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Palestinians: Don't Miss Another Opportunity

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The end of the 10-month moratorium on building in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank has presented the Palestinian leadership with a difficult decision. There is considerable pressure from some Palestinians, including The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a faction of the PLO and from Hamas, to terminate the talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. On the other side, the Obama Administration, the Quartet, represented by Tony Blair, other Palestinians and many Israelis, including Mr. Netanyahu, himself, are urging Mr. Abbas to find a way to continue the negotiations.

As one who has consistently supported a peace process, and a two state solution, many years before it was generally acceptable, I strongly support that position. If the Palestinians are ever to achieve a state of their own they must be flexible in their approach. For too many years, we have watched Palestinian leaders from Yasser Arafat to Mahmuod Abbas make decisions that assured failure to achieve their own objectives. As the oft-quoted perception of the late Abba Eban, who held important posts in Israeli governments, "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Over the past twenty-two years, in meetings I have had with Palestinian and Arab leaders such as Yasser Arafat, President Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Hafez al Assad of Syria, I have sought to make one central point. What we learn, even as children, is that if someone has something you want, just insistently restating your demand doesn't pay off. The most effective way to get what you want is to make that person feel comfortable to give it to you. In point is the Aesop fable of the wind and the sun engaged in a contest to induce a man to take off his overcoat. The more the wind blew, the tighter he wrapped his coat around him. But warmed by the rays of the sun, he removed the coat.

At an "on the record" meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Council on Foreign Relations, at which he stated his acceptance of a "two state solution," I asked the following question: "A two state solution inevitably will require moving settlers. That can result in civil disobedience or even violence. Given the ideological make up of your political coalition will you get support for a two state solution? Will you get it from the Israeli people? His answer was "It will take time."

This question and his response illustrate how difficult it will be to reach a two state solution without the full support of the Israeli electorate, who in the Israeli democratic society ultimately make the decisions. At this time, the polls show that about 70 percent of Israelis are prepared to accept a Palestinian state. But there is also strong opposition to a Palestinian state, particularly in the hawkish coalition that makes up the Netanyahu government.

In addition to the Likud party, this includes Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home,) led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose recent speech before the UN General Assembly directly contradicting Mr. Netanyahu's two state policy had to be disavowed by Netanyahu's office. It also includes the Shas party, whose 90 year old spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph has consistently offered negative views about Arabs. The right wing of Netanyahu's coalition are pressing him not to extend the moratorium under any circumstances, even to derive valuable benefits from American efforts to encourage an extension. If the Palestinians and the Arab nations want a two state solution they should make it clear to the Israeli people that such a result will lead to peace and acceptance. The more they threaten, the more that they teach their children that eventually Israel will disappear, the less chance there is of Israel agreeing.

Mr. Abbas has already been urged by other Palestinian leaders not to return to the talks unless Netanyahu reinstates the freeze on settlements. The Arab League with which he consulted, has decided to "give the US administration a one-month chance to seek the resumption of negotiations, including a halt to settlement" building and agreed to meet again within one month "to examine the policy alternatives if the diplomatic efforts fail."

The Arab League members, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and even Syria who are worried about Iranian actions to undermine their governments or challenge their interests, certainly have reason to encourage every effort to remove the Palestinian issue as a point for Iranian agitation. But in the final analysis, it is in the best interests of the Palestinian people that the negotiations with Israel continue. That is the only way they have of realizing their hopes for a state of their own. Certainly, there is no assurance that such talks will result in a successful resolution of the very difficult issues that separate the parties. Without negotiation, however, there is no possibility of reaching an agreement. And ongoing negotiations at least provide a forum where the United States and other nations can be helpful in encouraging a resolution.

Under the circumstances where Israel controls the territory and has the overwhelming financial and military prowess, the only effective course for the Palestinians is to enter negotiations, make the very best deal they can and start building their state. Their success will not stand or fall on the specific amount of land they control but on the talents, drive and commitment of their people. Let's hope they do not miss this opportunity.

Robert K. Lifton served as President of The American Jewish Congress from 1988-94; President of the Israel Policy Forum and Co-Chair of the International Board of the Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is currently writing a memoir titled: "Life's Stories and Lessons from the Greatest Generation"