Can Israel Make Peace with the Palestinians?

Ambassador Alon Pinkas served as Israel's Consul General in New York from 2000 to 2004, capping a two decade career in Israel's foreign ministry, including work for prime ministers from both Labor and Likud governments.  I had the privilege of interviewing Ambassador Pinkas when he visited Chicago this week.

As opinion polls in Israel suggest that Israelis believe President Obama is not a friend of Israel (4% of Israelis in a recent survey consider him to be pro-Israel), Ambassador Pinkas and other Israelis are visiting various American cities to emphasize the strength and importance of the US Israeli relationship.

Pinkas sees a sharp difference in tone between Obama and his two predecessors- Bill Clinton and George Bush, but does not believe that Obama is hostile to Israel.  Israelis were spoiled a bit by what they perceived as an emotional tie between both Bill Clinton and Israel and George Bush and Israel, a connection that seems missing with Obama.   Obama has made it clear that he thinks that the perception that the US stands with Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians was a major reason that the peace process was unsuccessful in recent decades.   Obama's conclusion, expressed in a meeting with a group of Jewish leaders two months back, is that peace is more likely to be realized if the US President is perceived by both sides as engaged, but not in either side's corner.  This approach by Obama runs counter to long held US policy that Israel is more likely to make concessions, if it feels a secure link with the United States. It has also been generally understood policy that if the US is perceived as pressuring Israel, the Arabs and the Palestinians will become more intransigent, waiting for the US to deliver Israel's concessions to them, offering nothing in return.

Pinkas believes that Israelis are nervous about Obama in part because he has been so openly critical of Israel from the outset of his administration.  It could be argued that only Honduras has received more public criticism from this Administration.  Israelis do not see the advertised even handedness in the President's actions so far.  The insistent public demands on Israel -- for a total freeze of settlement activity beyond the green line, have not been matched by similar cajoling or public pressure on the Palestinians or other Arab nations to make gestures towards Israel.   In fact, several Arab nations and the Palestinian Authority have now made public statements  that if Israel refuses to commit to a total settlement freeze (including natural growth of settlements) that they are unwilling to offer any gestures or even to meet with Israelis to negotiate. Put simply, why would the Palestinians and the Arab states be more pro-Israel than President Obama? If Obama demands a total settlement freeze as a first step, why should they reciprocate with gestures or negotiations before this occurs?

Ambassador Pinkas is very skeptical about the likelihood of a breakthrough in future talks between the Israelis and Palestinians for two major reasons. Pinkas says the history of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians since the commencement of the Oslo process has clarified that there is not now, and there has not been despite a decade and a half of trying, an intersection between the maximum that Israel is able to offer to end the conflict, and the minimum the Palestinians demand. Pinkas calls the gap unbridgeable, at least for now.

He says the history of the negotiations, has been one where Israel, to some extent, negotiates with itself, continually enhancing its offer, with the Palestinians always holding back for more concessions. The Palestinians always rejected Israel's offers as insufficient. Pinkas says Israel made a substantial offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000, enhanced over the next few months as the second intifada began, and broadened again at Taba. The discussions in 2007 and 2008 between Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert suggests that Obama's claim that the peace process was not pursued during the prior Administration, is not correct. Serious discussions took place during the last two years of the Bush administration, but as with those during the Clinton years, they proved in the end to be unproductive.

Israel had already left Gaza by 2007, and Olmert offered to Abbas well over 90% of the West Bank, with a land exchange of pre-67 Israeli territory to compensate the Palestinians for three settlement blocks that would be incorporated into Israel.  Israel also offered a connector between Gaza and the West Bank,  a capitol for the Palestinians in the Jerusalem area, and political sovereignty over neighborhoods in  the Old City without any formal political subdivision of the Old City. Pinkas says the recent discussions failed in part, because the best that could be accomplished was a shelf agreement, representing the terms for a final peace agreement, were the Palestinians in a position to complete such a deal. The reality is that PA President Abbas has no political control over Gaza, now run by Hamas after their bloody coup against the PA in the summer of 2007. And Hamas has never shown any willingness to accept Israel as a permanent state in the region (a requirement one would think for a two state solution).   Hamas, at best, has offered a defined truce period, in which it would not fire rockets, mortars or missiles at Israel.  This split among the Palestinians is Pinkas' second argument for why no peace agreement is likely. Significantly Abbas adopted the same posture as Palestinian negotiators in prior discussions, booking each Israeli offer, and asking for more.

