A Two-Faced Peace Puzzle

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have been issuing statements for general public consumption that raise the ante of what it will take to resume peace talks. What is happening publicly is part of a complicated puzzle that involves other players in the region, and it is not an indication of what the whole picture really looks like. 

U.S. Envoy George Mitchell is presently in Jerusalem meeting with Israeli officials, hoping new American proposals will get peace negotiations with the Palestinians back on track. Mitchell's presence in the region comes on the heels of a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the foreign media at an annual press conference on January 20. At that gathering, Netanyahu emphasized Israel's need for defensible borders. Outlining the problem of Israel's missile defense capabilities, he spoke of the thousands of rockets being smuggled into Gaza that threaten Israel's security. For the first time publicly, Netanyahu asserted what this will mean in any future settlement with the Palestinians. "This will require an Israeli presence on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state. I'm not saying how we will do it; I'm not saying in what format."

Netanyahu also spoke of the need to move forward in negotiating peace. With regard to the Palestinians, he said, "They should be told fair and square, simply and forthrightly, get into the tent and start negotiating for peace. Let's stop negotiating about negotiations."

The stalemate that has permeated the public airways for months is spurred by the demand by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Israel must stop all settlement construction in both the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Jerusalem before talks can resume. He has also insisted that the talks start from where they left off during the previous Israeli governments of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert.

Netanyahu, while temporarily stopping new settlement construction in the West Bank, has continually refused to consider any halt to construction in Jerusalem. In addition, he has said that there should be no preconditions for resuming peace talks. In his June 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu stated that he was willing to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with a Jewish state of Israel. 

Since that speech, Netanyahu has drawn his red lines, reiterating that the Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state. He has also claimed that Israel cannot return to the 1967 borders because of security issues, alluding to the need for land swaps. Furthermore, he continues to declare that Jerusalem is, and will remain, the capital of Israel.   

In less reported news, U.S. officials and some Israeli leaders have acknowledged that the two sides are much closer to an agreement than what appears publicly to be the case. There has been talk that a peace deal is possible with the diplomatic use of "bridging proposals."

It can be concluded from these reports that maps were brought out during previous Israeli-Palestinian talks, and borders were discussed extensively. Perhaps agreements behind the scenes included a workable formula that would result in an Israeli pull-back from much of the West Bank, with land swaps included, allowing Israel to have defensible borders. 

What has seemingly not been agreed upon is the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugee issue. Meanwhile, Israeli officials continue to insist that without an agreement on all issues, there is no agreement at all. It's clear that the Palestinians see that statement as more for public than private consumption.  

The question is, why would Netanyahu now emphasize the need for Israel to have a presence on the eastern border of a Palestinian state?

Much of the general public has not paid much attention to the Palestinian strategy over the past few months during the time that Abbas has refused to restart peace talks with Israel. It is this strategy that is making Israeli leaders nervous.

Abbas and other Palestinian Authority officials have been busy garnering support from the UN and EU to internationalize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that their demands go much farther than a sit-down discussion with Israel at the negotiating table. In light of this, Arab leaders (including the Saudis, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Turks) have been seen interacting with each other, resolving differences, and working together on several fronts.

The talk of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East by U.S. President Barack Obama has been seen by Arab countries as a signal that the Saudi Peace Initiative is still a large piece of the Israeli-Palestinian puzzle. However, for this initiative to gain steam among leaders in the international community, it will require Fatah in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza to settle their differences, leading to a united Palestinian front. This is because Arab leaders have called for a contiguous Palestinian state that would include both the West Bank and Gaza. The current rift between Fatah and Hamas stands in the way of that goal.

Meanwhile, the prospects of a unity government between Hamas and Fatah is a concern for Israel, as arms continue to pour into the region, threatening Israel's populated cities, as well as its major airport near Tel Aviv.

On Wednesday, January 20, Hamas leaders for the first time reportedly told British millionaire David Martin Abrahams that they would be willing to alter their charter that calls for Israel's destruction. This would be a major Hamas step towards reconciliation with the international community, as well as with Fatah.

This diplomatic surprise by Hamas could be the result of intensive efforts behind the scenes by Saudi Arabia, a country that wants to lead the Arab world into a comprehensive peace settlement with Israel...but on Saudi terms. Saudi leaders have demanded that Israel accept the Saudi Peace Initiative without compromise, while the Netanyahu government sees the initiative as something to explore, but not as a final workable agreement. The problem is that the Saudis are demanding that Israel withdraw completely to the 1967 Green Line, not allowing for defensible borders. This greatly compromises the security of the State of Israel. In that same proposal, Jerusalem would be internationalized as a capital of two states. And Israel would be forced into uncomfortable concessions on the Palestinian refugee issue.

Because of the growing international pressure on Israel, Netanyahu, in his speech to journalists on January 20, stated that "[t]he only way we can finish with peace negotiations is a peace treaty. We are ready to begin. I'm ready to begin. I'm prepared for peace. Are the Palestinians ready for peace?"

Yet while Netanyahu challenges Abbas, he also knows there is a growing consensus among European leaders that in order to achieve peace, it must include not only an agreement with Abbas, but also with Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who takes his orders from Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. Furthermore, European leaders want to have greater influence in solving the peace puzzle, so they are eager to engage in direct talks with Hamas. This new overture by Hamas -- that it would be willing to nullify its charter -- justifies that goal.

Another test for Israel is U.S. insistence on a two-year timeframe for final-status talks to be completed.  Israeli diplomats have insisted that timetables never work. But with U.S. President Barack Obama's domestic problems increasing at home, he is looking for this ongoing conflict to be resolved. Obama would like to show some foreign policy successes in the midst of all the domestic policy failures during his first year in office.

Most of the world would also like to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved. But it's going to take the puzzle pieces fitting nicely together -- those pieces being arranged behind the scenes and those being arranged for public consumption. This will be necessary before there can be any completed deal that resolves all the complicated issues keeping Israelis and Palestinians from living together in harmony.