I attended Ameinu’s lunch meeting with Israel’s minister of social welfare, Isaac Herzog, on November 6, when he shared his social democratic vision for Israel. Herzog is a Labor minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and he lamented the kind of bitter split that exists today within Labor’s ranks as a result of the decision of their party leader, Ehud Barak, to be part of this Likud-led government.
It was interesting to hear the perspective of a Labor centrist on Israel’s situation today. He views Israel’s posture under Netanyahu as more moderate and open to negotiating peace with the Palestinians than we doves are inclined to see; he characterizes the Palestinian Authority nowadays as being recalcitrant in not understanding that Netanyahu is being relatively flexible.
This may not be completely wrong. We actually heard something along these lines from our longtime friend from Meretz, Avshalom (Abu) Vilan, who lost his Knesset seat in the elections early this year. And we know that the harsh system of roadblocks and checkpoints has significantly eased, allowing for a renaissance of economic activity on the West Bank.
And Herzog indicates that the West Bank settlements are weaker than widely thought. He sees only two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) settlements as growing substantially in population. He claims that Ariel, the West Bank’s largest Jewish town, is down to 18,000 and (most significantly) has 50% fewer children there than there were ten years ago. As for Kiryat Arba, the militant community next door to Hebron (where mass murderer Baruch Goldstein had lived), he says that most of its original leadership no longer resides there and that it’s largely populated now by two mutually antagonistic groups of Jews from India.
But the Palestinians’ rigidity, if that’s what it is, reflects Mahmoud Abbas/Abu Mazen’s weakness as head of the PA, with Hamas pushing him toward more militant stands. Herzog mentioned former Prime Minister Olmert’s effort to make a deal with Abbas last year; I will add the details of Olmert’s offers of territory to the PA, if I find my notes. The bottom line is that Olmert was offering somewhere in the range of 95% of the West Bank with a transfer of about 2-3% of Israeli territory to compensate for incorporating most of the settlement blocs into Israel. Olmert is also said to have been fairly forthcoming in offering Palestinian control in much or most of East Jerusalem, with a special status for the various religious sites in the “Holy Basin,” in the middle of the city.
The latest we know about Abbas’s future is that his departure is not imminent, as new presidential elections have been postponed. This is what former Meretz leader, Yossi Beilin, wrote recently about Abbas in The Forward:
When Ehud Olmert became prime minister, he conducted negotiations with Abu Mazen in his own living room in Jerusalem, meeting him once every few weeks, without any note takers and without enjoying support from within his own Cabinet. Olmert was surprised that Abu Mazen did not fall head over heels for what the Israeli prime minister thought was a very generous peace offer. But we should remember that this offer included Israel’s annexation of Ariel, a large settlement in the heart of the West Bank, along with other bitter pills that would be difficult for any Palestinian leader to swallow. …
None of this is to say that the Palestinians did not make their own contributions to the lack of progress toward peace. Palestinian hesitancy and clumsy political conduct and, perhaps most of all, the ongoing split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip — that is, between Fatah and Hamas — have all been detrimental to peace prospects.
Now, we face the consequences of our collective failures. With Abu Mazen seemingly on his way out, it is increasingly clear that we may have missed a rare chance to reach a peace agreement. Abu Mazen may not be terribly charismatic or a great orator, but he is a responsible leader who believes that the Palestinian national interest lies in the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with both states enjoying peaceful relations and economic cooperation with one another.