Column

08.13.12

This Headline is About Very Important Quiet

Have you read the news about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Of course you haven't. Nothing is happening in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. The lack of diplomacy is a desperately important matter. But headlines are written about things that happen. Peace agreements are news, as are explosions on downtown streets. A quiet, unstable no-peace-no-war that could collapse on an unknown date isn't a headline.

Speaking of explosions, have you seen all the reports on the Palestinian Authority's cooperation with Israel in preventing terror attacks from the West Bank? Probably not; such reports are few and very far between.

I admit it makes me nervous to write about this; it touches old superstitions as well as a journalist's practical fear of being overtaken in a moment by events. But according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry's listing of terror attacks, there has been one terror bombing (in March 2011) inside Israel in the past four years. That represents a huge change.

Occasionally, an Israeli news report will mention, as part of some other story, that the Palestinian Authority's anti-terror efforts are a key reason that one can sit in Jerusalem café or get on a bus without the twinge of anxiety and defiance one felt a few years ago. At an interview evening I attended in Jerusalem not long ago, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor—the last moderate in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet—made a point of stressing "the cooperation between Abu Mazen's people and the Israeli security people." Inside the security agencies, this is a fact of life. In the Israeli public, it is virtually unrecognized. As a government figure told me, the cooperation is the result of of the "revolution in thinking" by Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) before he became president of the PA: Abbas realized that terror made the Palestinians into pariahs and decided they must achieve independence through diplomacy. The diplomatic goal is a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

There is a strong connection between the two non-stories. The idea of peace based on a two-state arrangement has become a boring, middle-of-the-road stance in Israel. So, however, has the assumption that negotiations are doomed to fail because there is no Palestinian partner.

Look for instance at the last four Peace Index surveys, conducted between February and June of this year. In each, between 65 and 70 percent of Jewish respondents favored renewing peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. On the other hand, the number who believed that such talks would "lead to peace… in the coming years" fluctuated between 25 and 32 percent. That is, a plurality of up to 40 percent backs negotiations—but despairs of such talks leading anywhere. The main reason is certainty that the other side is unwilling to reach a deal and can't be trusted to keep one if it is reached.

The "no partner" story, like other communal narratives, is built on facts, ommissions, interpretations and misreadings. The bombings of the second intifada did a great deal to convince Israelis that the other side wants them dead. The impression that the "peace process" has been going for 20 years without getting anywhere is a misunderstanding: As Tal Becker has written, during that whole period there have been only two spurts of serious talks on a final-status agreement. One began at Camp David in 2000 and ended in Taba in 2001.

Perhaps Ehud Barak's only real accomplishment as a politican has been persuading Israelis that the failure of those talks was solely the Palestinians' fault. Ehud Olmert has had a much harder time convincing the public that Abbas was "a fair partner" in their 2008 negotiations, and that those talks created a basis for agreement. Israelis, being human, are more open to explanations that fit the story they already know than to ones that defy it. They share what what Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman has called "a bias… built into the fabric of the human mind" to exaggerate the malevolent motives of adversaries while assuming that one's own benovelent intentions are obvious.

The problem is that Abbas's diplomatic strategy was predicated on producing results. The status quo of security cooperation without political progress, while Israeli settlements grow, undermines his legitimacy. It also steadily erodes Israel's international position. The status quo is as stable as the earth around a seismic fault. But there is no deadline for a decision, no headlines of crisis.

If Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to pursue negotiations, polls show that a majority of Israelis would support his decision, but would need to be convinced of the chance of success and the need to act. He would have to tell the uncomfortable truth that there is someone to talk to. Netanyahu does not do this because he is satisfied with the way things are. He will not explain that quiet means we should negotiate now, and not wait.