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2010 Annual Assessment

The passing year has not yielded any breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Lack of agreement regarding the issue of building in Judea and Samaria continues to hinder the effort to discuss the core issues and make progress towards the negotiation of a permanent agreement. In November 2009 Israel announced a 10-months temporary freeze on housing construction in the territories. In early March 2010 the Palestinians acceded to “proximity talks” moderated by American envoy George Mitchell, but Israel has clarified that essential issues would only be discussed in direct talks. Indeed, after a persistent pressure campaign, the Palestinians, backed by the Monitoring Committee of the Arab League, agreed to begin direct talks. The talks commenced on September 1st with an impressive launch ceremony in Washington (attended by Pres. Obama, PM Netanyahu, Pres. Abbas, Pres. Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan), followed by three meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas In their meeting, the latter made it clear to Netanyahu that if construction in the settlements was resumed (the end of the 10-month moratorium was scheduled for late September 2010), the Palestinians would withdraw from the talks. And indeed, following Israel’s refusal to accept the US request to extend the freeze by two more months (in return for a generous “compensation package” which included significant political and security components), the Palestinians announced the termination of direct talks with Israel for as long as construction in the settlements continues, albeit leaving a time frame for American diplomacy to persist in its attempts to formulate with the parties a solution for the construction problem in Judea and Samaria so that the direct talks can be resumed. These efforts ended in failure after Israel and the US announced (December 7, 2010) that they could not reach an agreement on a formula that would have enabled a new three-month freeze, an accelerated discussion of the borders and security issues, in return for the free supply of 20 F-35 fighter planes and additional diplomatic support and security guarantees. This failure leaves many question marks regarding the future. Is there an alternative way to kick-start the political process, or are we going to witness a double crisis: between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and the US (and the West in general). The picture emerging as these lines are being written suggests that the US intends to continue its efforts to bring the parties to signing a permanent agreement. The Secretary of State has clarified (December 10, 2010) that it was time to discuss the permanent issues and that the US would take an active role in leading this move:

It is time to grapple with the core issues of the conflict on borders and security; settlements, water and refugees; and on Jerusalem itself […] The United States will not be a passive participant. We will push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity. We will work to narrow the gaps asking the tough questions and expecting substantive answers. And in the context of our private conversations with the parties, we will offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate.2

The discussion of the sensitive issues of the permanent agreement is thus at the core of American strategy, and the very need to lay out explicit positions regarding the borders, Jerusalem, refugees, etc., may ignite an intense controversy in Israel and the Jewish people.

The Palestinian leadership refused to recognize Israel as the Jewish people’s historic homeland, but stated: “Israel is entitled to define itself in any way it wishes”

In this context it should be noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu, having repeatedly committed to not retract on his decision to refuse to extend the construction freeze, said in a speech in the Knesset (October 11, 2010) that “If the Palestinian leadership will say unequivocally to its people that it recognizes Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, I will be ready to convene my government and request a further suspension of construction for a fixed period.” (the Palestinians instantly rejected Netanyahu’s offer).3 The proposal advanced by Prime Minister Netanyahu sheds light on the “Jewish dimension” of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Because according to the current outline of the peace process, the parties are supposed to discuss a permanent agreement (and not interim arrangements), the core issues, which matter the most to Jews wherever they are, are now up for discussion – and first and foremost, the future of Jerusalem. There are also several historically significant dilemmas, such as, could an Israeli-Palestinian agreement mark a positive turning point in the history of the relationship between Judaism and Islam? The content of the answers to such questions could affect not only Israel’s positions in the negotiations but also the architecture of the entire political process.

In his Bar-Ilan speech (June 14, 2009) Prime Minister Netanyahu described the roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict as stemming from a refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of its own in its historic homeland.” In that light, he goes on to assert Israel’s demand: “The fundamental condition for ending the conflict is the public, binding and sincere Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.” The Palestinian leadership responded negatively to this demand. Official Palestinian spokespersons stated that they were ready to sign a peace agreement and recognize the state of Israel, and as far as they were concerned Israel was entitled to define itself in any way it wished. The Palestinians explain that accepting the Israeli demand in a negotiation process would be received with great hostility by the Palestinian public, which, they argue, is “now required to formally agree that their expulsion from their land was just and based on the right of the Jews”. In addition, the Palestinians explain that their brethren – the Israeli Arabs – object to a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” because this “would exacerbate the deprivation they suffer as a minority, and may even, so they claim, lead to their expulsion from Israel.” In Israel, opinions are divided regarding the importance of insisting on a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Its proponents attribute critical importance to a historically, nationally and religiously significant Arab acknowledgement that the roots of the Jewish people are in the Land of Israel, and that the Jewish people is therefore its rightful owner. Indeed, this is the spirit in which the Prime Minister presents the issue as a “fundamental condition” for an agreement. Others, however, are of the opinion that this is not a critical stance, because Israel’s identity would always be determined by Israel itself, and not by the declarations of its neighbors.

