Every passenger on the London Underground hears the warning over and over again, “Mind the Gap?” Secretary of State John Kerry on his five trips during the last three months to Israel and surrounding areas needs no warning of the gap between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In what seems an unduly optimistic assessment of his shuttle diplomacy Kerry concluded that “We started out with very wide gaps and we have narrowed those considerably.”
Secretary Kerry’s efforts to bridge the gap may be salutary and one can applaud his persistence even in this new Middle East climate when the Israeli-Arab conflict is of less immediate international concern than the turmoil in Egypt and Syria. But it is difficult to understand his belief that the gap has been narrowed in view of the intransigence of Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, who has refused to enter into negotiations.
International politics rests on the assumption that the aim of negotiations is to search for agreement and to reach a compromise between the contending parties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that Israel is prepared to enter into negotiations without delay and without any precondition. In contrast, Abbas has insisted on a set of preconditions and was unwilling to meet with his Israeli counterpart.
The tenacious reiterated preconditions are a freeze on all Israeli settlement building; the release of Fatah prisoners; and negotiations based on recognition of pre-1967 “borders.” The first thing to be said about all these is that the Palestinians are acting in bad faith and contrary to their legal obligations. The starting point should be recognition of the agreement reached on September 13, 1993. The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles based on the Oslo Accords, outlined the interim self-government arrangements for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Step by step measures were to be taken to build trust between the parties; after five years negotiations would begin for a final settlement of the conflict.
Following this, a number of agreements were reached: in May 1994 a Gaza-Jericho agreement; in 1994 and 1995 arrangements for the Palestinian Authority to exercise power over a number of issues, education, culture, social welfare, tourism, health, taxation, labor, trade, postal services, and local government; in May 1996 the Taba Memorandum; in October 1998 the Wye Memorandum; in September 1999 the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum. The Camp David talks in July 2000 failed to reach agreement.
The Palestinians are bound by these legal obligations freely entered into, as well as by the crucial UN Security Council Resolutions 242 of November 22, 1967, and 338 of October 22, 1973. These call for negotiations to start “between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”
The Israeli settlements in the disputed areas remain a problem to be resolved in any final status agreement. Israel has not initiated new settlements since the formation of the Netanyahu government in March 2013. Currently, the Palestinian complaints are about 69 apartments, approved years ago, in Har Homa that have been granted building permits, and about Israel’s legalization of 14 structures built without permission in the settlement of Nokdim in the Etzion bloc.
Presently, about 360,000 Israelis live in the disputed areas of the West Bank, as well as those who live in east Jerusalem. This may not be agreeable to the Palestinian Authority, but it is fatuous for the Palestinians to argue that settlement activity in and around east Jerusalem is one of the main reasons why no solution is possible because without that part of the city there will be no Palestinian state. Instead of negotiating the issue, Saeb Erekat, the so-called Palestinian negotiator, says the “world leaders” should hold Israel accountable.
Those world leaders realize that Israeli settlements are not the obstacle to peace. Since 2005 there have been no Israeli settlements in Gaza, but this has not prevented more than twelve thousand rockets being fired by Hamas from there against Israeli civilians.
A second stated precondition is the release of prisoners, 107 of whom are Fatah members, in Israeli prisons. The parallel with Israeli actions in 2011 is not germane. In that year Israel exchanged 1027 imprisoned members of Hamas for the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who had been kidnapped. In 2012 Netanyahu’s offer to release 50 Palestinian security prisoners if Abbas came to negotiate was refused. Similarly, the Israeli offer to release a number of prisoners, all of whom were arrested before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords and are not considered to be security risks, was rejected.
The most important of the preconditions is acceptance of the supposed “1967 borders.” The reality is that there are no such borders, only demarcation lines where the Arab aggression against Israel was halted in 1949. In his five recent visits Kerry must have observed that east Jerusalem includes the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, the Jewish most holy places, and that Israel has not destroyed the Al-Aqsa mosque as the Palestinian media falsely claim. The Temple Mount, since the Israeli decision in 1967, has under the control of the Muslim Wafq, and Jews are not allowed to pray there. If the border between Israel and any Palestinian state were to be established on the 1967 lines, the width of the State of Israel north of Tel Aviv would be nine miles.
Secretary Kerry must have appreciated the different attitudes of the two peoples. This is made clear in the most recent poll in May 2013 by the Pew Research Center. The poll shows that 61 percent of Palestinians believe there is no way for Israel and a Palestinian state to live together. About 45 percent think that statehood can only be obtained through armed struggle, and only 15 percent through negotiations. It is discouraging that the websites of Fatah, as well as Hamas, omit the existence of Israel from their maps.
This point of view is physically illustrated by the monument in Bethlehem that depicts the boundaries of a Palestinian that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan Sea, thus eliminating Israel. Even worse is the teaching and text books in Palestinian schools that glorify jihadists and suicide bombers.
Secretary Kerry’s main task is to get Mr. Abbas to come to the bargaining table, especially before the opening in September of the UN General Assembly. He may be mindful of the gap, but one hopes he can bridge it now that he is aware that Prime Minister Netanyahu is seriously interested in the peace process.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University.