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Go back to the negotiating table

The Israel-Palestine impasse will be resolved when both talk to each other and work as partners, not rivals. Sallai Meridor writes.

india Updated: Sep 28, 2011 01:24 IST

I am an Israeli who wholeheartedly supports the creation of a peaceful Palestinian State next to Israel.

So why am I so concerned about the current Palestinian attempt to gain a United Nation’s recognition as a member state?

The answer is my desire for peace. If the Palestinians succeed in getting recognition in New York without negotiation, it won’t get them a State faster.

On the contrary, it may kill the chances for peace and for a Palestinian State, one not on paper but on the ground. Palestinian negotiators would become less ‘open’ to the compromises they need to make for peace.

Palestinian frustration in the territories will deepen as the gap between the UN’s hollow statements and their own reality grows wider. The hand of extremist Islamists could become stronger.

Violence may break out and spread throughout the region. The great success of the bottom-up Palestinian State-building, dependent on peace and cooperation from all parties, could turn into ashes.

At the same time, my fellow Israelis could become even more suspicious of the Palestinians’ intentions and get less eager to take the necessary risks for peace. Trust in the Palestinian intentions has gradually diminished over the last decade.

Palestine’s refusal of former US President Bill Clinton’s compromise in 2000, their four-year-old bloody terror war against Israel that followed, their turning Gaza — which Israel handed to them without conditions — into an Iranian-backed terror base, launching thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas’ unwillingness to accept the offer made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which included a Palestinian State based on the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem while sharing its holy sites - all made Israelis wonder whether we have a real partner for peace.

Now, avoiding negotiations with Israel and attempting to impose their conditions, could destroy the remaining trust. I understand the Palestinian frustration.

Israel made its own mistakes, contributing its share to the current impasse. I can understand those in the international community who try to help.

However, this manoeuvre of internationalising a bilateral conflict, of bypassing negotiations, and avoiding compromises, is dangerous. The Middle East is even more volatile today than usual. The air is full of gasoline.

Playing with UN matches could be dangerous.

Thus, it should be no surprise that a recent poll, done by the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion, showed that 59% of the Palestinians in the territories prefer negotiations with Israel and that 56% would strongly or somewhat support postponement of the current Palestinian appeal to the UN, if so asked by the international community.

What is urgently needed now is the return to the negotiation table. After the speeches in the UN, the International Quartet — the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia — called last Friday for the immediate unconditional return to the negotiation table with a clear agenda and time table.

This is what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas should do. This is what friends of Israel and Palestine should encourage them to do.

Abbas and Netanyahu performed in the UN for their domestic audiences and the international galleries. It is high time they talk to each other. Not less important is that they start leading towards peace.

They need to do this less unilaterally and more jointly. They need to show by actions that they are ready to make the extremely tough compromises necessary for peace.

They need to stop riding politically on old narratives and the bashing of the other side. Rather, they should prepare their own people for the sacrifices they will be asked to make for peace. Each should talk to the people on the other side to build public trust and support. They should become partners, not rivals.

The international community has a major role to play. It can’t substitute the leaders, but it can sure play a critical role in encouraging them to make the right choices.

It can — and should — encourage them to go back to the table and seriously negotiate. It can — and should — help them in preparing their people for peace and reconciliation.

It can — and should — encourage them to act jointly and not unilaterally. The UN vote we should all work for is one that would endorse a peace agreement between the parties, ending the conflict, creating a Palestinian State, living in peace, prosperity and dignity with a secure Jewish State.

Peace should never be negotiable, but to become a reality, it must be negotiated.

(Sallai Meridor served as Israel’s ambassador to the US from 2006 to 2009 The views expressed by the author are personal.)