The current Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people reflects a more rigid stance than stances previously held

The current Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people reflects a stance that is more rigid than stances previously held by the Palestinians. For example, in an interview to Haaretz (June 18, 2004), Arafat responded that he “absolutely” accepted that Israel is and would remain a Jewish state. According to Arafat, the Palestinians accepted this publicly and officially in the session of the Palestine National Council in 1988, and remained committed to this tenet ever since. Indeed, that session (November 15, 1988) adopted the “Palestinian Declaration of Independence”, which states that “the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (1947), which partitioned Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish, […] is [the] Resolution that still provides those conditions of international legitimacy that ensure the right of the Palestinian Arab people to sovereignty.” (It should be mentioned that extra-governmental initiatives such as the Ayalon-Nusseibah initiative and the Geneva Accords, which are Israeli-Palestinians attempts to reach a model of a peace accord, do include a reference to Israel’s Jewish character). It therefore appears that an Israeli “insistence” on the inclusion of this provision in an agreement might be accepted, especially if the negotiators on the Israeli side are willing “to pay a price” for this achievement. Of course, the question remains open how vital it is – from the perspective of the interests of the Jewish people – to insist on the issue in a negotiation of a permanent agreement. An equally important question is, in case Israel decides to insist on this demand in the negotiation, whether it is sufficient for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, or should the demand be addressed to the entire Arab world.

A peace agreement which includes a land swap of 5% of the West Bank would necessitate the evacuation of 100,000 settlers out of 300,000

The Arab Peace Initiative (Beirut, 2002), the result of a Saudi move, manifests an Arab willingness for a comprehensive peace with Israel, the end of the conflict, normalization and a good neighborly relationship. The language expresses a significant shift, especially when compared to the language of the Khartoum Resolution (1967): No peace, not recognition, no negotiation with Israel. Since 2003 the Arab Peace Initiative has won the support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which incorporates 57 member countries. Recently this position has been re-endorsed by the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (May 18-20, 2010). The Council’s declaration, which included harsh criticism of Israel’s policy, also stated support for the Road Map. Opinions in Israel are divided regarding the value of the Arab Peace Initiative and the wisdom of relying on it in order to advance a permanent Israeli-Arab agreement. Proponents argue that the initiative reflects a fundamental change in the position of the Arab world and a declared willingness to recognize Israel. Opponents point to the price attached to the initiative: return to the 1967 borders, division of Jerusalem, and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem based on UN Resolution 194 (which, according to opponents’ interpretation, stipulates that Israel must recognize the Right of Return of the 1948-9 refugees into the territories of the state of Israel within the 1967 borders). The support of the Muslim world for the Arab Peace Initiative (excluding Iran) underlines the question whether a political peace agreement can significantly thaw the historical Islamic hostility against the Jewish people. A positive answer to this question may increase the interest in choosing this architecture of a comprehensive regional negotiation over a sequential progress based on one bi-lateral negotiation after another. According to this reasoning, talks about a general agreement and settling all the bi-lateral conflicts simultaneously may provide Israel and the Jewish people with vital achievements that are unattainable in a bi-lateral negotiation lacking a regional dimension (such achievements refer not only to a substantial thawing of Judaism-Islam relationship, but also to an overall normalization and peace with all the Arab countries, regional security arrangements, and more).

An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the two-states solutions (which Israel has accepted) would hand over to Palestinian sovereignty the majority of the Judea and Samaria territories (except for the settlement blocks, security areas, and other territories adjacent to the 1967 lines, to be transferred to Israeli sovereignty as part of land swaps arrangements). So for instance, a peace agreement which includes a land swap of some 5 per cent of J&S would necessitate the evacuation of 100,000 settlers out of the 300,000 settlers now residing in J&S (not including some 200,000 residing in the Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, who are expected to remain there). Hilary Clinton’s formula, which has been repeated by various representatives of the American administration over the past year, is an indication of the US position, as the leader of the political process:

We believe that through good-faith negotiations the parties can agree to an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the ‘67 lines, with agreed swaps, and Israel’s goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israel’s security requirements.

Beyond the security implications of an Israeli withdrawal, the move bears substantial Jewish consequences: both the retreat from the land walked on by the biblical heroes, where the roots of the Jewish people lay deep (Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph’s Tomb and many other sites), and the need to evacuate tens of thousands of Jewish settlers (some of whom are expected to oppose the evacuation by force). The debate over the future of J&S territory and the great settlement project is expected to raise a highly emotional political, security, national and religious controversy. Some expect the evacuation to be accompanied by brute violence, civil disobedience and the refusal to obey orders by the forces assigned the task. In any case, the evacuation is expected to be traumatic and deepen the divisions among the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora. It also raises questions about how are Israel and the Jewish people are going to cope with the expected trauma and whether its impact can be reduced (through appropriate monetary compensation, smooth re-absorption, “ideological compensation”, an empathic and “embracing” attitude, an Israeli insistence on the inclusion of a provision allowing Jews to continue to reside the J&S under Palestinian sovereignty, etc.).

