Resist the Pressure
There are increasing indications that Western powers will seek to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations right after the Israeli elections. A Haaretz diplomatic correspondent reported on March 6 that senior White House officials had told him that a new initiative was under consideration. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini is also expected to appoint an envoy to deal with the renewal of negotiations.
At the end of December 2014, the UN Security Council rejected a draft resolution that demanded a 12-month deadline for completing negotiations. The future borders between Israel and a new Palestinian state, according to the proposal, were to be based on the 1967 borders with “limited” land swaps.
The new resolution, if adopted, could be argued by some as superseding UN Security Council Resolution 242 from November 1967, which never required Israel to withdraw from all the territories it captured in the Six-Day War. Instead, it called for “secure and recognized boundaries” instead.
In the years that followed, American presidents further clarified the meaning of Resolution 242 by explicitly stating that it did not require full withdrawal. Though the Palestinians initially failed to replace 242, they are expected to renew their efforts to drum up UN support for their draft resolution, now that new members have joined the Security Council in 2015.
Why should Israel be concerned about all these initiatives? After all, according to those who were involved in the last round of talks, it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who rejected US Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework agreement in March 2014 during a meeting with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. The pressure should be on the Palestinian side.
But unfortunately, since 2009, a pattern has emerged. At that time, Abbas wanted negotiations with Israel to pick up where they left off with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who offered unprecedented concessions before he resigned. There was no signed agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but Abbas wanted to pocket Olmert’s proposed concessions and then demand that Israel go even further.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to accept the Olmert document. In an effort to persuade Abbas to come to the negotiating table, the Obama administration came up with a series of gestures that Israel would offer the Palestinians: a 10-month construction freeze in the settlements, prisoner releases, and declarations by the US or the Quartet that were to be based on Palestinian territorial demands (lately these have been misrepresented as Israeli positions for political purposes).
None of these gestures ultimately worked. The Palestinians refused to enter into any sustained negotiations with Israel. It appeared that Abbas wanted the West to establish what the results of the talks would be before the talking ever began. It was assumed by most observers that he wanted that outcome guaranteed in advance.
But a simpler explanation for his behavior would be that he was simply not interested in reaching an agreement with Israel. He was under pressure both from Hamas and from Fatah militants. There was also his competition for Palestinian leadership with Mohammed Dahlan. Today Abbas refuses to take responsibility for the Rafah passageway in the Gaza Strip — an essential precondition for rebuilding the area after being hit during Operation Protective Edge. It appears that he just wants to be left alone.
Perhaps the most important factor affecting Abbas was the fact that as the end of his career approaches, he is wary of taking any steps could tarnish his legacy, such as conceding what the Palestinians call “the right of return.” There is no reason now to believe that these considerations will change. But the US and its European allies are likely to press Israel to make the negotiations more attractive to Abbas by holding out the prospect of new Israeli concessions.
Whatever government Israel elects on March 17 will have to be firm in resisting the pressures that are likely to mount. The most immediate demand to be made is that Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders, with “limited” land swaps, as the U.N. draft resolution recommended. In past interviews, such as the one he gave to The New York Times on Feb. 7, 2011, Abbas clarified that his idea of a “limited land swap” involved 1.9 percent of the West Bank. This miniscule land swap in no way could offset the huge concession he was demanding of Israel — to agree to the 1967 borders.
This land swap would not provide enough territory to protect Israeli settlement blocs. Leaks to Al Jazeera of past negotiations under Olmert indicate that the Palestinians refused to concede the large settlements of Ariel and Maale Adumim. In short, Abbas’ land swaps would leave thousands of Israelis on territory that the Palestinians expect to be theirs. The concept of 1967 borders with land swaps is a non-starter.
The pressure on Israel to agree to a nearly full withdrawal on the basis of the 1967 lines also directly impacts Israel’s security — yet another reason for any Israeli government to resist such a demand. Ironically, just as this pressure can be expected to increase, the current chaos in the Middle East makes such a withdrawal more dangerous than ever. The vacuum created by the breakdown of several Arab states, like Syria and Iraq, has allowed for the growth of a new breed of terrorist organizations, like Islamic State, that are far more challenging than the organizations Israel fought in the past.
For example, historically, terrorist attacks were typically conducted by small squads. Since 2014, Islamic State has been operating like a proper army with battalion-size units. In Syria, Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra used advanced anti-tank missiles and crushed Syrian armored units, seizing all their equipment. The most advanced models of Syrian T-72 tanks may now be seen on YouTube flying the al-Qaida flag and operated by jihadist crews.
In the summer of 2014, Islamic State cells defeated four divisions of the Iraqi Army and took all their new American equipment, including Abrams tanks. Islamic State may not be able to maintain all the weaponry it captured or conduct maneuver warfare, but it demonstrated that it could stand up to an actual army.
To make matters worse, Middle Eastern borders are melting away, allowing terrorist organizations to move across international lines and easily obtain reinforcements. This not only applies to the Syrian-Iraqi border and the old Sykes-Picot line, but also to the Iraqi-Iranian border. On March 8, Ali Younesi, adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, declared that Iran was an empire and that “there was no way to divide the territory of Iran and Iraq.” Younesi was not a peripheral figure but a former intelligence minister. Therefore, those in the West who argue that Israel can afford to withdraw to the 1967 borders because the conventional threat along what used to be called Israel’s eastern front has vanished are simply wrong. The conventional threat has changed and evolved.
A third reason why a future Israeli government will have to remain steadfast in the face of pressure is connected to Jerusalem. The 1967 borders run right through the heart of Israel’s capital. If accepted in any way, the 1967 borders would award the Old City of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, giving them all the holiest Jewish, Christian and Muslim sites.
In 2009, when Sweden held the rotating EU presidency, it drafted a statement on the peace process that included a call for dividing Jerusalem. Ten years earlier, when Germany held the EU presidency, its ambassador to Israel tried to revive the idea of the internationalization of Jerusalem, contained in UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Jerusalem is a magnet for some of the most dangerous proposals that have come from the EU, which Israel must forcefully reject.
These suggestions should look absurd from a Western perspective in light of recent developments. Since the Taliban attack on the ancient Buddhist statues in the Bamian Valley in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the religious sites of other faiths have increasingly come under attack across the Middle East. Churches have been bombed or set on fire by jihadists in Egypt. The same has occurred in Syria and Iraq. In the previous decade, Joseph’s Tomb was attacked by Palestinian mobs and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was invaded by joint Hamas and Fatah forces. This environment of intolerance has been backed not just by groups on the periphery of society but by mainstream elements as well.
Unfortunately, many in the international community who will be pressing Israel to accept their proposals do not appreciate correctly how the dramatic shifts in the Middle East have altered Israel’s basic requirements in any revived peace negotiations. There is a tendency to take old peace proposals from the 1990s and to try and rework them and make them relevant for today, ignoring how much the Middle East has changed. The next Israeli government will find itself pulled between the determination of the international community to implement its latest ideas and the necessities of Israel’s security on the ground in a much more chaotic and unstable Middle East.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.