Questions the Kerry Initiative Never Asked and Never Answered

In recent months, I have spent a great deal of time and effort tracking the latest attempt by the Americans to mediate a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In my discussion about the failure of that effort last month I was highly critical about how the Americans had gone about the job of mediating the dispute.


But the last thing I want to leave you with is an impression that I have joined the blame game. I leave that job to all the competing spinmeisters who have already done an absolutely extraordinary job of obfuscating what really went on.


The spinmeisters’ efforts, however, have confirmed one conclusion that I came to long ago. It is that blame games are sterile exercises, useless playthings that serial failures, acolytes of serial failures, the ignorant, the lazy, and the irretrievably vain use to excuse the inexcusable, to amuse themselves and sometimes to entertain others.


In recent weeks we have all been witness to various actors and critics trying to play the blame game…with varying degrees of success. I can fully understand all the Palestinians and Israeli officials who have been doing so. That is their job. They need to find excuses for their failures—or their bosses’ failures—if they hope to continue being employed in their current positions.


Those critics who are neither Israeli nor Palestinian have ranged from Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame to an anonymous American official who was interviewed by Yediot Aharonot’s Nahum Barnea.


Among all the critics, except the supporters of the Israeli settlers, there is an extraordinary uniformity of view on one issue. According to them, the collapse of the Kerry effort must have been the product of one cause and one cause only. Put in American political terms and using American standard political slang, these critics assert that Kerry’s failure is the result of “the occupation, stupid.”


I have been in the business of trying to understand what is going on in the Middle East for almost fifty years. And if nothing else, I have learned one firm and fast lesson that has served me in good stead for decades. It is: When almost everyone is in agreement about something, they must be all be wrong.


The list of cases in point is almost endless. For example, “everyone” in 1972 agreed that Egypt would never go to war against Israel because the Israeli army was too strong. Likewise, two years later, “everyone” agreed that the Egyptians would never make peace with Israel.


As the years passed, and as I just noted, there seems to have been a no less uniform consensus among non-Israelis that the continuing occupation of large parts of the West Bank by the Israeli military is the reason why peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians have failed. Those who use that argument are guilty of the most atrocious fault in logical thinking that there is. They confuse correlation with causation. In other words, they say that because peace talks failed and the occupation continued, the peace talks must have failed because the occupation continued. These blame-mongers appear to have completely ignored the far more logical conclusion that the continued occupation is not the cause of the failure of the peace talks. Instead, according to my logical analysis, all the hard evidence supports the very opposite idea—that the ongoing occupation and its entrenchment are the outcome of the failure of the diplomatic negotiations.


I am a great fan of that superb logician, Sherlock Holmes. His most important maxim was, of course, that if you “eliminate the possible, whatever you are left with, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”


The crucial word here is “if.” I long ago learned not to assume that every possible explanation for any given situation in the Middle East has been explored.


Therefore, when put in Sherlockian terms, one of my main conclusions after almost fifty years of intense endeavor is; When discussions about the Israeli-Arab dispute take place, not every “possible” is ever eliminated. And that is the primary reason for all the failures in peace-making.


There are many reasons why all the “possibles” are not eliminated. Two are particularly blatant. First, discussions about the conflict are invariably conducted—especially in the media—by advocates who discuss only those very few subjects that they believe will support their arguments. Second, advocates invariably construct their arguments in such a way that their expositions will conclude by placing any blame for failure on the opposing party—which then enables the parties involved to avoid real work by arguing about an irrelevancy.


All of this brings me to my final logical conclusion. Invariably, the real truth will only be found in what they are not talking about—or, when put in Sherlockian terms, the truth can usually only be found in the possibles that were not eliminated.


How does one then begin to look for the possibles that haven’t even been mentioned? From my experience, the best place to start looking for that truth is to see whether there is a direct and strong match between the subjects being discussed and the histories and the political cultures of the protagonists. In other words, it is absolutely necessary to examine the history and political culture of the protagonists closely to see if there are any prominent features of those subjects that are not being talked about. Most people do not undertake this kind of effort because it just takes too much work. It is, as I say, much easier to find someone to blame.


I now want to provide just a few examples of what I am talking about, based on a lifetime of making an effort to explore the history and political culture of the region in its multitude of forms.


