The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are reported to be going well -- or as well as they can go with the United States maintaining its insistence that no attempts at Palestinian unity are made.
This is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's demand, conveyed to the lobby, enforced by President and Congress, and then rammed down the throat of even the forces within the Palestinian Authority who want to coordinate with Hamas.
But, forgetting that for a moment, the big worry about the current talks continues to be what will happen after September 26th, when Israel's partial settlement freeze ends. Netanyahu says that he won't continue the freeze while President Mahmoud Abbas says he will end the talks if the freeze lapses.
The whole settlement freeze issue is one of the three most unnecessary obstacles to peace . The other two are the belief, on the part of some Palestinians, that the 1948 refugees and their progeny are returning to Israel (rather than to a Palestinian state) and Netanyahu's insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel "as a Jewish state."
First the settlements.
Of course, the freeze should continue and should extend to all the land being negotiated over (i.e., the land beyond the '67 lines).
Here's an analogy. A renter and her landlord are discussing whether she can put up a wall to create a separate dining area in the kitchen. She says that she will put it up at her own expense and fully remove it when she moves out.
The landlord agrees to discuss it but she insists that she be allowed to put up her wall while they are discussing the issue, and before any agreement is reached.
He argues that no, since the discussions are about the wall, you can't preempt the issue by putting up the wall before we agree whether you can. You can't decide the issue unilaterally while saying that we are talking about it.
It's the same with Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Above all, they are about Israel's borders -- what will be Israel and what will be Palestine. Every expansion of settlements, let alone the construction of new ones, is a unilateral decision about the future of the land. Every settlement, every additional settler family, is a statement that this space belongs to Israel.
The solution is simple. As President Obama said in his press conference on September 10th, "....ultimately, the way to solve these problems is for the two sides to agree what's going to be Israel, what's going to be the state of Palestine. And if you can get that agreement, then you can start constructing anything that the people of Israel see fit in undisputed areas." As for the areas that are going to be Palestine, Israel cannot build there.
So start with defining borders. In the meantime, freeze the status quo.
The second obstacle is the idea that peace can only be achieved if every displaced Palestinian in the world and their descendants -- perhaps seven million people -- has the right to move to, what is now, Israel.
This is not to say that some formula cannot be worked out to address the Palestinian homelessness that was produced by the establishment of Israel. Simple justice requires it because the creation of Israel created the refugee problem. It should not even be necessary to write that. But Israeli propagandists like to insist that this is a myth and that the Palestinians simply decided to up and leave their ancestral home after a thousand years or so because, I don't know, they were bored.
Fortunately, polls show that most Palestinians insist only on the "right of return," but only a very few actually want to exercise that right. In fact, the Arab League Initiative (formerly called the Saudi initiative, the best peace plan out there) stipulates that the issue of Palestinian return would have to be agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians. No Palestinian would return to Israel without Israel's consent.
The Palestinian refugee problem -- also known as Palestinian statelessness - would be solved by the establishment of a Palestinian state encompassing the occupied territories, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and in which every Palestinian in the world would have the right to live. Like Israel, it would exist both for the people who live there and the Diaspora. Additionally, the international community would financially compensate the Palestinian people for its losses since 1948. (I can see super-attorney Ken Feinberg assigned to determine what each family should receive).
So what's the problem? Why is "return" such an obstacle?
It probably isn't, except for those who want it to be.
And then there is the new demand, devised by Likud prime ministers, that Palestinians recognize Israel "as a Jewish state."
This demand was designed to torpedo any agreement because those who came up with the idea knew that Palestinians would never accept it. After all, for almost 60 years Israel has insisted only that it be recognized as Israel, with the right (guaranteed in any treaty) to secure borders and therefore a secure population. Anyone who understands anything about Jewish history would understand the Jewish peoples' need for sovereignty, a state for Jews, but would also understand that the "as a Jewish state" demand jeopardizes the whole Zionist enterprise.
No nation in the world is recognized by any other nation as anything in particular. After all, it is not up to outsiders to determine the identity of another country. Demanding that non-Jews determine Israel's identity is not only insulting, it is the antithesis of Zionism which is all about Jewish self-determination.
Palestinians, in particular, cannot recognize Israel "as a Jewish state" because that formulation essentially declares that non-Jewish Israelis (a million Palestinians who are Israelis) are second class citizens. Imagine how American Jews or other non-Christians would feel if the United States was recognized by the world "as a Christian state" although it is possible to make the case that we are that. (The overwhelming majority of Americans are Christian. Christmas is a national holiday and official government documents state "In The Year Of Our Lord.")
The "as a Jewish state" concept is also a terrible idea for Jews. Even without Israel's recognition "as a Jewish state," the power of the Orthodox Jewish establishment over Israeli life is out of control.
The Orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish and who isn't, based on bizarre racial criteria. Those deemed not Jewish are burdened with obstacles at every milestone in life: birth, marriage, divorce, death.
A Jew cannot marry a non-Jew, or anyone deemed a "non-Jew" by the rabbinate in Israel but has to travel abroad (Cyprus is the favored destination). In Jerusalem, the public bus authorities run sexually segregated buses and the Orthodox are demanding that the new light-rail system run cars only for women.
Sabbath observance is enforced by law as is the ban on selling pork. And each year pressure increases on restaurants and hotels not to host Christmas or New Years parties or lose their licenses to do business. Israel, with no separation of state and synagogue, is as Jewish already as the Vatican is Roman Catholic. Palestinian recognition of Israel "as a Jewish state" is the very last thing Jewish or non-Jewish Israelis (or Jews abroad) need.
So, here's my idea. Keep the settlements frozen solid. Limit the Palestinian right of return to something realistic. And recognize Israel simply as Israel, the homeland for Jews, but where all Israelis enjoy equal rights and no rabbis can make any Israeli, Jew or Arab, sit (quite literally) in the back of the bus.
And, above all, establish a viable Palestinian state in the 22% of historic Palestine that was not controlled by Israel until June 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The alternative, looming just beyond the horizon, is the so-called one state -- or binational -- solution in which Israelis and Palestinians share all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. How can it be more obvious? The alternative to two states is one state, which virtually all Palestinians would accept and virtually all Israelis reject. That is why the two-state solution is not a gift to Palestinians but to Israelis. The goal is preserving the State of Israel, alongside a sovereign Palestine, not preserving the right of settlers to keep building in another people's land and thereby jeopardizing Israel itself.
On November 4th we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin for pursuing peace with the Palestinians. Minutes before his shooting, he stood on a stage in Tel Aviv and joined hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had gathered to support him in his struggle against the anti-peace right In the very last moments of his life he sang the Song of Peace. With Yom Kippur just concluded, this is a good time to recall Rabin's dream, the dream of peace. It wasn't easy for Rabin to see Yasir Arafat as a partner (or vice versa) and it is is even harder to achieve peace now. But the alternative is to allow the assassins to win while everyone else loses. The following is that last song Rabin sang at the 1995 rally, performed in 2004 by Adam Lambert at a Rabin memorial sponsored by his synagogue in California. It is the anthem of the Israeli PEACE NOW movement.