Last week a white flag seemed to be waving over Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, known for his proclivity for yielding to American pressure was reported to have accepted the surrender terms dictated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and imposed by Secretary of State John Kerry.
To meet Palestinian conditions for the resumption of peace talks, Netanyahu seemed willing to cross his own (repeatedly asserted) red line -- no Palestinian preconditions for negotiations. But after Kerry's relentless arm-twisting, he was reportedly prepared to accept Abbas' preconditions. First, there would be yet another freeze on Jewish settlement construction in Judea and Samaria (formerly Jordan's West Bank), where 350,000 Jews now live in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. Second, Israel would negotiate based on its vulnerable pre-1967 temporary armistice lines (memorably identified by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban as "Auschwitz borders"). Third, Israel would release 250 Palestinian prisoners, many with Jewish blood on their hands, as a goodwill gesture.
Anyone familiar with Netanyahu's record as prime minister would not have been surprised. In 1997 he signed the Hebron Protocol, partitioning the ancient Jewish city where Abraham buried Sarah in the tomb known ever since as Me'arat HaMachpela. Jews were -- and remain -- confined to a tiny and vulnerable ghetto. In 2009, early in his current round as prime minister, Netanyahu capitulated to Palestinian demands for a ten-month settlement freeze as a condition for negotiations. Palestinians never came to the table.
Based on his past record, it seemed reasonable to conclude that Netanyahu would capitulate to American pressure once again. Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose contributions to the disastrous Oslo Accords twenty years ago propelled the Palestinian Authority to legitimacy, while consigning many hundreds of Israeli civilians to death in terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, sounded euphoric at the prospect of another Israeli surrender. "I believe that [Kerry's] significant effort will bear fruit on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side," he said, with both parties "making an effort to overcome the final obstacles."
But for Israel to agree to return to its temporary armistice lines of 1949, even if only for the purpose of negotiation, would be a concession that invites disaster. At its narrowest, barely 10 miles wide, it would once again have an indefensible eastern border. The nearby Samarian hills would be open to Hamas and Hezb'allah infiltration, if not Palestinian invitation, and rocket and terrorist attacks on nearby Israeli cities (Tel Aviv, to cite a random example) would surely follow.
Following the Six-Day War, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan explained the meaning of Israel's stunning victory. In a ceremony on the Mount of Olives, near the ancient Jewish cemetery, which (like the Old City and Western Wall) Jews had been prohibited from visiting during the years of Jordanian occupation, Dayan declared: "We have returned to all that is holy in our land. . . . We have returned to the cradle of our people, to the inheritance of the Patriarchs. . . . We will not be parted from the holy places."
Not so fast. Given what Netanyahu seemed prepared relinquish even before talks began, it is easy to imagine how he would respond to future American pressure to satisfy Palestinian demands for a final solution. The Palestinian Authority has already indicated that no Jews would be permitted to live in the State of Palestine. That means that 200,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem and 350,000 Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria would face expulsion from their homes. "What will become of Israel?" asked Abbas Zaki, member of the Fatah Central Committee: "It will come to an end."
There is more than ample justification for Jews to remain where they are, continuing to develop their prospering homeland in the face of persistent worldwide efforts to deny its legitimacy. It includes the divine promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people; centuries of ancient Jewish sovereignty there; the defining Zionist principle of settlement; international law, which ever since 1922 -- when Great Britain relinquished two-thirds of Palestine to King Abdullah -- has assured Jews the right of "close settlement" west of the Jordan River; and the fruits of military victory in its defensive war for survival in 1967.
Although Netanyahu's track record suggested the likelihood of substantial Israeli concessions even before negotiations began, Palestinians predictably seized the opportunity to miss their opportunity. At the last minute, the governing Revolutionary Council of President Abbas's Fatah movement rejected Kerry's plan. Netanyahu was off the hook -- for now.
But you never know. The story is told of the scorpion that reached a river bank, hoping to get to the other side. Unable to swim, he pleaded with a frog to transport him. "Why should I?," asked the frog. "You will sting me and I will die." The scorpion pointed out the folly of that: then they would both perish. The frog was persuaded and the scorpion climbed on his back. Half way across, the scorpion stung the frog. "Why did you do that," asked the sinking frog. The drowning scorpion replied: "That's the Middle East."
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of Against the Grain: A Historian's Journey (Quid Pro Books, 2012).