Israel’s prime minister, Benamin Netanyahu, wants peace and is interested in negotiations with the Palestinians. The Netanyahu government enjoys popular support because a large majority of Israelis agree with this view. All polls show Israelis deeply desire peace and this influences their voting behavior.
Indeed, every Israeli government must demonstrate to the electorate its seriousness in the peace process in order to be reelected. Moreover, preserving American support for Israel requires showing seriousness in the pursuit of peace.
True, what is required to convince Israelis about their government’s determination to pursue peace is not always enough to impress the outside world. This gap is the source of much of the criticism leveled against Israel. But the critical and/or hostile circles, heavily influenced by misguided notions popularized by the discredited Israeli Left and Palestinian propaganda, are not in sync with regional realities and entertain unrealistic expectations.
In his June 2009 speech at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Netanyahu successfully redefined the Israeli consensus and became a mainstream political leader. Despite the Jews’ ancient claim to their homeland, Netanyahu expressed a willingness to reach territorial compromise – a two-state solution – in order to satisfy the national needs of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state has been conditional, however. His insistence on a demilitarized state reflects ingrained Israeli fears of their dangerous neighbors. Netanyahu also demanded the long overdue recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state. The Palestinians have yet to reciprocate the recognition of “Palestinian legitimate rights” proclaimed in 1978 by Menachem Begin. In line with Israeli consensus, Netanyahu insisted on Jerusalem remaining the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Over 70 percent of Israelis agreed with Netanyahu’s address – quite an achievement for any Israeli prime minister. The Israeli consensus revolves around the willingness to repartition the Land of Israel. There is enormous skepticism about the Palestinians’ ability to reach a compromise and subsequently implement an agreement.
Most of the hawkish faction within Netanyahu’s Likud party feels comfortable with Netanyahu’s positions. This faction even supported the ten-month partial freeze on new housing construction in Judea and Samaria that was announced on November 25, 2009 – an unprecedented Israeli concession.
Netanyahu believes progress on the road to peace can only be achieved by a slow process of Palestinian institution-building and economic growth beginning from the bottom up. Indeed, his government has done its best to facilitate economic growth in the PA by removing dozens of roadblocks in the West Bank, thereby putting the lives of Jews at risk, and by supporting international and Palestinian economic activity. Moreover, he has stated at every opportunity his willingness to enter into unconditional talks with the PA. He has even accepted proximity talks despite Israel’s traditional insistence on direct talks.
So far, Israeli territorial concessions to the Palestinians have been counterproductive. Two Israeli prime ministers offered to cede virtually all of the disputed territories. The offers of Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were respectively rejected by Yasir Arafat in 2000 and ignored by his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008. Moreover, in 2000 the Palestinians launched a campaign of terror and recently have threatened to renew it. Similarly, after the Sharon government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and dismantled all its settlements in 2005, the Gaza Strip was converted into a launching pad for intensified missile attacks.
Unfortunately, the Palestinians have no leaders capable of making difficult decisions. The contrast to Israeli leadership is striking, particularly when history shows that Ben-Gurion was ready to accept the convoluted 1947 partition borders and a Jewish state without Jerusalem.
Ascribing responsibility to Netanyahu for the impasse with the Palestinians wrongly assumes the Palestinians have displayed flexibility in their approach to Israel. Yet it is the Palestinians who insist on preconditions for resuming talks. Even Netanyahu’s decision for the ten-month freeze on building in the settlements was rejected.
As a matter of fact, it is the Palestinians who are dragging their feet in the peace negotiations.
Only after heavy American pressure did the West Bank leadership agree to negotiate with Israel, albeit refusing to sit in the same room with the Israeli interlocutors. Abbas in a May 2009 Washington Post interview emphasized that he is in no hurry to negotiate with Israel and that he expects the Americans to force Israel to accept Palestinian conditions. His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, announced a plan to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state in two years instead of a state emerging from negotiations with Israel. Both “moderate” leaders honor suicide bombers as martyrs and provide their families with state pensions. They allow the PA-controlled media, education system and mosques to continue to promote rabid anti-Semitism. Both reject recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.