Why the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks must work

Cynicism about new Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts comes in a variety of flavors. There is the lazy cynicism of allegedly objective pundits: “Only a fool would believe that this could work.” There is the cowardly cynicism of the disillusioned: “I won’t be fooled again!” And there is the malicious, smirking cynicism of crypto-peace opponents: “It’s foolish to think this can ever work, or that the Palestinians can ever be trusted, or that settlers can ever be removed.” What the latter really mean, of course, is: “I want this to fail, and this is my way of helping.”

Let’s be clear: The current Kerry-backed peace effort is probably the last, best hope for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. The situation on the ground — code mainly for settlement expansion — is nearing a tipping point after which a two-state solution will no longer be available (many settlers gleefully argue the point has already been passed). The end of the two-state solution doesn’t then magically create some new alternative — it just plays into the hands of zero-sum extremists on both sides, with devastating implications for everyone else. Until eventually, perhaps after another generation or more of Israeli-Palestinian mutual bloodletting and mutual efforts at delegitimization, both peoples come to a realization, as they did in the 1990s, that their respective aspirations for peace, security, self-determination and a better future for their children will only be realized at the negotiating table. 

[Related: Why David Suissa thinks peace talks will fail]

For anyone who truly cares about Israel and Israelis — as opposed to those who prioritize land over peace, settlements over security, and Greater Israel over Israel’s good standing in the community of progressive, democratic nations of the world — must recognize that the stakes today are too high to give in to self-indulgent cynicism and self-protective defeatism.

Yes, there are reasons for skepticism about the current peace effort. The provocative and self-defeating march of Israeli settlements goes on. The release of Palestinian prisoners is reopening painful wounds for Israelis across the political spectrum. And rhetoric that is inconsistent with a commitment to peace and coexistence continues to emanate from both sides. 

At the same time, there are compelling reasons to believe that this new peace effort can succeed, starting with the personal investment of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by power-hitters like Special Envoy Martin Indyk, leading negotiations, and Gen. John Allen, focusing on Israeli security issues. The Quartet and Tony Blair remain active, focusing on economic issues, and the European Union and the Arab League are playing positive supporting roles.

Likewise, there are solid reasons to believe that this effort is serious. Both sides have publicly committed to negotiating for nine months. Neither side wants to be the one that walks away and is blamed for destroying the process — creating a negotiations-preserving dynamic. Moreover, the parties have agreed to secrecy, insulating the effort from destructive real-time “crowd testing.” And finally, these negotiations are taking place in the context of unprecedented recognition of both the fact that the window is closing on the two-state solution and that achieving the two-state solution is a vital U.S. national security interest.

It is also clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can deliver if he wants to. He has the trust of the majority of the Israeli public, strong Knesset support for entering talks, and, if cornered by right-wing members of his coalition, he has a new pro-peace coalition available. Likewise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver if he wants to and if the agreement on offer from Israel is indeed serious. Abbas is a founder of the Palestinian national movement, committed to nonviolence, and has long experience negotiating with Israel. He ran for president of the Palestinian Authority on a platform that centered on his commitment to negotiate a two-state agreement with Israel, and, according to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former (and current) Israel negotiator Tzipi Livni, went a long distance toward doing exactly that.

Finally, recent reports of a single poll notwithstanding, polling has shown, year after year, that both peoples want peace and would support the compromises necessary if packaged together as an end-of-conflict-end-of-claims agreement.

At this time, we would do well to recall the words of Yitzhak Rabin, who famously said that he would “fight terrorism as if there is no peace process” and “pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Today, the greatest threat to peace efforts is not terrorism, but cynicism, skepticism and spoilers on both sides. In this context, Rabin’s wise formula becomes: “We must fight skepticism and spoilers as if there are no peace negotiations, and we must doggedly support the pursuit of peace at the negotiating table, refusing to allow skeptics, cynics and spoilers to demoralize us or distract us from our goal.”

Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.

Egypt Displays Split Personality on Israel

Israeli leaders were heartened in late December, when Egypt’s
foreign minister announced that he would come to Jerusalem for talks on
promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

At the same time, however, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
was moving in Cairo to galvanize international pressure on Israel to dismantle
the nuclear weapons it is presumed to possess.Â

These seemingly contradictory thrusts in Egyptian policy
highlight the deep ambivalence that has characterized Egypt’s attitude to Israel
since the two countries made peace in 1979.Â

On the one hand, Egypt has been keen to encourage other Arab
countries and the Palestinians to follow its lead in making peace with Israel —
partly to prove that it was right in pioneering accommodation with the Jewish
State, partly to reinforce its position as a major power broker in the Middle
East and partly to satisfy Washington.Â

Some believe that Egypt still is undecided about whether it
really wants peace with Israel. Others believe Egypt simply sees Israel as a
major rival for regional hegemony. In either case, while seeking a wider,
regional rapprochement, Egypt also strives to weaken Israel and keep it

