Only direct talks can bring peace

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, September 22, 2011
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As the guns fell silent in June 1967, diplomacy sought a solution to the simmering Arab-Israeli dispute.

In November 1967, it produced the answer - Resolution 242, which since then has been the cornerstone of Middle East diplomacy. Its premise - land for peace - meant that parties had to negotiate directly to draw permanent boundaries and establish peaceful relations. It took 26 years to convince Palestinian leaders to relinquish armed resistance and seek a compromise with Israel. But now, 18 years later, the Palestinians are going to the UN to kill Resolution 242, and with it the principle of a negotiated solution, once and for all.

PA president Mahmoud Abbas explains his decision to turn to the UN by saying that "we have been negotiating with the state of Israel for 20 years without coming any closer to realizing a state of our own".

Yet, the main cause of failure was Palestinian refusal to compromise. Three times in a decade Palestinian leaders were offered a deal - at Camp David in July 2000; under the Clinton Parameters in December 2000; and then by former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in 2008. Each time, Palestinian leaders (Arafat twice in 2000, Abbas in 2008) said no.

Since Israel's Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has come to power, the Palestinians have refused to recommence negotiations. Thus, turning to the UN is the story of the son who killed his parents and then pleaded for leniency with the judge because he was an orphan. Abbas made it abundantly clear why Palestinians keep rejecting Israeli peace offers - their insistence on the so-called right of return.

The refugees' tragedy understandably elicits sympathy - but history is not on their side. Contrary to Palestinian propaganda, Israel was neither responsible for the early escape of Palestinian refugees nor for the Arab decision to reject the UN partition resolution. Arab aggression caused the ferocious war which displaced so many Palestinians. And Arab neglect subsequently left the refugees to rot in camps for six decades, where they are still denied citizenship or equal rights.

Abbas knows he can never give the refugees a chance to "return" - except to the newly born state of Palestine.

He will have to accept the existence and legitimacy of a Jewish state next door. He will have to find a compromise on settlements, territory and Jerusalem that ill suits the rhetoric and aspirations of Palestinian nationalism. And he will have to accept a permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley plus a demilitarised state - not the hallmarks of a restored Arab pride.

By going to the UN, Abbas hopes to avoid all that. It may yet work, but it has unintended consequences, which the Palestinians may long regret. After all, launching the Second Intifada followed the same reasoning - corner Israel through violence in order to extract more concessions. In the end, the strategy caused much more damage to the Palestinians.

Only negotiations can lead to peace. And only a Palestinian leadership who is reconciled with the painful cost of compromise can do that. Abbas' strategy is in line with his predecessors' ill-fated choices: never compromise, in the illusion that Israel will emerge weakened over time. As his predecessors, he is no closer to statehood than Palestinians were 63 years ago - and his choice will seal the fate of a Palestinian state for many years to come.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 12:49pm, September 22 2011