The wrong question

I have no doubt that all the relevant leaders want peace. And all want a peace process. Who wouldn’t?

But are they serious about the process? Well, what’s the point in asking that question when, under present leadership circumstances, a peace process cannot succeed?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signaled he wants both peace and a peace process when, at some political risk, he accepted the two-state solution and then imposed a partial settlement-construction freeze. But is he serious about the process?

Many would argue that he has signaled he is not serious about a peace process through a series of acts and declarations. First, Netanyahu turned down a coalition with the moderate Kadima party, which might have rendered his government a more likely candidate for a peace process, and preferred instead a hard-line coalition that guarantees Israel will continue to lose international support. He has supported or tolerated controversial Jewish settlement projects in and around East Jerusalem. Most recently, by declaring the Hebron Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem Israeli heritage sites, he seemingly signaled that he is either not peace-oriented or, worse, wishes to sabotage any chance at all for a genuine dialogue.

Yet many of Netanyahu’s predecessors negotiated peace in good faith while engaging in similar provocative activities and without bothering to freeze settlement construction. And while Netanyahu mainly couches his acceptance of a two-state solution in his demands from the Palestinians–demilitarization, recognition of Israel as a Jewish state–he has, in assorted statements and gestures, begun to sketch out his final-status vision.

Thus, he wants an ongoing Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley (though he has not spoken of annexation there). At Israel’s tree-planting holiday a month ago, he planted saplings in the settlement blocs that are on or near the green line and stated they would remain part of Israel, but did nothing of the sort in settlements located in the West Bank heartland. And he has indicated unequivocally that peace with the Palestinians cannot include Jerusalem.

Leaving aside Jerusalem–an obvious deal-breaker–it is not outlandish or unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister to offer the Palestinians all of the West Bank except the settlement blocs and insist on maintaining an ongoing security presence in the Jordan Valley, for example by temporarily leasing Palestinian land there.

Moreover, in Netanyahu’s strategic order of priorities Iran clearly comes before the Palestinian issue. He has told his own Likud party that the need to work with the United States against Iran will require concessions regarding Palestine. Thus, even though Netanyahu does not appear to subscribe to the demographic rationale for separating Israel from a Palestinian state, he does have an alternative strategic reason for conceivably doing so.

So, recognizing that Netanyahu’s misguided ministerial appointments, coalition decisions and mindless provocations may not be much worse than those of his peace-minded predecessors, and bearing in mind that he has courageously opted for a two-state solution and that a Revisionist right-winger who can change his mind about that could also conceivably change regarding Jerusalem, is he serious?

Obviously, if he is, we can only know when, having commenced negotiations, he tries to reshuffle his coalition to bring in Kadima. Otherwise, it is inconceivable that his current coalition will support even 50 percent of the concessions he presumably knows he will have to make. Given that Netanyahu has persuaded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he is serious, we should be careful about disqualifying him because of the friends he keeps or the nuances and body language that some claim to detect in his behavior.

Of course, Netanyahu may simply still be a political survivalist bereft of principles or a vision for peace. But the question at stake should not be whether Netanyahu is serious about a peace process. Rather, it should be whether there are promising alternatives to what is certain to be a failed process, if and when it begins, even if Netanyahu is completely serious.

Neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signals readiness to make the painful concessions required for a two-state solution–Abbas, most recently, in rejecting Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching offer of September 2008. Both are currently so constrained politically as to make significant concessions very unlikely. US President Barack Obama appears to be quietly backing out of energetic support for a dynamic process in view of his heavy obligations in Afghanistan, Iraq and regarding Iran–all during a US congressional election year. Thus we are apparently now about to witness four months of fruitless discussion of procedural issues leading almost to the deadline for Netanyahu’s settlement freeze to end.

The alternatives are plain to see. One is more support for PM Salam Fayyad’s state-building program in the West Bank–the only successful game in town. If Netanyahu (reportedly) can offer to withdraw from additional West Bank territories as a gesture to Abbas in return for joining negotiations, why not make this offer to reward Fayyad’s security accomplishments and provide an incentive for more?

Another is recognizing the permanency of the Hamas regime in Gaza and the need to stabilize the situation there so Hamas can’t or won’t disrupt a peace process. This means radically revising the failed policies of the past three years adopted by Israel (though not by a Netanyahu government), the Quartet, Egypt and the PLO.

Finally there is the prospect of a renewed peace process with Syria. Netanyahu has negotiated with Damascus before. The primacy he attaches to the threat from Iran points to the possible benefits of peace with Syria.

If the US would get behind any or all of these alternatives more energetically, we might conceivably see positive, confidence-building results that could in future make an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution more feasible than it is today.