“This is a bit embarrassing,” wrote Israeli author David Grossman in an open letter to Benjamin Netanyahu published in today’s Haaretz. He was referring to Bibi’s failure to respond to Mahmoud Abbas’ statement to Israeli Channel 2 News that he’s willing to return to his hometown of Safed only as a tourist, because “the West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, everything else is Israel.” Though Abbas hastened to add in a follow-up interview that this was his personal position, not an official renunciation of the Palestinian right of return, Grossman said, “there is something new here, there is a hint.”
I will remind you, Mr. Netanyahu, that you were elected to lead Israel precisely in order to discern these rare hints of opportunity, in order to transform them into a possible lever to extricate your country from the impasse in which it has been stuck for decades.
Instead of picking up on the hint and praising Abbas—as both Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni did—for being brave enough to publicly state such a moderate position, Bibi dismissed it as an empty promise. No surprise there: The Israeli leader has spent four years claiming that he has no real partner for peace, that in order to make progress he needs—to borrow the title of Grossman’s famous novel—someone to run with.
Abbas’ statement gives the lie to this claim, and that’s what makes Netanyahu’s response to it “a bit embarrassing,” in Grossman’s words. But even Grossman’s assessment is too mild, because what we’re hearing from Abbas now is not a “rare hint of opportunity,” but a hint of opportunity that we’ve been given over and over again.
According to Livni, Abbas’ recent remark matched “what we heard in the negotiations” that she oversaw with the Palestinian Authority when she served as foreign minister. And Ehud Olmert issued a statement confirming that Abbas had staked out a similar position in their talks over four years ago. So, despite the Netanyahu government’s mantra, Israel does have a partner for peace. In fact, that partner has been waiting around for years. Which means the hint of opportunity Grossman wants Netanyahu to seize is neither “new” nor “rare,” but banal—and that’s more than a bit embarrassing.