For The Israeli-Palestinian Talks To Be Successful…


Shortly before Secretary of State John Kerry announced resumption of peace negotiations, leaders of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Task Force for Palestine met jointly in Washington, D.C., with administration and congressional officials to express support for a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and active U.S. involvement in bringing it about. We did this because our two organizations reject zero-sum politics in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue and believe successful negotiations must be rooted both in compromise and a win-win approach. This is the only realistic way forward, whether within the next nine months or the next nine years.

What does this mean in the context of negotiations that are supposed to address all of the “core issues?” First, it means that while the Israeli and Palestinian governments obviously are obligated to pursue their peoples’ own particular interests, they also would be well served by showing an appreciation of the other side’s interests as well.

With respect to permanent borders and security, Palestinian negotiators naturally would like to maximize the amount of territory within their future state’s sovereignty and to minimize Israel’s continued military presence. Israel’s impulse will be to argue, “The Arab world tried to destroy us in 1948, 1967 and 1973; now you, the Palestinians, must pay the price by accepting a smaller state.” But if we want a future Palestinian state to be successful economically, to provide a decent quality of life for its residents — a failed state would be disastrous for everyone — then it is in Israel’s interest for this state to have the necessary land and resources in order to achieve such success.

On the other hand, given the history of the Arab world’s enmity toward Israel, expressed in relentless wars and terror as well as in diplomatic delegitimization, Israeli negotiators justifiably will assert the need for ironclad security arrangements. Moreover, as we have seen demonstrated dramatically throughout the region in recent years, Arab leaders can be here today and gone tomorrow. So while hoping the more moderate leadership represented by Mahmoud Abbas will remain dominant over the long run, there are no guarantees. Hamas waits in the wings and continues to control the Gaza Strip. It is incumbent on Palestinian negotiators to understand that the Israeli public will not support any agreement insufficiently sensitive to this reality.

Israel insists that, as part of a final peace deal, the Palestinians will recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Until now, Abbas and his negotiators have doggedly resisted this demand, arguing that it is not up to the Palestinians to define Israel’s identity. In addition, they assert that such recognition would somehow diminish the rights and standing of Israel’s Arab minority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emphasis on this point is not frivolous. For there to be genuine peace and reconciliation, the Palestinian people and broader Arab world must at long last accept that the Jewish people are home in the Middle East, indigenous inhabitants, not foreign interlopers brought there by colonial powers. Democratic Israel can and does pursue its dual mission of serving as the nation state of the Jewish people and as a state for all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Palestinians enter the negotiations insisting on a “right of return” to their former homes inside Israel for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Israeli negotiators clearly will not accept, nor should they, the unfettered immigration of Palestinians to Israel. Indeed, the very essence of a two-state solution means that Palestinian refugees and their families should be repatriated to a future State of Palestine, just as Israel has provided a venue for returning the Jewish people to its historic homeland. Moreover, primary responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem lies with the Arab world for launching its war of aggression against Israel in 1948.

Still, there is much room to believe, as many serious historians suggest, that Israeli actions played a role in the evacuation of certain Palestinian communities during the War of Independence. An acknowledgment that this may be true, in the form of compensation and/or symbolic family reunifications, would be helpful as the Palestinian negotiators seek to “sell” the final agreement to their public.

Jerusalem, specifically the Holy Basin in and around the Old City, will be an extraordinarily difficult and complex challenge to work out. Passions surrounding this issue are intense. It has been our mantra for decades, ever since the 1967 Six-Day War, that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel. This is understandable, in light of the exclusion of Jews from our holy places during the period of Jordanian rule, 1948-1967. But the international community, including Israel’s best friend in the world, the United States, has not recognized Israeli sovereignty over the city. Palestinian negotiators undoubtedly will insist on a sovereign presence in Jerusalem. We know that in previous negotiations Israel was willing to show flexibility on this issue. This flexibility will be important again, along with an enormous amount of creativity. 

Creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank will result in some Jewish settlements beyond the borders of a reconfigured State of Israel. Also known as Judea and Samaria, the West Bank is not alien territory. In many respects, it is the cradle of Jewish civilization, as our people have lived in parts of it from time immemorial. Therefore, in the spirit of reconciliation and mutuality, some Israeli Jews should be allowed to stay on in a Palestinian state if they wish, as long as they are prepared to fulfill their obligations toward that state. This would not detract from a future Palestine serving as the nation state of the Palestinian people.

Skepticism about these negotiations is understandable. But with a win-win attitude and readiness to empathize with the other side’s sensibilities, it might not be a dream.

Martin J. Raffel, is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.