Egypt therefore makes peace overtures but keeps Israel at
arm’s length. It fashions a model of “cold peace” — some might call it a war
everywhere but on the battlefield — and implies that other Arab countries
should adopt it. It carries out war games in which Israel is the named enemy,
presses every possible button to pressure Israel to dismantle its presumed
nuclear stockpile and often leads the diplomatic charge against Israel in
international forums.Â

For more than 20 years, this ambivalent policy has not
changed. Nor, from Egypt’s perspective, should it, since the policy has paid
rich dividends.Â

First and foremost, it paved the way for Egypt to build
close relations with the United States, including a huge annual aid package
that Egypt has used both to advance domestic goals and to undertake a massive
military reconstruction effort over the past two decades. It also has put Egypt
in a position to help other Arabs, such as the Palestinians or Syrians, forge
negotiations with Israel. Egypt has been trying to play the “honest broker”
over the past year, searching for ways to stop Israeli-Palestinian violence.Â

Since the Palestinian intifada was launched in September
2000, Egypt has worried about violent repercussions at home. Radical Islamic
groups in Egypt could harness anti-Israeli feeling to attack the Mubarak regime
for not doing more to help the Palestinians, conceivably sparking violence
directed at the regime, itself.Â

Last June, Egypt was able to get Palestinian terrorist
groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a temporary truce with
Israel. But the truce quickly collapsed after a rash of targeted killings of
terrorist leaders and a new wave of Palestinian suicide bombings.Â

Now the Egyptians are trying again, holding meetings in
Cairo on a new cease-fire and sending Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar
Suleiman, for talks in the Palestinian territories, so far without concrete

Syrian President Bashar Assad also is seeking Egyptian aid
in paving the way for a renewal of peace talks with Israel. After Saddam
Hussein’s fall in Iraq and Libyan leader Muammar al-Quaddafi’s agreement to open
his weapons programs to international inspection, Assad fears he could be next
in line for special treatment by a U.S. government that has shown little
tolerance for Arab sponsors of terrorism.Â

Assad announced through the pages of The New York Times that
he wants to start a new negotiating process with Israel, and in late December,
he flew to Egypt to ask for Mubarak’s aid.Â

Israel has been skeptical of Assad’s intentions — most
officials believe Assad merely is trying to duck U.S. pressure — but says it is
exploring Assad’s statement. Still, Israel is demanding strong Syrian action
against terrorist groups in Damascus and Lebanon before any talks can begin.Â

While playing the “honest broker,” however, Egypt also has
been leading diplomatic moves against Israel in various international forums.Â

Egypt was active in getting the security fence issue
referred to the International Court at The Hague and, following Libya’s
startling commitment on weapons of mass destruction, Egypt worked closely with
Syria to force a Security Council debate on ridding the Middle East of all
weapons of mass destruction — a debate that is bound to focus primarily on
Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.Â

For years, the campaign against Israel’s nuclear capability
has been a cornerstone of Egyptian foreign policy. In 1995, Egypt threatened to
scuttle international reaffirmation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by
persuading Third World countries not to sign unless Israel did.

Five years later, Egypt repeated the same gambit. In both
cases, however, strong U.S. pressure forced the Egyptians to back down.Â

There is a huge disparity between Egypt’s self-image and the
reality on the ground: The truth is that Egypt no longer seems to have the
clout of a great regional player.Â

For example, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher
visited the Al Aksa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount in late December,
Palestinian radicals bombarded him with shoes, a display of contempt. And on
that same trip, Egypt heeded Israel’s demand that Maher not meet with
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel seeks to sideline.
Earlier, Palestinian terrorist groups disdainfully rejected Egyptian advice to
accept a cease-fire with Israel.Â

The duality of Egyptian policy leads to suspicion and
anxiety on the Israeli side. One of Egypt’s sharpest Israeli critics is Yuval
Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who
asked why Egypt needs such a huge, modern army when it has no apparent

Steinitz noted that Egypt has used huge amounts of U.S.
money to transform its army into one of the strongest forces in the Middle
East, that it has many of the same weapon systems as Israel and that it even
has U.S. instructors to teach the Egyptians how to use the weapons. Of all the
Arab armies, Steinitz said, Egypt’s is the one Israel has to take most
seriously in the future.Â

Perhaps the case that best highlights the ambivalence of
Egyptian policy is the abortive Camp David summit with the Palestinians in July
2000. Fearing that their regional influence would be diluted, the Egyptians
blocked the resumption of multilateral peace talks with Israel on regional
cooperation in the runup to Camp David.Â

Then, as the Camp David summit was about to collapse,
Mubarak turned down a request from President Bill Clinton to do him a personal
favor and pressure Arafat to sign an agreement with Israel that would postpone
disputes over sovereignty of Jerusalem’s holy sites.Â

At the time, U.S. and Israeli officials found Egypt’s
spoiler role unbearable. Yet when fighting erupted two months after the collapse
of Camp David, Egypt played a major role in containing the violence and
preventing a full-scale regional war.Â

Though he pulled Egypt’s ambassador from Israel — a
violation of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — Mubarak declared early on that
Egypt “wouldn’t fight to the last Egyptian” for the Palestinian cause. More
than anything else, analysts believe, Mubarak’s levelheaded attitude prevented
the spread of violence across the entire region.

