World mired in past on solving Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says former US negotiator

“They think they can say things over and over again, and that will lead to a peace agreement. That is never going to happen,” says Jason Greenblatt.

By Israel Kasnett, JNS

Ahead of the planned move by Israeli to apply sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria, several leading Mideast experts and former senior officials debated the merits of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision and the imminent move by the Jewish state.

Jason Greenblatt, former U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations, observed that no one can introduce a plan “that everyone will accept.” Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s goal was to create one “that was realistic, implementable, and that both sides could get behind and negotiate in good faith.”

He noted the positive reaction from some Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and said they should be commended for their support for the plan.

Greenblatt said while certain other countries were positive about the plan, the rest of the world seems to be “stuck in the talking points of decades in the past.”

“They think they can say things over and over again, and that will lead to a peace agreement,” he said. “That is never going to happen.”

The Israel-based Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center last week hosted an online discussion on the U.S. plan for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition to Greenblatt, participants included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz, former Canadian ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici and president of Shurat HaDin Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.

One of the main issues of discussion was the continued Palestinian refusal to negotiate.

The Palestinians, who have maintained a boycott of the Trump administration since December 2018, have refused to even consider the Trump proposal.

More recently, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to cut all cooperation with Israel, including security coordination.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration continued to move ahead with the plan, urging Greenblatt to focus on the tasks directed by the president, despite Palestinian recalcitrance.

“We weren’t going to let them stop us with the normal rhetoric that they always have used in the past,” he explained. “We reminded them that we would not be the first administration that they ignored or said ‘no’ to. We said we are unwilling to let them spoil potential progress for Israel and its Arab neighbors and equally important for the many Israeli citizens who live in Judea and Samaria.”

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‘In their interest to get to the table’

On Monday, Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah official and head of the Palestinian Authority General Authority of Civil Affairs, said the annexation of “one inch of our land would signal the death of the peace settlement.”

He said this with PA head Mahmoud Abbas in mind.

“There are some people who surround [him] who can never bring about peace,” said Greenblatt. “They deceive and manipulate, and they hurt the Palestinian people. I don’t see Abbas the same way. Under the right political circumstances, which he doesn’t have today, he might convince somebody who could have brought about something good.”

In the interim, however, the momentum is not on their side.

“The Palestinian leadership, at least under the Trump administration, no longer has a veto card over what happens to the Israeli citizens. That is a decision that the Israeli government has to make—not the Palestinian government,” emphasized al-Sheikh.

Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Obama administration, said the sovereignty move could further weaken the P.A.

“The Trump plan does not offer the Palestinians a viable state. The bigger concern I have after unilateral annexation is that over time, it will make it much less viable for any functional Palestinian Authority to exist on the territories that remain on the non-annexed portions.”

Former Canadian Ambassador to Israel Vivian Bercovici said that she believes that Abbas needs to feel more pressure from Arab allies to get on board.

“Why does Abbas not get to the table? Because he chooses not to. If he was made to feel some pain and pressure financially and diplomatically from the UAE and Saudis—if Hamas were made to feel the same kind of pain and pressure from Qatar—then the Palestinians may finally see it is in their interest to get to the table.”

At the same time, debate has been ongoing over the timing of the sovereignty plan. With the coronavirus pandemic and negative reaction from the international community, some see this a poor time for such a move.

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On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, clashed over the schedule, with Gantz saying that “what is not corona-related will wait until the day after the virus.”

‘We can’t stay in limbo forever’

Greenblatt dismissed the timing issue, saying Israel needs to move forward with the plan: “I think it’s time, and not doing it is not going to bring peace closer … we can’t stay in limbo forever.”

Similarly, Bercovici said that the Trump proposal is fair, and that time is running out for the Palestinians to negotiate.

“The Trump initiative is no less fair than previous proposals. At the end of the day, the proposal says to the Palestinians: ‘Come to the table now because you are running out of time. And if you don’t, we are not going to object to Israel implementing some form of annexation.’ ”

She stressed that “what the Trump proposal does that’s different is it signals very strongly to the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership that you have to step up. We cannot let this go on forever; 50-plus years is too long already. You have to take responsibility.”

Shapiro also addressed the issue of sovereignty damaging bipartisan support for Israel. Last week, 115 Democrats signed a letter to Netanyahu expressing opposition to sovereignty. On Monday, several far-left Democratic critics of Israel circulated a letter calling for the United States to cut assistance to Israel over sovereignty.

“It is, of course, true that the current administration sets policy, but [there is] one entire party, including the best friends of Israel in that party, telling Israel in the spirit of friendship: ‘We think this is harmful,’ ” said Shapiro.

“This is something very difficult for us to defend—something we oppose,’ ” he said. “And for Israel to proceed anyway makes a mockery of the claim to value bipartisan consensus about the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

‘The real issues to achieving peace’

Much of the argument being made against sovereignty by the Democrats and other European allies is concern that the move could violate international law.

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Dershowitz dismissed this notion. “I’m not a big believer in the strength of international law, which is mostly decided by academics in ivory towers who don’t have a lot of experience on the ground,” he said.

“Law is a factor, but it is not a dominant factor,” he continued. “The decisions and the peace process in the Middle East will not be decided based on whether or not the occupation is called ‘occupation.’ Whether it’s legal or illegal, those are interesting debates to have in classrooms, but what will determine the outcome are actions on the ground.

“It’s also very clear that the Jordan Valley will remain under the military control of Israel for an indefinite period of time. A military occupation is perfectly lawful until all belligerency ends,” said Dershowitz before quipping, “and I don’t think anyone can say that all belligerency has ended on the West Bank. Certainly not Gaza.”

Regardless of the outcome in the next few weeks or months, Greenblatt said there needs to be a way to move past the conflict.

“There has to be a massive education campaign about the real issues to achieving peace,” he said. “There has to be a way forward, and part of that is to listen, to respect and try to come up with practical, realistic alternatives so that Israel no longer has to be in danger constantly, and the Palestinians can have safe, respectful, dignified, prosperous lives just like Israelis.”

Bercovici called on the Arab world to “step up to the plate and help change the rhetoric by creating consequences. This moment creates a perfect opportunity for the Arab nations in the region to use their influence to do something constructive.”

She noted that there is a lot of finger-wagging at Israel.

Instead, she said, the Arab states should “start wagging their fingers much more at Abbas, at Hamas—and get them to the table and help them understand that there is no more to ask of Israel. The world has to adjust to an Israel that is strong, that is proud, that has tried hard and isn’t going to back down because of constant threats.”