Driving the peace train
Times of Israel
By Antony Korenstein
January 22, 2018
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Welcome to Israel, Vice President Pence. We Israelis have much to thank you for — you, President Trump, and the great nation that has shown us such friendship and with which we are proud to stand.
We are grateful, too, for the purpose that brings you to our region — the cause of peace. As ready and able as we are to defend our land, our people and our freedoms, we yearn for the day when Israel and all its neighbors can live and prosper, side by side, in mutual respect and harmony.
Israel understands that peace comes at a price. But now more than ever, we are ready to pay that price, painful though it will surely be.
Why now? Because relations between the United States and Israel are again on firm footing. We know our interests aren’t identical, but we also know that you recognize our concerns, our security needs, our red lines. So when you prod us to make concessions for peace, as you doubtlessly already are, we will make our decisions secure in the knowledge that there will be no surprises from a mediator we trust.
Never has the Arab-Israeli conflict been closer to resolution! Israel is ready. Our moderate Arab neighbors — Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — are ready too. All we need is a Palestinian interlocutor with whom we can get down to the nitty-gritty of deal-making.
But before anyone had even seen the Trump peace plan, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said no — “1,000 times no”. Even Israeli-Palestinians members of the Knesset say they’ll boycott your address to our parliament, because, as lawmaker Ahmed Tibi said, “This administration is part of the problem, not the solution”.
What a blow to the cause of peace.
What an insult to the peacemaker.
What indifference to those Palestinians who also long to reap the benefits of life without conflict.
Abbas and his allies have made clear their displeasure over the President’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But really? Did recognizing that objective fact deny the Palestinians anything? The President’s speech — the Administration’s explicit policy — leaves everything on the table, including the boundaries, internal and external, of the Holy City itself.
We understand, too, that Palestinians are angry about US cuts in aid to UNRWA, the agency whose purpose is solely serving Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Many believe that was a step overdue, that far from helping alleviate suffering, UNRWA perpetuates it by holding millions of “refugees” hostage to a resolution of the peace process — a resolution the Palestinian leadership seems intent on proving it has no interest in reaching.
The Administration’s steps send an important signal. That after decades of driving the peace process dismally down the same predictable road of failure after failure, the US is taking a new approach. It’s reasonable enough. It’s thinking out of the box and challenging sacred cows that probably should never have been sacred in the first place.
But it is precisely here that the Palestinians miss the point. Out-of-the-box thinking applies to all concerned. They may see Israel as the sole beneficiary of the recent US policy shifts on Jerusalem and UNRWA, but that also means Israel owes this Administration some reciprocal flexibility the next time the Palestinians raise an out-of-the-box idea of their own.
But they can’t bring any ideas to the table if they refuse even to enter the negotiating room and if they instead cling to the century-old fallacy that there’s no need to talk to the Jews because eventually the international community will force them to pack up and go… where exactly, when we’re already home?
Significantly, and for the Palestinian leadership, disappointingly, President Abbas’s bizarre tirade against America, against Israel, against the Jews was greeted by global indifference. Perhaps that’s because the world has heard such beyond-the-pale rhetoric before. Or perhaps it’s because the global community understands what Abbas and his allies have also heard, but are resisting and have chosen not to heed — that the winds are changing.
It’s that the fictions that have plagued the peace process in the past — that Israel has no capital, that UNRWA is justified in keeping its charges in a state of permanent dependency, that Jews have no claim to our ancestral homeland — keep the quest for a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians spinning in a surreal space with rules all its own. For peace to prevail, realism must prevail first. The simple, honest truth must prevail.
It takes two to reach an agreement, and the Palestinians know well that their voice, concerns and needs will be heard forcefully in any negotiations, as they are now. But the pretense must end, and with it the veto over peace that these fictions have given Palestinian leaders for so long.
Country after country understand this. With so much else to worry about in the region and around the world, they recognize that the Middle East must move on. It is moving on. The peace train is leaving the station, and one way or another, all parties must eventually climb aboard before it’s too late.
Thank you for helping drive that train, Mr. Vice President. Thank you for refusing to take “no” for an answer, no matter how many times you hear it. Thank you for working toward a genuine and lasting peace — a realistic peace that all the region’s people can embrace.
Antony Korenstein is a senior adviser at The Israel Project. He was previously a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute having earlier served in a variety of political and government positions in Washington, DC.