Though Egypt continues to fire diplomatic broadsides at
Israel and refuses to return its ambassador, trumpets its friendship with the
United States while ignoring U.S. calls to democratize and plays the regional
superpower without regional respect, the bottom line is that most feel that
Egypt’s pragmatism remains a powerful, pro-Western force for regional

However, that stability rests, in large degree, on the
person of Mubarak, a 75-year-old whose health has raised concern recently.
Mubarak had to interrupt a televised speech last month when he suddenly fell

After 22 years in power, Mubarak has not chosen a successor,
and analysts worry that if Mubarak dies suddenly — he came to power after Anwar
Sadat was assassinated — Egypt will fall into disarray. That could give
Islamists, Mubarak’s most powerful domestic opponents, an opportunity to seize
power and upset the regional stability Mubarak has been so keen to maintain. Â

Signs of Thaw Seen in Israel-Europe Ties

After years of mutual distrust and periodic acrimony, there are signs of a thaw in relations between Israel and Europe.

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was feted in London this week, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom pressed a new "friendship with Europe" initiative. Also, the European Union recently put out feelers about including Israel in plans for a "wider Europe."

But though the stage for warmer ties was set by the revival of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there are still deep differences between Israel and Europe on the Palestinian issue.

And while Israel’s relations with European governments may be improving, the same can’t be said about public opinion: In much of Europe, Israel is still getting what it considers to be hostile press.

In London early this week, Sharon received expansive red carpet treatment. In a rare gesture of friendship and support, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited his Israeli counterpart to a private dinner at his home at 10 Downing St. British officials were at pains to point out that few foreign dignitaries are honored in this way.

"Not even Blair’s close friend George Bush was invited to dinner at No. 10," a senior official was quoted as saying.

For several months now, JTA has learned, Britain’s Foreign Office has believed that Sharon wants to make peace with the Palestinians, but will find it difficult to make concessions.

Sharon, however, maintains that Britain and the rest of Europe first need to change their attitude toward Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon argues that the power struggle between Arafat and the P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, really is a struggle over the peace process, which Arafat wants to destroy and Abbas wants to push forward. To prove his point, Sharon presented Israeli intelligence reports to Blair, and is openly urging British and other European leaders to boycott Arafat. The Americans back Sharon on this, but the Europeans, so far, mainly do not.

Sharon warns that if the Europeans keep strengthening Arafat, and if Abbas is forced to step down as a result, Israel will have to reconsider its attitude to the internationally approved "road map" peace plan.

Despite these differences, European attitudes to Israel seem to be changing dramatically. In July, soon after the road map was set in motion, Israeli and E.U. officials met in Brussels for the annual review of Israel’s economic association with the European Union.

According to Oded Eran, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, the Europeans were unexpectedly forthcoming: They declared that E.U. relations with Israel no longer would be contingent on progress in the peace process.

More importantly, the officials indicated that the European Union was interested in including Israel in its plans for a "wider Europe." They even suggested upgrading the economic association with Israel.

There was, however, one request of Israel: that it ratify the Kyoto Protocol on environmental protection, which would mean enough countries had signed the treaty to bring it into force, despite American objections.

The new European openness to Israel has struck a receptive chord in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Arguing that Israel has neglected ties with Europe for too long, Shalom launched what he calls a European "friendship campaign" with a visit to Italy last week, which he intends to follow up at the upcoming session of the Council of European Foreign Ministers in Brussels.

For their part, the Europeans make it clear that although they want to play a role in the peace process, their aim is only to aid or complement the United States, which will continue to be the main player.

As Israel-E.U. ties warm up, there is a lot of old animosity to overcome. Britain is a case in point: In the run up to the war with Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke about a double standard and seemed to compare Israel to Iraq; Blair himself pressured Bush to pressure Israel to accept the road map; Britain hosted a conference on reform of the Palestinian Authority without inviting Israelis, and Britain last year also unofficially embargoed arms to Israel that it felt might be used in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Some British media, especially the BBC, continue to be hypercritical of Israel. Indeed, the screening of a recent BBC documentary on Israel’s unconventional weapons led the Foreign Ministry’s PR bosses to sever ties with the BBC.

This kind of media treatment, the pressure of large anti-Israel Muslim populations in several European countries, complex European guilt feelings toward the Jews, Europe’s colonial past and Europe’s strong human rights focus all make for highly problematic relations between Europe and Israel, which many Europeans see as an "occupying power."

As a fragile new Israeli-Palestinian peace process gets under way, it remains to be seen whether early signs of Europe’s reassessment of ties with Israel herald a fundamental change in attitudes and policies.