Can Israel negotiate with Palestinian Authority?

BY RABBI BRUCE WARSHAL

In the past two weeks we have been discussing the Olmert government’s intention to pull out of the West Bank. We reviewed two possible ways to effectuate that disengagement, unilaterally or by a coordinated unilateral withdrawal involving minimum contact with the Palestinian Authority (PA). In this column I will discuss the third alternative — a withdrawal negotiated with the PA, the kind of negotiations that lead to a comprehensive peace agreement. I hasten to add that this is the least likely, but most desirable, action that we can expect from the current Israeli government.

Before one can speak of negotiations with the PA we have to confront the Hamas victory in the recent Palestinian elections. Many Israelis and many Diaspora Jews believe that the Palestinians chose their fate when they voted for a party that officially does not recognize Israel. Why negotiate with them? To begin, we must realize that Hamas received only 43.94 percent of the vote on the national list and merely 36.45 percent of the votes in the district elections. They achieved 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council simply because Fatah supporters fielded many candidates that split their support, thereby allowing Hamas to win seats with less than a majority.

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It is also important to realize that Hamas ran a campaign against Fatah corruption, not against Israel, and many who did vote for Hamas did so because of this issue alone. Danny Rubenstein, the expert on Arab affairs for the leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, told our group of peace activists with whom he met this past month in Jerusalem that most of his Arab journalist friends voted for Hamas and they are definitely not anti-Israel. He also reminded us that at the very first meeting of the Hamas cabinet each minister received permission to deal with his counterpart in Israel. Certainly this is some kind of recognition. Zahira Kamal, the former PA minister for Women’s Affairs and member of the Fatah Party, pointed out that Hamas leaders have been educated in Europe and the United States. “They are not Taliban. This is not Afghanistan,” she said.

But can you deal with someone who doesn’t recognize you? Yes. Recognition is not important. A ceasefire is. Israel had an armistice with Jordan and Egypt for many years before they negotiated with those countries, but during their time of negotiations they did not formally recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas is talking about a 50-year ceasefire, which makes the situation analogous.

Assuming that Israel would negotiate with a Palestinian government that included Hamas, the big question is what are the red lines for each side? A red line is a diplomatic term for an issue on which a bargaining partner cannot compromise. For Israel we know that its major red line is the Palestinian demand for the Right of Return. In no way can Israel allow millions of Palestinians to return to Israel proper without losing the Jewish character of the state. There is some indication that in a prolonged negotiation the Palestinians will drop this demand. If not, there is no peace agreement.

For the Palestinians the red line that they cannot cross is the Temple Mount issue. They must have sovereignty over the Mount and a presence in Jerusalem, which they call Al-Khuds, which translates as the holy city. They cannot compromise on this point. The Al Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount is Islam’s third most holy shrine. The Quran describes the Mount as the location from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. The major reason that Yasir Arafat could not sign an agreement at Camp David is that Ehud Barak demanded Israeli sovereignty over the Mount. For the Palestinians to agree to this would be analogous to Jews giving up sovereignty over the Western Wall. It just won’t happen.

But last month Ehud Olmert repeated the stand that Israel will not relinquish sovereignty over the Mount. In meeting with our peace delegation last month, Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister and second most powerful person in the government coalition, proclaimed, “The Temple Mount is the holiest place for Jews” This is beginning to sound like an Israeli red line. But is this true?

The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was quoted in the New York Times immediately after the deadlock at Camp David that he felt betrayed. He said that for years the Israeli negotiators were freely saying that the Western Wall belonged to the Jews and the Temple Mount belonged to the Muslims. All of a sudden at Camp David the Mount morphed into a holy shrine for Jews. What happened is that ultra religious parties in the Barak coalition government put pressure on him to keep the Mount. But is it holy to Judaism?

It was the location of the ancient Temple. The beautiful Mosque of Omar with its golden dome sits on the approximate location of that Temple. There are a few crackpots in Judaism (including the late Meir Kahane’s brother) who want to demolish the mosque and rebuild the Temple. There are two major problems with that idea. For Jews it would be a catastrophe. We would have to return to animal sacrifices and to a hereditary priesthood, which would cause us more difficulties than a non-hereditary Catholic priesthood. Who would become our Jewish pope?

The second major problem is that if we Jews were to tear down the mosque and rebuild the Temple, we would be declaring war with 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. I doubt that this would add to Israel’s security or to the security of Jews throughout the world.

We Jews have an emotional attachment to the Western Wall. It is that spot that harks back to Jewish life in biblical times. When Jews visit Israel they make a pilgrimage to the Wall, not to the Temple Mount. Very few Jews wander up to the Mount. If you take a poll of 100 Israelis who are walking on Diezengoff Street in Tel Aviv as to whether they have ever visited the Temple Mount, I think that well over 90 percent would answer in the negative. Ask this same question of Diaspora Jewish visitors, and the figure would rise to over 95 percent.

Unless Israeli leaders stop catering to the religious fanatics in their midst and unless they recognize that this is a true red line for Muslims, there will never be a peace agreement and there will never be real peace.

Both sides have to realize that compromise is essential. Ami Ayalon, the former head of both the Shin Bet and the Israeli Navy and now a member of the Knesset, succinctly summarized the challenge: Both sides must give up their dreams to secure a viable future or they can hold on to their dreams and give up their future.

A good first start toward a viable future is to begin bilateral negotiations over the withdrawal from the West Bank. I doubt that this will happen, but I believe that in the long run it is better than any kind of unilateral disengagement.

Bruce Warshal is a rabbi in Florida.