Talks Will Go Nowhere

Benny Morris discusses why Palestinian rejectionism, not settlements, is ultimately the issue barring real talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Abbas Momani / AFP / Getty Images

The prime ministers of Israel and the Palestine National Authority are scheduled to meet next week in the first high-level meeting in two years. But no real progress toward peace is expected by either party. Both sides’ starting positions and their red lines are simply too far apart.

On April 17th, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is expected to hand Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a letter from PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The letter will set out the Palestinian preconditions for the start of peace negotiations: That the talks must be based on Israel’s agreement to withdraw to the pre-1967 armistice lines, with the possibility of small, mutually agreed border changes, and that Israel must cease all expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

The Palestinians reportedly will also demand a mass prisoner release (Israel holds some 8,000 Palestinians in its jails, some of them convicted murderers imprisoned before the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s).

Reports have it that Netanyahu will hand Fayyad a response, asserting Israel’s willingness to open negotiations immediately but without any preconditions.

Western observers have suggested that this prospective exchange is equivalent to a diplomatic cul-de-sac, and have long pointed to Israeli recalcitrance over the settlements as the chief obstacle to progress toward peace. Recent Israeli government announcements of moves to beef up settlements on Jerusalem’s peripheries—most notably in Har Homa, a new neighborhood just east of the Jerusalem-Bethlehem road—have done nothing to help Israel’s image abroad.

And without doubt, the whole settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria—the Biblical term Israel uses to define the West Bank—has posed an obstacle to peace, intensifying Israeli acquisitive drives and expansionist ambitions as well as underlining Palestinian fears—or certainties—that Israel has no real intention of ever relinquishing the territories.

But in deep and broad historical terms, all of this is a giant red herring. The Palestinian political elite—both of the secular Fatah persuasion, which controls the PA, and Hamas, the Islamist party that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 (and won the Palestinian general elections in 2006)—has no intention of ever accepting Israel’s legitimacy or a two-state settlement based on the partition of Palestine into two states, one for the Palestinian Arabs and one for the Jewish people.

Hamas has always been clear about this; its 1988 charter states simply that, through jihad, it will uproot Zionism and that no Arab leader has the right to concede even one inch of Palestine’s sacred land to the Jews.

Fatah has played a more cagey game, but its historical record is no less clear to those willing to look at the facts. The successive leaders of the Palestinian Arab national movement have consistently rejected a two-state solution. Haj Amin al-Husseini, its first leader, did so twice, in 1937 (when he rejected the Peel Commission partition proposals) and in 1947-1948 (when he rejected the UN General Assembly partition plan, Resolution 181). His successor, Yasser Arafat who founded the Fatah in the late 1950s and led it—and the PA—until his death in 2004, similarly decisively rejected the idea twice (while occasionally making vague positive noises to appease Washington and Western Europe): In 1978, when he turned down the Sadat-Begin Camp David Agreement that provided for the establishment of a Palestinian “Autonomy”—which would have devolved into statehood—in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and in 2000, when he rejected the two-state proposals that ultimately offered the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank, 100% of the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem (Ehud Barak’s peace offer in July 2000 and the Clinton “Parameters” of December 2000, which the Barak government, albeit grudgingly, endorsed).

Neither in 1978 nor in 2000 did Abbas publicly dissent from Arafat’s rejectionist position—and, in 2008, after a protracted negotiation with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas himself in effect said “no” to Olmert’s peace plan, which had somewhat upgraded (from the Palestinian perspective) the Clinton “Parameters.” (Actually he never uttered a full-throated “no”—he simply refused to respond to the plan, despite American and Israeli prodding, and a few months later Olmert was out of office, replaced by Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, and the plan was off the table).

To this one needs to add that Abbas has repeatedly, publicly, over the past decade rejected the Clinton formula of “two states for two peoples”—while endorsing what he calls a “two-state solution”—and has inflexibly affirmed the “right” of the Palestinian refugees to return to pre-1967 Israel proper. As there are in the world some 5-6 million Palestinian “refugees” (meaning those still left of the original 1948 refugees and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) and as Israel has about 1.5 million Arab citizens and less than 6 million Jewish citizens, a mass refugee return would create an Arab majority in Israel and nullify the state’s Jewish character.

This would seem to indicate that Abbas’s hoped-for “two-state solution” means one state for the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, and another state for the Palestinians (with a Jewish minority) where pre-1967 Israel used to be. This doesn’t really give the Jews very much, when it comes to their two-thousand year quest for a resumption of political sovereignty.

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And this is the real, protracted, historical deal-breaker which will stymie the prospective “peace” meetings. Settlements can be finessed and uprooted (as Israel’s uprooting of all the Gaza Strip settlements in 2005 demonstrated). But uprooting deep, basic Palestinian rejectionism is a far more difficult task.