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The "Roadblocks" to Peace haven't budged

Today’s international edition of the New York Times carries an op-ed on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by Ephraim Sneh, the former IDF general and well-known figure in the defense establishment. Sneh wants to solve the four “insurmountable stumbling blocks: Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, the ‘right of return,’ Jerusalem and security arrangements.” And he offers his plan to remove what the headline calls the “roadblocks” to peace. Unfortunately, Sneh’s good-faith effort to move the negotiations forward reminds the reader just why those four roadblocks are so difficult to dislodge.

On security arrangements, Sneh follows the logic that the Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians all have a shared interest in preventing the rise of Islamist rebel factions with the ability to cross borders between the three. That’s true, but the logic goes both ways: it may be rational for Mahmoud Abbas’s ruling party to oppose and marginalize Islamist extremists, but it’s also rational for him to believe–especially in the age of the Arab Spring–that he can’t prevent the organic gravitational pull of homegrown (or foreign-funded) extremists to disaffected Palestinians living under his corrupt authoritarianism. In such a case, logic suggests capitulation and cooptation, not a high-minded show of backbone by standing with Israel.

Sneh proposes a division of East Jerusalem instead of a division of Jerusalem. Permit Israel to keep its Jewish neighborhoods–including those built after 1967–Sneh argues, and give the Palestinian state the rest. It’s not clear if either side would agree to this, though given Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements over the last few years, Israel seems far more likely to accept these parameters than would the Palestinians, to say nothing of the logistical nightmare of actually dividing the city. But the centerpiece of Sneh’s Jerusalem proposal would be “a Vatican-like status” for the city’s holy sites. We don’t get the details from Sneh for how a tri-faith version of the Vatican would work exactly, probably because it would do nothing to dissolve conflict over the area but would erode some degree of Jewish sovereignty over its holiest site.

On the Palestinian “right of return,” Sneh proposes that Secretary of State John Kerry put together a framework that excludes the word “right.” The Palestinian legislature can pass their own right of return laws the way Israel has, but using terms like “rights,” according to Sneh, is a surefire way to get the Palestinians to loudly embrace their victimology and walk away. Thus they should simply talk about a “return,” and a symbolic one at that. It’s difficult to imagine this idea getting off the ground with the Palestinians, but it won’t get pushback from Israel.

On the remaining issue, the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Sneh writes:

A demand to officially recognize Israel as the Jewish state has never been submitted to any Arab counterpart: not Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Jordan’s King Hussein or Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Yet Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, keeps raising such a declaration as a condition because there is no Israeli — certainly not me — who would not sympathize with it and because he believes that President Abbas cannot provide it, knowing that it could drive a wedge between Mr. Abbas and the Arab citizens of Israel.

However, the Palestine National Council, in its Declaration of Independence of Nov. 15, 1988, already acknowledged the definition of Israel as the Jewish state when it referred to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, saying it had partitioned Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish. In fact, Yasir Arafat reiterated this recognition. The Palestinian leadership just needs to declare that the recognition Mr. Netanyahu is demanding is implicit in that 25-year-old document.

I’m afraid this appears to miss the point on such recognition. An “implicit” recognition in a pre-Oslo document that the current Palestinian leadership refuses to repeat (even “implicitly”) is not what’s being asked. And there’s a good reason for that. Saying someone else kinda sorta implied recognition removes such recognition from the intent of the man actually signing the agreement, if there is one.

Israel wants recognition from its “peace partner,” not a ghost. They want this because they believe–with much justification–that such recognition is the difference between a peace agreement and actual peace. The stated purpose of the two-state solution is to resolve the conflict. Palestinian statehood that merely strengthens their hand in an ongoing war to annihilate their Jewish neighbors is not something Israelis have much interest in, nor should they.

It’s Sneh’s conclusion, however, that goes off the rails:

In Israel, there cannot be such an agreement without a political crisis. In the Knesset, 42 of the 68 members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition are beholden to the settlers who fiercely oppose any agreement with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu therefore will be compelled to change his coalition partners, make way for another prime minister or call elections so that a government that is not dependent on settlers’ support can take power. But a transient political crisis is better for Israel than the horrible repercussions of a failure of Mr. Kerry’s efforts.

Netanyahu presides over this governing coalition because the Israeli voters chose these parties to represent them in the government. Why should Netanyahu be compelled to call elections? The last elections were only a year ago, and this is the government the people chose. What kind of banana republic would call elections repeatedly and unceasingly until the people capitulated to the American secretary of state?

And what in modern Israeli history suggests this is the road to success anyway? Sneh isn’t unaware that left-leaning Israeli leaders already tried, more than once, to strike such an agreement. Labor took two bites at that apple, Kadima one. This is precisely the pattern of failure Israelis are trying not to replicate. Sneh’s frustration is understandable and widely shared, and his column is an expression of an admirable Israeli desire for peace. But it’s also quite wide of the mark.

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