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Op-Ed: Red Lines Belong to the People

Rabin was right; red lines are not for prime ministers to draw. They need to hold their cards close to the chest. Real red lines belong to the people.

The following is an op-ed originally published by the Jerusalem Post.In the spring of 1995, as the Washington bureau chief of Ma’ariv, I wrote a couple of analyses explaining why then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had to reach an agreement with president Bill Clinton on Israel’s red lines in the Oslo peace process. Soon after, a senior officer at the Israeli Embassy set up a meeting for me with the new head of the Mossad’s research department, who was in town for a round of introductions.

We met at the Mayflower Hotel.

He came to grill me on my assertion that the time was ripe for a red-lines agreement between Israel and the US. I repeated my argument: it was a friendly administration committed to the existence of the Jewish state as a Jewish state, headed by a president who had developed a special affection for Rabin. A few days later, I received a phone call from the prime minister’s legendary secretary, Marit Danon, who transferred me to Rabin: “Avi, what is this nonsense you are writing?” He was clear and firm: “those red-line stories….”

I tried to explain that he had an admirer in Clinton, who had become an expert on the pressures of Israeli politics, and that his team was keenly attuned to Israel’s security and demographic realities.

“I never considered you naïve,” he said. “The moment that I agree with Clinton on red lines, they will become the starting point of the next round of negotiations.”

Rabin was right; red lines are not for prime ministers to draw. They need to hold their cards close to the chest. Real red lines belong to the people.

A month after Donald Trump finished his first presidential visit to the Middle East, his senior adviser and son-inlaw Jared Kushner was back in Jerusalem together with chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt to deal with the tail of question marks left behind. Is Trump’s challenge to make the “ultimate deal” based on a broader strategy to quell the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and defeat state-sponsored terrorist networks? Is it an attempt to create a new “axis of good” linked to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Does he intend to hand down a diktat, an offer both parties “can’t refuse?” Kushner and Greenblatt are still getting up to speed, familiarizing themselves with past obstacles and meeting the full set of actors. Greenblatt has done his homework diligently.

There are many advising that red lines should be extracted from both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but this could create a significant impediment to restarting the peace process.

To succeed, Kushner and Greenblatt need to negotiate with the leadership, but they should refrain from asking for their red lines. They must understand what the people, on both sides, are ready to digest.

Having received rocket fire in exchange for the Gaza withdrawal, Israelis will only agree to this endgame: a demilitarized Palestinian state, the abandonment of any Palestinian right of return within Israel proper, and full recognition of Israel as the Jewish state. If Washington goes with those red lines, the leadership in Jerusalem will need to abide or risk being ousted.

For the Palestinians, sovereignty, liberty and economic opportunity are essential – and motivating. They require a contiguous state comprising the West Bank and Gaza, with freedom of movement. A Palestinian from Nablus should be able to travel to Hebron or Gaza City without Israeli checkpoints. This is particularly challenging as the Palestinians do not yet have a unifying political structure. The majority will need to tame the militant factions and build their democracy. This is why any proposal on the table will have to include a suitable period of implementation.

Trump’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem may be perceived as a success. He won the trust of the Israelis, lost by president Barack Obama, with his stand against Iran’s ayatollahs and his pledge to fight terrorism, not to mention his prayers at the Western Wall. The most recent polls show that Netanyahu got a boost from the visit. At this point in time, more Israelis still support the two-state solution than those who oppose it. If it is linked to the guarantee of a denuclearized Iran, support will no doubt further increase.

The Palestinians were pleasantly surprised by his sensitivity to their cause and his visit to the West Bank, which exceeded their relatively low expectations.

Given these circumstances, Kushner and Greenblatt’s visit is critically important to restarting the peace process.

Negotiations over the details may take time, but they just may succeed. If a US proposal comes soon and is based on the peoples’ red lines, the politicians will smell an offer they can’t refuse.

The author is the president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a former chief diplomatic correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the daily Ma’ariv.