international criticism, he tried to walk that back after the election, but President Barack Obama and most world leaders weren’t buying it, especially when Netanyahu proceeded to form the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history, heavily weighted with ultra-nationalists and religious extremists opposed to Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinians want to make East Jerusalem the capital of their new state, but Netanyahu adamantly opposes any division of the city. He demands the Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a condition many Israeli analysts consider a deliberate deal breaker. He also wants a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and the new state to be demilitarized.
Years of negotiations have shown many of the differences can be worked out — refugees, border swaps, security cooperation — when the two sides are ready to make peace. American and other diplomats who’ve participated in earlier talks say both sides have made “drastic concessions” on some core issues.
However, Netanyahu insists that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. That’s part of what he means by “no preconditions.” Starting each new round at square one is another stalling tactic.
The Palestinians have their own preconditions for talks, starting with a demand that Israel accept their terms on core issues in advance.
Publicly, the Palestinians insist on full right of return for refugees and their descendants displaced after 1948, but privately, they’ve indicated considerable flexibility. The United States and Israel insist that Palestinian refugees should go to the Palestinian state and Jewish refugees to the Jewish state.
Both sides have their own poison pills they know are unacceptable to the other. What they’re really looking for is not a path to peace but a way to divert blame for failure.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also poisons the atmosphere for talks when he accuses Israel of “Judaizing” Jerusalem, denies Jewish ties to the city and the existence of the Temples, accuses Israel of war crimes, mounts attacks in international agencies, and when he honors those who murder Jews as martyrs and heroes.
Each leader complains that he has no partner for peace, and he’s right.
Obama believes “Netanyahu has no political courage and won’t take risks to bring about a two-state solution,” Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic after extensive White House interviews. The president sees Abbas as “sincere” about wanting peace but too “weak, ineffective and uncreative” to make a deal, Goldberg noted.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israel’s closes European ally, believes Netanyahu has no intention of making peace and his settlement policy will render a two-state solution impossible while leading Israel into becoming an apartheid state, according to Der Spiegel magazine.
The French are pressing for the international conference because they and other Europeans fear that the lone wolf stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians reflect a growing frustration with the stagnation of the peace process that could spark a new and more violent intifada. This one would be not only against Israel but also the moribund Abbas administration.
The French have another motivation. They see a power vacuum and want to fill it. Historically, the United States has dominated the efforts to broker peace between Israel and its neighbors, but the Obama administration has largely written off any chance for progress not only during its remaining nine months in office, but as long as Netanyahu and Abbas remain in power.
The Netanyahu government is fearful of Europe, Russia and the U.N. filling a void it helped create with its obstructionist policies. Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, has said he is trying to persuade as many countries as possible to avoid the Paris meeting later this month. He said Israel fears the summit is part of a campaign to impose a two-state settlement — a settlement that Danon adamantly opposes.
Next month marks the beginning of the 50th year of the occupation, and peace seems as elusive as ever.
Douglas Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist; Washington, D.C., lobbyist; and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).