Commentary from the American Jewish Committee Atlanta

Global Atlanta's interview with Hrair Balian, director of the conflict resolution program at the Carter Center, published on Dec. 21 prompted the following commentary by Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee AtlantaDavid Harris, the national executive director of the committee, is to speak on Monday, Jan. 14, at a luncheon to be held at the 103 West restaurant, 103 West Paces Ferry Road. For more information, call 404-233-5501.

What’s holding up a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians? 

To judge from some media reports and commentary, the problem is Israel’s announced plans—not yet even close to implementation—to build in areas in and near Jerusalem that were outside the country’s borders before the Six-Day War of 1967. The European Union declared itself “deeply dismayed” since this “would seriously undermine the prospects of a negotiated resolution of the conflict.” All members of the UN Security Council except the U.S. demanded an immediate halt to new construction outside the Green Line, and even the Americans accused Israel of a “pattern of provocative action” that put peace “further at risk.” 

While the political wisdom of this Israeli move has generated debate even among the country’s advocates, the hyperbolic rhetoric that inflates its impact on the peace process only serves to divert attention from the real obstacle to peace—the Palestinian leadership. 

Four years ago the Palestinian Authority walked out on talks with Israel and has not returned, citing the same issue of Israeli settlement construction as its reason for avoiding face-to-face negotiations. This was nothing more than an excuse, as became evident in 2009, when a 10-month Israeli settlement freeze could not entice the PA back to the peace table. 

Rather than negotiate, the PA turned unilaterally to the UN General Assembly, which, on Nov. 29, voted to grant Palestine nonmember observer-state status. Instead of offering an olive branch to Israel, PA President Mahmoud Abbas used the occasion to accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, mass arrests and racism, and implicitly delegitimize the Jewish state by referring to its creation as an “unprecedented historical injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people.” Strikingly, even after such poisonous rhetoric, Israel remains ready to resume negotiations with no preconditions to achieve a permanent peace accord. 

The other Palestinian entity, Hamas-controlled Gaza, makes no pretense of wanting peace. The Hamas charter is explicitly anti-Semitic and threatening. The organization refuses to recognize or negotiate with Israel, and receives arms and ammunition from Iran for use against the Jewish state. After months of incessant rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilians, Israel launched a one-week operation this past November to put a stop to the violence. When the smoke cleared, Hamas claimed a great victory (although nearly 200 of its people were killed as compared to six Israelis), and its leaders were emboldened to talk of further military action to eliminate Israel.

Today, both the PA and Hamas continue on their parallel paths, and the idea that an Israeli reversal on building will stop them is nothing short of delusional. According to reports from the West Bank, the PA leadership is just waiting until after the Israeli elections to stage large-scale demonstrations, encourage international boycotts of Israel, end security cooperation with Israeli officials, and use its new UN status to bring war-crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.  

In Gaza, meanwhile, the Hamas official in charge of Jerusalem, Ahmed Halabiyeh, is calling for a third intifada that would include suicide bombings, or as he put it, “martyrdom operations,” against Israel. This was no isolated remark. His colleague Fathi Hamad, the interior minister, called for a new plan to liberate “the whole of Palestine” and thereby “humiliate the enemies of Allah.” And Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told a group of local educators that “Israel is a cancerous tumor that must be removed.”

Ominously, Hamas and the PA seem to be moving closer together. As a signal of possible cooperation, the PA allowed Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank on Dec. 13. Even so, efforts to implement a reconciliation agreement, signed in Doha, between Fatah and Hamas have still not been finalized.

Still, the more radical Hamas has the most to gain from any such rapprochement. A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that were a PA presidential election held in the West Bank, Haniyeh would defeat Abbas. 

Some may think that if only Israel canceled plans to build there would be peace, but it is quite clear where the real, and unfortunate, obstacle lies.

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