The Israelis have also made some demands in negotiations, in addition to offering concessions -- that the Palestinian state be demilitarized, that Israel be allowed to overfly a Palestinian state,  that for a defined period of time, Israel would maintain a small military presence in the Jordan Valley, and that few if any of the people classified as Palestinian refugees by the United Nations (in reality, less than 5% of the so-called refugees ever lived within the boundaries of pre-67 Israel, the rest have all been born outside of Israel) could return to Israel.  The legal right of return would not have to be relinquished, but with the exception of a few family reunification admits, Palestinians would return, if they chose, only to the new Palestinian state. Israel sought at Camp David, and has demanded since, that any peace agreement on final status issues- Jerusalem, borders, refugees, had to mean an end to Palestinian claims- in other words, the deal was final, not a stage to further negotiations.   Pinkas described the negotiations as similar to those leading to a divorce between the two parties- a separation agreement.   At the outset of the Oslo process, Pinkas says there were Israelis who believed that a marriage, a new Benelux could be created. Such hopes have now been dashed, though among the Palestinians, there is now growing clamor for a single multinational state, which given higher Arab birth rates, would over time lead to a larger Arab than Jewish population in the single state, and political control.

Ambassador Pinkas is also not sanguine about multinational action against Iran and its near complete nuclear program.  Russia and China have not shown any willingness to agree to stepped-up international sanctions at the United Nations.  While Rahm Emanuel talked at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference about the linkage between an Israeli settlement freeze and the US garnering support for a new sanctions regime against Iran, the two issues do not appear to be linked.  China and Russia are reluctant to agree to stepped-up sanctions for many reasons, but none of them involve whether additional bedrooms are added to Jewish homes close to the green line or near the Old City.   

The Iranians responded coldly to President Obama's early outreach and offer to negotiate at the highest levels, like a hard return of a weak second serve in a tennis match.  Now the Iranians seem willing to run out the clock until their nuclear program is operational, agreeing to multi party talks, which Pinkas believes will likely be unproductive.  Such talks occurred between European nations and Iran for several years, to no avail.  Since US military action, or even the threat of such action, is not taken seriously by Iran, if new (crippling?) sanctions are not coming, and new negotiations resemble those of the prior years,   this would seem to suggest there may be only one option left to prevent Iran completing its nuclear weapons program.  Pinkas says he sees some signs that some people in the Obama administration may have already accepted that Iran will succeed in becoming a nuclear power, so the new policy that is  being developed concerns how to deal with that reality.

A corollary to the Administration's Iran strategy has been an attempt to woo Syria away from the Iranian orbit.  Pinkas is not convinced that Syria sees much to gain from shifting its strategic alignment, even if it occurred with an Israeli return of the Golan as a goodie to juice the deal.   The Syrian regime has lived off is anti-Israel rhetoric and posture for 60 years.   Would the Assad family retain its power if it could no longer rely on deflecting domestic opposition with its anti-Israel campaign?  Ambassador Pinkas say it is unclear whether Iran or Syria has more impact on Hezbollah activities in Lebanon, though Iran is clearly the financial provider. Given Syrian interests in Lebanon, the alignment with Iran may offer more to Syria in that country. 

Pinkas says both President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made some early mistakes in how they calibrated the US-Israel relationship.   Netanyahu may not have realized that the November, 2008 election really did constitute the start of a significant change in many domestic and international approaches by the United States.  President Obama may not have understood the reality of the coalition that Prime Minister Netanyahu assembled in order to take office, and how much room that allowed him to meet American demands on settlements.  Pinkas was unwilling to accept my suggestion that the early and then constant pressure on Israel may have been specifically orchestrated by Rahm Emanuel as a means to bring down the Netanyahu government, calculating that a wide divide between Israel and its closest ally, would worry Israelis, and lead to a collapse of Netanyahu's coalition, and the ascension in new Israeli elections of a more compliant (to US demands) Israeli  leader.

While Pinkas believes that the US Israel relationship remains strong, he clearly sees no reason for optimism on any major international front concerning Israel: negotiations with the Palestinians, the Syrian track, or stopping the Iranian nuclear program. On each of these issues, the Obama administration seems to still believe in its transformational ability to make progress.    Time will tell on each count, but the history of  the modern state of Israel suggests many more disappointments than achievements in its relationship with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.