How Netanyahu can match Abbas’s commitment to peace

While the Palestinian president is renouncing the Palestinian right of return on Israeli television, Israel’s prime minister is announcing new settlement construction. Instead of playing to his own political base, Netanyahu could have his Sadat moment.

By Aaron Magid

President Barack Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, N.Y, Sept. 22, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) shake hands at a trilateral meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, N.Y, Sept. 22, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Meeting with a delegation of Knesset members on Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that in a final status agreement the Palestinians “would not demand to return to Jaffe, Acre or Haifa.” Among other conciliatory comments, Abbas’s statement exemplifies his commitment toward addressing legitimate Israeli concerns and ending the conflict. Unfortunately, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moderated his hawkish positions, he has yet to match Abbas’s willingness to offer concessions and reach out to the other side. This will be necessary to reach an agreement.

Even before beginning negotiations with Netanyahu, Abbas gave up his demands that Israel freeze settlement building in the West Bank and that all talks on borders be based on the 1967 armistice line. These decisions sparked outrage within the Palestinian community. Nonetheless, Abbas was determined to press forward, a sign of his desire for peace. Abbas has maintained his moderate tone since the talks began. His willingness to renounce the right of return, one of the core Palestinian grievances so early in the negotiation process, shows that Abbas is looking to solving the conflict instead of airing past grievances. Abbas addressed another potential Israeli security concern — that the Palestinians will use their state as a terrorist launching pad against Israel — when he agreed that the Palestinian state would be demilitarized, saying, “we don’t need planes or missiles. All we need is a strong police force.” Finally, Abbas is holding a pre-Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) toast with dozens of Israeli members of Knesset and has interviewed multiple times on Israeli television in an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public and show them he is serious about peace.

It is important to recognize that Netanyahu has also taken some difficult steps towards conciliation with the Palestinians. Before bilateral negotiations began, he agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners who were convicted of heinous terrorist attacks, a decision that sparked outrage from those in his government. He also has abided by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s order to not speak publicly about the substance of the negotiations — a feat rarely accomplished during the decades of Israeli-Arab talks. Nonetheless, he continues to display a minimalist approach to the peace talks, when the hour calls for imitating the dramatic symbolism orchestrated by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

It is true that Netanyahu never promised Kerry or Abbas that he would freeze settlement construction during the negotiations. However, announcing the building of over 1,000 units in the West Bank immediately after the beginning of bilateral talks sends a troubling message about his commitment to truly reaching a peace agreement. Instead of looking for ways to move forward, Netanyahu added another impediment to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Furthermore, although Abbas was willing to publicly announce – on Israeli television in November and again this past week – that he was willing in effect to renounce the sacred Palestinian right of return, Netanyahu still has made no such gesture. He has continued to speak about the eternal unity of Jerusalem and reject any accord based on the 1967 armistice lines, even though most experts agree that these positions will prevent the reaching of a final status accord.

At the same time when Abbas is meeting with dozens of Israeli MKs, Netanyahu has not offered to meet with Palestinian legislators. Abbas has even complained that he is interested in meeting personally with Netanyahu — as was the case during the term of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — but Netanyahu has rebuffed his offers.

In addition to not meaningfully interacting with Palestinian politicians, Netanyahu has also not reached out to the Palestinian public. He has not interviewed with the Palestinian press nor visited any Palestinian cities during the present term. In contrast to the empathetic comments by Olmert regarding 1948 Palestinian refugees, saying in 2008 at the Knesset, “I join in the sorrow of what happened to the Palestinians,” Netanyahu has never shown a willingness to genuinely understand the other side’s suffering. Can you imagine the power on the Palestinian street of seeing Netanyahu touring a refugee camp in the West Bank to hear the Palestinian story of victimhood? These are the types of actions that propelled Israelis to remove their skepticism of Egypt during Sadat’s presidency and would similarly lead to a dramatic increase in Palestinian support for the peace process and additional concessions.

Fortunately for both sides, Kerry’s nine-month timetable to reach an agreement has only begun. If Netanyahu is genuinely interested in solving the conflict, and not merely repeating a decades-old process of failed negotiations, he must show a creativity and sense of empathy demonstrated by Sadat, several of his predecessors in the Prime Ministers office and Abbas. The time for appeasing one’s own political base is long gone.

Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Review of Near Eastern Affairs. His work has previously appeared in the Daily Beast, Jerusalem Post, and the Forward. He can be reached via Twitter @AaronMagid.