Skip to main content

Are the Palestinians Thinking the Unthinkable?

Adam Garfinkle & Walter Russell Mead

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog attemped to negotiate a tentative peace deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before the last elections. The Times of Israel:

According to the report, which cited an agreed document setting out the understandings, Herzog was willing to withdraw to the 1967 lines in full, with the exception of mutual land swaps on four percent of the territory. Land swaps would be negotiated so that Israel could retain control of its largest settlement blocs.

The final-status equation for Jerusalem would have seen the east of the city become the capital of a Palestinian state, with a single municipality responsible for the two capitals.

The Temple Mount—the site on which the two ancient Jewish temples once stood and where the Islamic holy sites of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock now stand—was supposed to be under the authority of a multinational force, but with Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall, the report said.

The Palestinian refugee issue was to be settled based on UN Resolution 194 and the Arab Peace Initiative, according to the report, with financial compensation for the majority of refugees and a “symbolic” return for some based on a “joint decision.”

Herzog did not meet Abbas directly, but employed Efraim Sneh as an intermediary, and he broke off contacts when elections were called.

Reactions to the revelations in Israel have been mixed, with Likud and Yesh Atid leaders both accusing Herzog of being irresponsible and foolish, but many on the Left cheering his efforts.

What’s most significant, however, is that there hasn’t been much outrage at Abbas over the terms worked out with Herzog over the West Bank, which, as noted, included Palestinian renunciation of the right of return. A muted Palestinian response is, as far as it goes, a positive sign: The outrage drums aren’t banging, the outrage dogs aren’t barking. This is partly a silence of exhaustion, but it is also a tacit acknowledgment (which is as close as some people ever come) that the boundaries have shifted and that what used to be unthinkable is now thinkable.

Of course, the Palestinian shrug is also partly a reflection of widespread doubt that Labor will ever regain power. The Palestinian mood is refracting off of the right-wing tilt on the Israeli side: If the Israelis don’t really want a deal, many Palestinians definitely aren’t going to push for one; nor will they ever evince any second-hand interest in one. In other words, many Palestinians will only take negotiations seriously if the Government of Israel, not the feckless opposition, comes to them on bended knee.

The basic fact—which many well-meaning people keep missing because it is so unpalatable—is that Palestinians’ giving up the “right of return” is the key to any hope of a deal. The Israeli public won’t accept big concessions for anything short of a formal end to claims. That remains a huge obstacle on the Palestinian side, in part because it is a bargaining chip they don’t want to give up until they are sure they have the “best offer” on the table, but also because many feel the conventional two-state solution approach doesn’t meet their needs. Palestinians in Gaza refugee camps wouldn’t get much from a settlement that leaves them in camps and renounces their “right of return” to the places their ancestors lived in 1947.

Many Palestinians also refuse to make a deal on religious grounds: Muslim lands cannot be ceded to infidels without breaking God’s law. Meanwhile, there are pragmatic worries: Many Palestinians who might be fine with the deal themselves don’t want to get assassinated by people who disagree. The Palestinian leadership is, for all of these reasons, under pressure not to make a deal and especially not to cave on the “right of return.”

There are a lot of “nevers” out there—the Palestinians will never this or that, the Likudniks will never such and so. But many of the supposed red lines are more flexible than people assume. There were old “nevers,” too: Egypt would never, Jordan would never, Arafat wouldn’t ever…. Often enough, these “nevers” become self-defeating and immobilizing false-truths. Circumstances change and the parameters of what people will do change with them. But the key remains the same, and it’s sort of depressing: Both sides will only take risks for peace if the status quo becomes more painful than the changed circumstances they anticipate, and they can only turn a set of piers into a bridge with the help of a third party. That third party used to be and probably remains the United States.

Nothing in this part of the world is going to clear up in a hurry, but the lack of the usual strident reaction to any suggestion that Palestinian negotiators should “never” put off-the-table questions on the table is, as far as it goes, an encouraging sign.

Related Articles

Counterbalance | Ep. 45: The Arc of a Covenant

Walter Russell Mead & Michael Doran

This week's episode features audio from a public event hosted at Hudson Institute...

Continue Reading

Believing Jews Control Everything is a Moral, Intellectual Deficiency

Walter Russell Mead

Walter Russell Mead appears on Jewish News Syndicate's "Top Story" to discuss antisemitic misconceptions in American politics. ...

Watch Now