Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who is known as Abu Mazen, met Sept. 23 with American Jewish leaders, at a dinner hosted by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. There were plenty of former ambassadors, members of Congress, diplomats and dignitaries — former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright identified herself as “also a former person” — and even some currently in office. Martin Indyk, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, for instance. Not to forget Wolf Blitzer.
It was a friendly crowd. All but we journalists (who stayed decidedly neutral) went to great lengths to express admiration for Abbas’s attempts at negotiations and support for a two-state solution. Again and again, it was noted that a strong majority of Israelis and Palestinians favor this outcome.
But Abbas has a more difficult task of persuasion within his own family. One of his sons, it turns out, is not a believer.
Skeptics point out that all that happened yesterday was that Arab leaders acknowledged what everyone already knows — that if and when Israel makes a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, it won’t return exactly to 1967 borders.
This is true. When the Arab League indicated that it is updating its position from its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, to accept some degree of land swapping so that Israel won’t have to return to 1967 borders, it was really just a matter of its leaders coming closer to earth and recognizing that the Green Line won’t become a border. The Palestinian Authority and the international community have long realized that Israel will cede land in its sovereign borders in return for holding on to parts of the West Bank.
In fact, when the so-called Palestine Papers were leaked in 2011, they showed that the Palestinian Authority had been prepared to deviate significantly from the 1967 lines, at least in Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, stating the obvious can be important. The road to peace is obstructed by taboos from both the Israeli and Palestinian side, and the breaking of each and every taboo is an important landmark. Only when key players publicly break a taboo can the discourse start to shift, closer to agreement. The fact that the Arab League has shown willingness to revise its “1967 lines” mantra, and inject some flexibility in to the take-it-or-leave-it Peace Initiative could, if capitalized upon, present an opportunity.
There is still a huge gulf that divides Israel and proponents of the Peace Initiative, with massive differences in important areas. But the latest development updates it from an offer frozen in its time to one that could potentially be revived and form the basis of talks.
One of the most interesting questions is how, if this leads somewhere, will Hamas react. Hamas’ ideology is uncompromising, and doesn’t lend itself to the idea of agreements. However, in the scenario that the Arab world, represented by the Arab League, moves forward, there could be significant pressure on Hamas not to stand in its way. Hamas has kept its reaction to the plan in check in the past, resisting the temptation to vote against it at an Arab League summit in 2007 and instead abstaining.
But there’s another less obvious factor that could prove relevant. It was Qatar that met with John Kerry and announced the openness to land swaps. Hamas is increasingly reliant on Qatar for donations and political credibility. In October the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza - giving the regime kudos by going there and promising $385 million, for building projects. This gives Qatar obvious leverage withHamas.
Yesterday’s development is by no meant a fast-track to a peace agreement, but it could simplify a still-difficult route.
A pair of new polls indicates that right-wing Israelis are surprisingly open to a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The polls laid out a two-state-solution scenario to Israelis and asked them if they would back it. Among voters of Likud-Beytenu, the right-wing coaltion that is expected to win the January election, in a Smith Institute poll some 58% of respondents said that they would while 34% wouldn’t; and in a Dahaf Institute poll 57% would and 25% wouldn’t. Among voters of the further-right Jewish Home party 47% said they would support it and 45% oppose for Smith, and for Dahaf 53% were for and 43% against.
Overall, presented with the two-state solution outline, some 68% of Israelis gave their support for Smith and 67% for Dahaf. Opposing the proposed solution for Smith and Dahaf respectively were 25% and 21%.
The pair of polls was commissioned by the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, which is thought to be taken quite seriously by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other influential Israeli politicians.
The U.S.’s most experienced Mideast negotiator said Mitt Romney’s caught-on-camera admission that he sees little chance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could lead to a dangerous sense of “hopelessness.”
Dennis Ross, a former advisor to President Obama and a top mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said blithely dismissing the two-state solution as Romney does on a now-infamous leaked video will only undermine moderates on both sides of the Green Line.
“I don’t think what you want to do is create a sense of hopelessness,” Ross told the Forward. “If you create a sense that there’s no hope and you tell the Palestinians there’s no hope, they have very little stake in stability.”
“And if you tell the Israelis there’s no two state outcome at a time the Prime Minister has said it’s in our interest to have a two-state outcome…what are you saying is the outcome?”
Romney’s comments were made at a Florida gathering of major campaign givers in May. The Republican presidential nominee told donors that he believed that the problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians were intractable.