If ever there was a time for the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to show political courage, that time is now.
With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative in danger of falling apart, it would be easy for either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — or indeed both — to walk away from the negotiations.
Both men would be applauded by at least part of their political base, although the polls tell us that a healthy majority of both Israelis and Palestinians want peace.
Abbas would win praise from those in the Palestinian leadership who urge him not to make compromises and to take the Palestinian case instead to the International Criminal Court.
Netanyahu would be hailed by parts of his coalition, mainly within his own Likud Party, whose members reject the idea of a two-state solution and want to keep on building more and more Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Walking away is an act of political cowardice that says, “It’s easier to blame the other side than to take responsibility and to lead. It’s more important that I preserve my own position than to take political risks by seeking to lead my people to a better future.”
Sticking to the talks, recommitting to their success and making the necessary compromises is much harder. The leaders would, though, send an entirely different message: “I am determined to see these negotiations through, no matter how difficult or painful they will be. And I’m prepared to make my own political constraints secondary to creating a peaceful future for my people.”
Last summer, both sides committed to remain at the table for nine months. The least they can do is stick to that commitment. That would give Kerry another month to try to hammer out the framework agreement he has been working on, which would set the stage for a full-scale effort to end the conflict by the end of the year. If they can’t do that, perhaps they could reach a reasonable understanding, perhaps on a settlement freeze, that would allow the talks to continue.
The truth is, neither side has been completely honest with themselves or each other in entering this process. Both sides have continually signaled ambiguity, skepticism and suspicion. Both have been quick to criticize and blame the other for the failure to make progress.
Netanyahu says he can’t trust the Palestinians because they won’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state — at least not at this stage of the negotiations. Abbas says he can’t trust the Israelis because they continue building settlements.
Both men surely realize the price their two peoples will pay for their failure. Within a few years, Israel would become a state where a minority of Jews will rule over a majority of non-Jews, many of whom would be denied the rights of full citizenship, signaling an end to both Israel’s Zionist and democratic aspirations As a result, Israel’s international isolation will only grow. The Palestinians would see their economy disintegrate and a renewal of violence, perhaps even a third intifada.
Young Israelis will have to shoulder the degrading task of manning the machinery of occupation. Young Palestinians will suffer the daily humiliations of continuing to be occupied. Nobody will benefit. Everybody will suffer. Netanyahu and Abbas need to rise to the challenge of the moment to avoid that nightmare from coming to pass.
Yossi Beilin is a former minister of justice of the state of Israel and an architect of both the Oslo and Geneva Accords. He will speak at a J Street town hall in support of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict on April 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Temple Sholom.