The most charged and sensitive of all is of course the issue of Jerusalem. The Holy City symbolizes like nothing else the focus of the Jewish people’s aspirations and identity throughout history. Following the Six Days War, Israel has extended its sovereignty by law over the eastern parts of the city. There is currently no Palestinian or Arab party willing to sign a peace agreement with Israel which would leave its sovereignty intact in the Arab neighborhoods in the eastern city and the sites sacred to Islam. Any agreement that is based on a compromise in Jerusalem implies the revocation of current Israeli sovereignty in various parts of the city, including the Holy Basin. According to this scenario, Israel will have to reach a historic decision that touches upon the very focus of identity and holiness of the Jewish people as a whole. The internal debate could be extremely bitter, which would revolve, first and foremost, on the actual concession in Jerusalem, and then, on the nature of the preferred compromise. Very weighty questions would fill the agenda of Israel and the Jewish people: What are the implications of a compromise in Jerusalem on the Jewish people? Will it cause a trauma that would split the Jewish people and create an irreparable rift? And if a decision is made to compromise, what form of arrangement would best suit the interests of the Jewish people? Should the compromise over Jerusalem be reached in negotiations with the Palestinians only, or is it better to involve the entire Islamic world (with a view to acquire Islamic legitimization for the agreement and make it a turning point in Islam-Judaism relationship)?

Beyond the security implications, a retreat from Judea and Samaria bears substantial Jewish consequences

The negotiation of a permanent agreement vis-à-vis the Arab world thus put on the agenda highly sensitive issues close to the heart of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora alike: Securing the state of Israel’s safe existence, the future status of the holy places and historical sites in Judea and Samaria, the evacuation and dismantling of settlements, preserving the Jewish majority in Israel and the Jewish-democratic nature of the state, and above all, the nature of the agreement over Jerusalem. It is therefore no surprise, that in anticipation of the possibility of the subject being raised in the negotiation led by Ehud Olmert in 2008, the President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, wrote to the Prime Minister of the state of Israel (January 8, 2008):

Jerusalem has been both the capital of Israel and the capital of the entire Jewish people for 3,000 years. While recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state, it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.

The impending moment of decision raises the question whether the Diaspora Jewry is entitled to and must take an active part in the public debate of these issues in Israel

The impending moment of decision in the permanent arrangement issues is straining and threatening internal solidarity in Israel and in the Diaspora, raising the question whether the Diaspora Jewry is entitled to and must take an active part in the public debate of these issues in Israel, and whether new effective channels and mechanisms should be established so that the voice of Diaspora Jews is taken into consideration in the decision-making processes taking place in Israel on issues concerning the Jewish people as a whole. This dilemma is a practical test for the discourse currently emerging about the necessity of a new “paradigm” in Israeli-Diaspora relationship. This new approach seeks a pattern that is based on more equality, relinquishing patterns implicitly based on a “senior/minor partner” hierarchy between Israel and the Diaspora. Will the “theoretical” commitment to more equality in this relationship be translated into actual steps as the process approaches the historic decisions involved in the peace agreements and which concern Jews wherever they are? Controversies among the Jewish people in the Diaspora regarding the way in which the Israeli-Arab conflict should be resolved have existed for many years, and in a sense they are a mirror image of the controversies dividing Israel itself on this issue. It is no coincidence that as the political negotiation approaches the sensitive core issues, so does the intra-Jewish debate heat up – and not just about the opportunities or threats embodied in the process, but also regarding the question whether (and how) should Diaspora Jewry take part in these historic decisions which could affect the future of Jerusalem, Israel and the entire Jewish people. The very emergence of J-Street, which is perceived as a lobby with an alternative message to that of AIPAC, and the foundation of J-CALL, its European counterpart, are an indication of the eruption of the intra-Jewish debate in the Diaspora about the political process: both about the stances Israel should adopt on the issue, the very legitimacy of promoting views that are opposed to those of the government of Israel by Jewish organizations, and the nature of actions vis-à-vis the American administration and other governments (such as, how legitimate is it for a Jewish organization to ask the American administration to exert pressure on Israel in order to promote peace agreements?) In this context, it should be mentioned that the Palestinian side has also realized the importance which the American administration attributes to the position of the Jewish Community in the US. Thus the Palestinian President has used his visits to Washington (June 2010) and New York (September 2010) to meet with the leaders of the Jewish community in the US in order to convince them of the sincerity of his intentions to achieve peace with Israel (among other things, Abbas clarified in these encounters that he did not deny the roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and emphasized that he had instructed his ambassadors in Poland and Russia to attend Holocaust Memorial ceremonies in their countries of service).