For next round of Mideast peace talks, let the Palestinians go first
Saturday, May 9th 2009, 4:00 AM
Like clockwork, just as a new U.S. President hit the 100-day milestone, comes another push to "jump-start" the Middle East peace process. Following up on President Obama's call for both Israelis and Arabs to make concessions, Vice President Biden said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government should stop constructing new Jewish settlements and ease restrictions on Palestinians.
"Israel has to work toward a two-state solution," Biden told the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "You're not going to like my saying this, but \[don't\] build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement."
So as with past administrations, concessions from "both sides" means: Israel, you go first.
But perhaps the time has come for peacemakers to try a fresh approach: Ask the Palestinians to make the first move.
Israelis have been making difficult concessions at least since 1993, repeatedly trading land for promises of peace. When they turned over the major West Bank cities and Gaza to Yasser Arafat, all they got in return was broken promises starting with his commitment to abrogate the language in the Palestinian National Charter pledging to violently destroy Israel. That language was "frozen" but never "repealed." The Palestinian Authority could not or would not put a stop to suicide terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Netanya and Haifa, nor lift a finger to dismantle terror groups who launched them. The resulting security fence and roadblocks in the West Bank stanched the terrorism but have disrupted daily Palestinian life. In 2005, Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated 9,000 Israeli civilians and all military bases from Gaza without demanding anything in return. But Hamas' idea of a peace dividend was to pummel Southern Israel civilian centers with thousands of missiles, finally forcing Israel's incursion last winter.
Now Benjamin Netanyahu's new government is being leaned on to negotiate for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, even though it's questionable what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can deliver. The weakened Abbas is barred by Hamas from even visiting, let alone ruling, the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, the new Palestinian state would offer no relief to 500,000 Israeli civilians, in reach of Hamas' Iranian-supplied missiles in the south, nor the million plus Israelis menaced by Iranian-proxy Hezbollah across Israel's northern border.
Netanyahu asked the Palestinian Authority to show goodwill by recognizing the Israeli state's "Jewish character." Even this is too much for the Palestinians, whose refusal was not condemned by an Obama administration that wants to "fast track" final status peace negotiations even as it fudges what the U.S. is prepared to do to protect Israel from a looming existential threat from Iran.
To this Israelis are right to say "not so fast."
Even if the Palestinian Authority can't or won't make new concessions, how about Abbas carrying through on old ones? To start the ball rolling toward real peace, Abbas should begin now to carry through on his repeated promises to end "anti-Israel incitement" in state-controlled Palestinian mosques, madrassas and media that remain as vicious today as ever in preaching hatred of the Jewish state and Jews everywhere. And Abbas should push the Arab states to link any future funding for Gaza to Hamas' dropping its genocidal and anti-Semitic charter and commit to a peaceful two-state solution. Critics of Israel demand "Peace Now." Such moves from Ramallah would be a good start for the Palestinians to signal their neighbors and the world that they, too, are serious about peace. It would also be a way for Abbas to emulate "the change we can believe in" mantra that is the cornerstone of the Obama administration.
Rabbis Hier and Cooper are the dean and associate dean respectively of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.