But even before I start dealing with some of the subjects that really contributed to the collapse of the peace talks but which have not been given the prominence they deserve, I have another important observation to make. It appears to me that the quickly-issued response that supposedly determined where blame for the breakdown in the peace talks lay—the occupation—was the product of a fear to ask the question “why” did the participants act as they did?


I have long believed that, when trying to understand events in the Middle East, or anywhere else when the discussion of important issues has been avoided, one must ask what fears lay behind the refusal to seek out the truth.


I think that the reason why the question Why?” is asked too infrequently can be found in a psychological study on fear undertaken by the US Air Force many years ago. The study found that the most fear-inducing word in the English language is “Why?” The surveyors postulated that the reason for this was that the very question “Why?” is perceived as an existential threat by most people. That is because it challenges people’s very being, including the most basic assumptions and beliefs upon which they base their lives. Not only that, it also strips most people of their most important psychological defences by forcing them to cast aside the excuses they use to enable them to carry on with their lives without giving much thought to what they believe.


So, what I would like to do now is to spend the rest of this discussion doing two things: First, provide examples of issues that were left largely or wholly undiscussed while the negotiations were going on and may have been underlying causes of the collapse of the Kerry peace talks; and secondly raise a few “Why?” questions that, to the best of my knowledge, have gone unasked in the post-mortems that followed the collapse.


Because of time and length restraints, I will ask only a few Why? questions that to my knowledge were either not asked at all, or not answered if asked. I could have asked dozens more.


Here goes.


One often-used tactic designed to provide any set of negotiations with momentum is to find, in advance, some sort of act or statement that can be labelled a “success”—no matter how trivial or insignificant that act or statement may be. Then, if and when the real discussions fail to achieve anything of substance, those acts or statements can be publicized and declared to be the herald of other good things to come, and a reason for returning to the negotiating table.


With that in mind, why then, even before he set about arm-twisting Netanyahu into agreeing to an 11 month settlement freeze, did Obama not ensure that he already had in hand some sort of concession from Abu Mazzen that he could present as a “success” at the end of the freeze?


As things turned out, Abu Mazzen avoided negotiating with the Israelis until the freeze was almost over. Because Obama had no “success” he could pull out of his quiver, the settler’s supporters were handed a gift—an argument that Abu Mazzen was simply buying time and trying to seek Israeli concessions without offering an equivalent quid pro quo. The settlers’ supporters were then able to successfully persuade Netanyahu not to agree to another such freeze.


To my very great surprise, there was another, almost blindingly obvious question that nobody, not even the settlers’ supporters asked. It is: Why did American diplomats and Israeli peaceniks keep insisting that Abu Mazzen was the best partner for peace negotiations that Israel would ever have?


How could they, or anyone else, have been so certain? After all, internal el-Fatah and PLO politics are murky at best. And since there had been no Palestinian elections since Hamas’s bloody takeover of Gaza, there was no way of knowing who might emerge to take Abu Mazzen’s place when he eventually retires?


But now comes the first hard question.


I am not usually a believer in conspiracy theories, but why did the Americans (and the Europeans to some extent) seemingly conspire to encourage, or at least allow, the negotiations to turn into an exercise in gamesmanship?


Gamesmanship, as I define the term, is everything that a player in a negotiation says or does that does not have, and is not intended to have, a direct and immediate impact on the final agreement. However, it can, and is often intended to have a significant effect on the course of the negotiations. In particular, gamesmanship is often used to divert attention from the real work at hand.


There are dozens of examples that I can give, but one stands out. It was clear from the very outset, at least to me, that Netanyahu’s insistence that Abu Mazzen recognize Israel as the “homeland” of the Jewish people was an act of gamesmanship. Netanyahu hoped to trap Abu Mazzen into playing the role of negotiations spoiler; and he largely succeeded…at least when it came to the reaction he received from his domestic audience.


All of which brings me to question two. Why, then, did the Americans and the Europeans not encourage or even try to force Abu Mazzen to finesse the issue of the “Jewish Homeland,” as Anwar Sadat and King Hussein had done when they negotiated their peace treaties with Israel? More to the point, even if the Americans and the Europeans were both too thick-headed to make that demand, why didn’t Abu Mazzen, if he really wanted an agreement, adopt such an approach on his own?


Instead of outwitting Netanyahu by neutralizing the “Jewish State” issue, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereqat tried his own totally absurd exercise in gamesmanship. He voiced a ludicrous, new Palestinian claim that they are the descendants of the Canaanites; and therefore they have even a longer-standing historical claim to the land than do the Jews.


