07/30/2013 09:15 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

Netanyahu Gets The Math

For someone who only grudgingly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state back in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have undergone a change of heart...or perspective.
As Nathan Thrall, in an article in the August 15 issue of The New York Review of Books pointed out, Netanyahu for the first time last May advanced an argument for partition. Since Jews make up less than half of the combined population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, the purpose of an agreement now is to prevent the eventuality of a binational state.
It seems therefore the case that the new negotiations, which began with a dinner meeting at the State Department on July 30, and which are being conducted in a sort of black box-type secrecy, seem to be focusing on borders and the freeing of some Palestinian prisoners. What the U.S. may have on offer is not known.
In a nutshell, both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, have need for borders. But this alone does not make for easy sailing. UN Security Council Resolution 242, which gave closure to the Six Day War of 1967, remains on the books. It was accepted inter alia by the United States and Israel. It called for the withdrawal "from territories occupied in the recent conflict." This means at this point the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. It is still a live issue, as evidenced by the fact that recently, the European Union issued new guidelines prohibiting EU funding for Israeli entities based in these territories.
Once the two states are delineated and recognized, and even before that, the Israelis want recognition of their country as a Jewish state. Though on the surface, this would not seem to be an insuperable obstacle (as for example there are thousands of Hungarians living in Romania which is still called Romania), such a recognition would put a brake on Palestinians returning to Israel and would leave the 1.7 million Arab citizens of Israel in permanent second-class status.
In sum, there are compelling reasons for partition, which both sides seem now to recognize, but there are huge obstacles for each to overcome. Israel has learned that the Palestinians are not going to go away, are not going to vanish into thin air, and the Palestinians have learned (or should have) that Israel is there to stay.
Most observers agree there is little reason for hope, other than Secretary Kerry seems to have gotten the parties to agree to keep the negotiations going for nine months. Since the main issues have been exhaustively discussed before without breakthroughs, the result may be only another breathing space. But as the Secretary has observed, though negotiations are going to be very difficult, the alternative is worse.