Shlomo Avineri
October 5, 2011 - 12:00am

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas once again made a common Palestinian mistake: a Palestinian leader does not have to persuade the nations of the world, but rather the Israelis. A Palestinian state will arise only if the Palestinians convince the Israelis that they are indeed ready to live in peace and mutual recognition. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was able to do so with his historic speech to the Knesset, which turned him in the blink of an eye from a bitter and cruel enemy to the most popular figure in Israel. Not only did Abbas not speak to the Israelis, but in his slanderous statements - which not coincidently mentioned Yasser Arafat (whom he extolled) - only deepened Israeli suspicions of Palestinian aims.

With regard to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech, better not to waste words.

The Quartet's call to renew talks with no preconditions is a diplomatic achievement for Israel, since it rejects the Palestinian approach, which, in presenting preconditions (stopping construction in the settlements and an Israeli pledge to return to 1967 borders) led to a failure of the very renewal of negotiations. The Israeli government acted rightly in welcoming the Quartet's call, and its rejection by the Palestinians shows them to be the recalcitrant party.

This point is important, but not essential. Even if the parties came back to the negotiating table, it is hard to imagine how they could reach an agreement, since it's clear how great the distance is between the two sides' positions. If an Olmert-Livni government could not reach an agreement with Abbas after almost two years of serious and responsible discussions, clearly an agreement is not to be expected with the Netanyahu government.

The common illusion that the key lies with the United States has dissipated since President Barack Obama came into office. If an American president is unable to even bring the parties to the table, how will he be able to bridge the gaps on borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security arrangements?

Even those, like myself, who believe that the settlements are a political and moral mistake, would be naive to believe that a democratic government can easily evacuate hundreds of thousands of settlers; that the Palestinians will give up the right of return; that a slogan like "Jerusalem, capital of two states" can resolve the tangle of problems involved in the city's status; or that the Palestinians - who do not believe the Jews are a nation - can accept the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews.

We must change our approach and understand that there is now no chance of a permanent agreement. There is only one way forward, as in Cyprus, Kosovo and Bosnia: lacking a realistic chance of negotiations on a permanent status agreement, diplomatic efforts must be invested in alternative arrangements - interim agreements; confidence-building measures; unilateral (but mutually acceptable) steps; and continued pragmatic cooperation on the ground.

In political jargon, it is a transition from the failed attempt to attain a comprehensive solution to partial steps of conflict management with the final goal of "two states for two peoples" constituting the diplomatic horizon. The parties agree to an endgame on principle, but are aware of the difficulties in attaining it now.

Such partial moves will be a disappointment to all sides. The Palestinians aspire, and rightly so, to a state. The Israelis believe that the Palestinians should recognize that the Jewish people have the right to sovereignty and independence. But lowering the level of the conflict and reaching partial pragmatic agreements is possible even with a right-wing government in power in Israel and a lack of legitimate and effective Palestinian leadership, given the split between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

Pious talk of a final agreement in a year or two is no substitute for realistic policy which takes into account the serious state of affairs on the ground. Only those without unrealistic utopian illusions can promote both Palestinian and Israeli interests simultaneously and assist both peoples to emerge, very slowly over time, from the harsh grip of the conflict. Speeches at the United Nations only highlight the depths of the divide between the parties.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017