Isi Liebler was prominent in the Australian Jewish community and a contender for leadership in the World Jewish Congress who made Aliya a number of years ago. He writes a column for The Jerusalem Post and blogs with a generally pro-Netanyahu point of view. I met him almost exactly two years ago as a panelist on Shalom TV.
In my opinion, he is often unfair and excessive in his criticisms of the Palestinians and of voices on the left within Israel and among Jews in the Diaspora, including J Street. But he paid me the compliment of saying that I reminded him of an “old Labor Zionist,” a positive reference in his eyes and mine. We occasionally spar on email when I react to a column or blog post he’s written.
With his permission, I’m repeating an exchange we had last week, when I replied to his posting of “Intellectuals and the Left” (his reply begins with the comments he inserted in yellow below):
This is from a recent blog post [of Partners for Progressive Israel]. Why do you suppose Netanyahu ties himself to expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank rather than forging an agreement with Abbas based on the principles laid out here?
Will Palestinian Pres. Mahmoud Abbas take Yossi Beilin’s advice to dissolve the PA? An official letter from Abbas to Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to hint at that possibility, but Abbas reportedly denies it. The letter itself speaks well for Abbas’ intention to forge a true peace with Israel. For example:
Our historic Peace Proposal is still waiting for an answer from Israel.
• We agreed to establish the State of Palestine on only 22% of the territory of historical Palestine-on all the Palestinian Territory occupied by Israel in 1967. We did not initiate the wars by the Arabs determined to annihilate
• The establishment of independent Palestinian State that can live side-by-side with the State of Israel in peace and security on the borders of 1967 with mutually agreed swaps equal in size and value.
• Security will be guaranteed by a third party accepted by both, to be deployed on the Palestinian side. We would delegate our security to a third party?
• A just and agreed resolution for the refugees’ problem as specified in the Arab Peace Initiative.
• Jerusalem will serve as a capital of two States. East Jerusalem capital of Palestine. West Jerusalem capital of Israel. Jerusalem as an open city can be the symbol of peace.
His further response:
Why does Abbas not sit down and negotiate with us? Why did he not do so when we agreed to a 10 month settlement freeze? Why did he not try to follow up Olmert’s excessive offers for 97% of the territory formerly occupied by Jordan? Do you thing Abbas would relinquish the Arab right of return? Do you think we can ignore the probability that Hamas will take over the PA and Abbas seems to only differ with Hamas in terms of tactics?
I’m sharing my reply because his questions need to be taken seriously:
…. These are good questions and part of my answer is that it’s not a matter of one side always being right and the other wrong. The settlement freeze idea was a well-intentioned but tactically bad notion coming from Obama. Once in play, it was politically impossible for Abbas to demand less than what Obama had proposed: a total freeze on expanding settlements while negotiations proceed. It was well-intentioned because expanding settlements, in territories that are being negotiated about, undermines the very concept of negotiations (Israel consumes the very pie that is supposed to be divided).
But tactically, the result was that Abbas wasted most of those 10 months before accepting a partial freeze. Then Netanyahu refused to renew that freeze in order to facilitate ongoing negotiations. Both Abbas and Netanyahu were in the wrong for acceding to political pressures from their respective constituencies, which pushed them apart and away from the negotiating table. You’re right that Abbas should have been willing to negotiate without preconditions, but Netanyahu should not have allowed settlement expansion to stand in the way. Neither leader was big enough to play the statesman, but Netanyahu is in a stronger position politically, with more leeway to blink than Abbas: Netanyahu could retain his majority coalition, even if he lost right-wing support by renewing a settlement freeze, with the support of pro-negotiations parties (e.g., Kadima, Labor, Meretz, Hadash); whereas the main opposition to Abbas is Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Olmert’s offer of 2008-09 was not “excessive”; in fact, in retaining the geographically intrusive settlements of Ariel and Maaleh Adumim, it remained hard for the politically weak PA to swallow. But that round of negotiations ended primarily because of Israel, not the PA, with Operation Cast Lead and Olmert’s resignation & care-taker status due to his legal problems.
As for your other two points: I agree, Israel did not initiate those wars, but this is history and Abbas has long advocated a framework for a peaceful future. As for delegating security to a “third party,” what is the alternative other than endless occupation by Israel? What is hopeful in the way Abbas broaches this concept is that he agrees to placing this force only within Palestinian territory and Israel would have a veto over what this “third party” consists of.
And it seems to me that the best antidote against Hamas is to provide measurable progress toward a peace agreement that promises real relief for the Palestinians from the heavy hand of Israel’s military occupation and the lawless ravages of the extremist settler fringe. In other words, a good political agreement for both sides would counter the dangers of extremism.