Originally published on www.thenation.com
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks at the formal White House launching of the resumed Middle East peace talks on September 2nd were the clearest indication yet of his lack of seriousness. But neither the host, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, nor any of the distinguished guests seemed aware of it. Indeed, they applauded his remarks. What they applauded was Netanyahu's dramatic declaration, as he faced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that the success of the resumed negotiations will depend on his own and Abbas's readiness to make "painful concessions" for the sake of peace.
If these words have any significance, they must mean that Netanyahu is prepared to make Israeli concessions that match Palestinian concessions: i.e., if Palestinians concede to Israel part of their territory east of the 1967 border, Israel would concede to the Palestinians comparable territory on its side of that border.
But everyone present at this festive White House event knew this to be completely untrue. Netanyahu has never offered to concede even one inch of Israeli territory to the Palestinians -- not even from Palestinian territories Israel acquired in 1948 during its War of Independence, which the 1947 UN Partition Plan had assigned to Palestine's Arab population. In fact, no one has ever asked Israel to make any concession to the Palestinians -- whether territory, water resources, Jerusalem or sovereignty. In respect to these and the other permanent-status issues, the concessions have all been demanded of the Palestinians. None were asked of Israel. So Netanyahu's offer of parallel Israeli concessions is a lie. Unless, of course, Netanyahu meant to apply the term "painful concessions" to his willingness to return to Palestinians a part of their own territory, all of which -- up to the 1967 border -- is universally recognized as being under Israeli occupation, and therefore subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention's strictures that absolutely forbid the transfer of the occupying power's population to those territories. If that is what he meant, what Netanyahu was telling Abbas is that Israel expects to be rewarded for returning some of the territory it unlawfully confiscated from the Palestinians by having Palestinians concede their right to the balance of that territory.
By getting the distinguished guests at this event to applaud this offer, Netanyahu can fairly be said to have done for international peace diplomacy what Bernard Madoff did for financial markets.
Ironically, Netanyahu's Likud Party has popularized a slogan that Palestinians only "take and take" while Israel's many "concessions" go unacknowledged. It is a lie that has become deeply ingrained in Israel's national narrative. For Palestinians have made a concession to Israel that is unprecedented: in 1988 the PLO agreed formally to recognize the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty within the 1967 armistice border, an area that includes fully half the territory that, as indicated above, had been recognized as the legitimate patrimony of Palestinian Arabs in the UN Partition Plan. This reduced the Palestinians' territory from 43 to 22 percent of Palestine while enlarging Israel's territory from 56 to 78 percent.
The first public acknowledgment by an Israeli government of this unprecedented Palestinian concession (unprecedented because, as was noted in the Security Council's Resolution 242, territory cannot be acquired as a result of war, irrespective of who is the aggressor) came unintentionally from Shimon Peres earlier this year. When challenged to defend his claims for the importance of the Oslo Accords (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Peres said, "Before Oslo, the Palestinian state's size should have been according to the 1947 ... UN map. In Oslo, Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22 percent of the West Bank. I don't know any Arab leader who would give up 2 or 3 percent. He gave up 22 percent."
Instead of acknowledging that this concession was a gut-wrenching Palestinian contribution to peace, Peres described it as "our [i.e., Peres's] greatest achievement." Unsurprisingly, his statement has not put an end to the calumny peddled by Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders that Yasir Arafat's real intention all along had been to salami-slice Israel's territory until it is eliminated. It is a charge that was only recently repeated by Israel's deputy prime minister and minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, who attributed this intention to President Abbas as well.
In these circumstances, to continue the bilateral peace talks on Netanyahu's terms would be a waste of time. Even if he agreed to reimpose the settlement "freeze" that expired on September 26, construction would continue, as it has almost unabated during the past ten months, when the freeze was in effect. As reported by Israel's media, the level of construction in the settlements during those ten months was virtually the same as in the comparable previous period, according to the government's Central Bureau of Statistics.
Instead, President Abbas should challenge Netanyahu to continue negotiations to reach agreement on a border in the next three months and declare his willingness to do so even if settlement construction continues. However, Netanyahu would have to promise that if no border agreement is reached within three months, there would be a total freeze of all settlement construction until a border agreement is achieved. At that point, Israel can build without restraint on its side of the border, and Palestinians will be able to do so on theirs.
The likelihood of Netanyahu agreeing to this is remote, but his rejection of such an offer by Abbas would expose Netanyahu's intention to use the peace process as a cover for his government's effort to achieve the irreversibility of Israel's settlement enterprise. It would also confirm Netanyahu's commitment to viable Palestinian statehood as the sham that it is.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet -- not even American-sponsored parameters -- that can guarantee the goal of "two states living side by side in peace and security." But President Obama's present course absolutely precludes it. Instead, he must lead an international initiative to define the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement based firmly in international law and previous UN resolutions and actively promote political reconciliation among Hamas, Fatah and the other Palestinian parties. If he cannot provide that leadership, others in the international community must do so, and see to it that America will at least not stand in their way.
Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project in New York, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.