Editorial: Cedes of Change

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has come forward with a bold proposal to “jump start” the all-but-moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process: unilateral Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank (see related news story, p.1).

Whether bold is beautiful is another question.  

Barak has earned the stature to be taken seriously when he makes a proposal. He is a former prime minister, the leader of a break-away faction of the Labor Party, and the most decorated soldier in the history of the Jewish State. Like his former colleague Ariel Sharon, Barak seeks to use the same bravura that proved effective on the battlefield of war in the often more delicate sphere of international diplomacy.

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Barak is seeking to take advantage of the broad governing coalition of 94 seats in the Knesset that resulted when the centrist Kadima Party, headed by Shaul Mofaz, joined Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanahu’s Likud Party-led coalition. Both Mofaz and Barak are eager to make progress on the peace front, notwithstanding the current dormancy of the process.

“This is the time to lead a diplomatic process,” Barak said. “But if it isn’t possible to reach a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, we must consider an interim arrangement or even a unilateral move,” which he said could include a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.  

Nothing else is moving constructively in the peace arena. JTA reports that Palestinian leaders reportedly have rejected the contents of a letter delivered by Netanyahu’s personal envoy Isaac Molho to Abbas in Ramallah.  “The contents of (Nethanyahu’s) letter did not represent grounds for returning to the negotiations,” said Hanan Ashwari, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is also headed by Abbas.  The letter from Netanyahu was in response to a letter sent in April from Abbas in which the PA head said the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table only if Israel accepts a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with “limited” land swaps, halts all settlement building and releases Palestinian prisoners.

During the meeting with Molho, Abbas reportedly brought up the plight of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and asked that Israel accede to their demands, including no solitary confinement and family visits for prisoners whose families live in Gaza. Since those talks, Israel has responded positively to the Palestinian demands and the hunger strike ended. Israel also returned the remains of 90 Palestinian terrorists to the Palestinian Authority.

Is this fragile stage of the process enough upon which to build a constructive path forward? Probably not, and Barak’s own history in promoting unilateral action doesn’t help. When Barak was prime minister, he made the bold decision to withdraw all Israeli troops from southern Lebanon.  Barak was criticized for this move since it was followed by Hezbollah moving in greater numbers into southern Lebanon and launching rocket attacks on Israel.

One could argue that this situation is different because the current West Bank is considerably more stable and secure under PA governance than was southern Lebanon (or for that matter, Gaza, which was ceded, under Ariel Sharon’s watch, and became a Hamas-run territory). If Israel takes the initiative to withdraw from West Bank areas it is already prepared to cede, it would at least in the short run obviate the need for protracted negotiations with the PA about land swaps, settlements and the like. It also would exclude Hamas from the process, a necessary step unless and until the terrorist organization accepts the existence of Israel as a home for Jews.

But it is the absence of any land negotiations, and the exclusion of Gaza/Hamas and discussion of Jerusalem’s status, that will likely undercut Barak’s trial balloon in the eyes of Palestinian groups and the world. In fact, responses to Barak’s plan by the Palestinians have largely been negative.  A Haaretz article quotes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s chief aide, Nabil Abu Rudineh, as saying that an “Israeli unilateral move (to withdraw from parts of the West Bank) will lead to the formation of a Palestinian state in temporary borders.” The official United States response was offered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. “The United States believes there is no substitute for direct talks between the parties.”  Clinton added, “We have discouraged unilateral Israeli steps towards separating from the Palestinians.”  

While it is regrettable that neither Rudineh nor Clinton supported Barak’s creative plan, it still serves a useful purpose to focus attention once again on the peace process, which has been on the international back burner during the turmoil in Syria and Egypt, and continued concerns over Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. While the proposal itself may not hold water, kudos to Barak for pushing the dialogue along. With changing demographics and an evolving political situation in Egypt and the Arab world, pushing toward dialogue is far better than no pushing at all.