Before continuing, I think it is important to explain why Netanyahu could be sure that just describing Israel as the “Jewish Homeland” would make Abu Mazzen look bad—at least to Jewish Israelis. When examined closely, Netanyahu’s demand was merely an attempt to reword an almost identical demand that had been voiced before by Israel and rejected vehemently by the Palestinians.


Essentially, every Israeli negotiator had said in the past: The Palestinians have to agree to give up their demand that they have a “right of return” to homes evacuated during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence because the Jews are now in control of the lands on which those homes were built, and the Jews have no intention of allowing the Palestinian refugees to return to the lands captured in 1948. The current negotiations are only about how to divvy up the lands Israel captured in 1967.


Netanyahu seemed thrilled by what he was doing and keeps endlessly repeating his demand about Jewish homeland legitimacy. To their credit, a very few rational Israeli commentators did have the sense to point out that Netanyahu’s campaign was potentially extraordinarily dangerous.


Netanyahu claimed that when he was talking about a “Jewish National Homeland,” he was only referring to the Jews as a “nation,” not a religion. That may sound reasonable to Western ears. However, it has to be understood within the context of Levantine history and the cultures of the nations living there.


Historically, almost all the peoples living in the Levant have dismissed the Western proposition that there should be a total separation of church and state. Many Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox adherents, for example, have always believed, and continue to believe, that nationhood and religion are inseparable.


Moslems of all stripes carry that precept even further and believe that the ultimate form of governance should be that of a single body politic, the umma, led by a caliph, who can rule on both political and religious matters.


For that reason, Netanyahu’s demand virtually invited the Palestinians to choose to interpret the use of the word “Jewish” in its religious sense. And they did.


At that point, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in danger of degenerating from a political dispute into a religious one—with all the potentially emotionally-explosive problems such a change would have created. Had that switch taken place, Israel would not have been confronting 7 million Palestinians and their descendants, but 1.2 billion Moslems worldwide.


As I have noted, this problem had arisen before and had been dealt with successfully. Both Anwar Sadat and King Hussein, devout Moslems, had recognized from the outset just how explosive turning the Israeli-Arab dispute from a political one into a Jewish -Moslem religious quarrel could be. And so, almost the moment that serious talks began, they set about finessing what would otherwise have been an irresolvable issue.


Sadat finessed it by treating the Jewish National Homeland issue a purely political matter. By contrast Hussein finessed it by using Islamic religious law, and by displaying a common form of Islamic respect for human dignity.


Sadat accomplished his objective simply by choosing to appear before the Knesset. It is something Abu Mazzen has never requested. By delivering his plea for peace in the Israeli legislature, Sadat, ipso facto, was doing something that was even more important than talking directly to his country’s sworn enemy. He was legitimizing that body as the one that had the right to decide all questions that would arise when a final peace agreement was brought up for ratification because it was the “national sovereign.” By implication, every “national sovereign” also has to the right to decide who has the right to citizenship within that nation’s borders.


As often happened, King Hussein’s efforts were more complicated, but no less skillful and purposeful. Hussein, in a move of brilliance, chose to legitimize his negotiations in a way that was uniquely Islamic. Since Mohammed’s time, Jews and Christians alike had been declared to be dhimmis, or second class citizens because they had not accepted the teachings of the prophet. However, according to Islamic law, they had always been one step up in status over all other religious believers such as Hindus and Buddhists because they were “peoples of the book.”


As the peace talks progressed, the palace in Amman used the opportunity of a visit by Shimon Peres to leak a story that Peres immediately related to the Haaretz newspaper. Peres claimed that sources in the palace in Amman had told him that Crown Prince Hassan had been studying the Mishnah—the second oldest and the second most important of the three great Jewish religious texts.


The declaration that a scion of Mohammed had found value in studying the wisdom of rabbis whose thoughts and decisions Moslems have declared to have been surpassed by the Koran was extraordinary. Israeli Jews took the story as an indirect statement by the Hashemites that Jewish tradition as Jews choose to interpret it has value and is worth respecting. Thus the issue of Jews and their definition of what they believe constitutes their “homeland” became moot.


Hussein himself reinforced that interpretation by taking part in an even more extraordinary event not long after the peace agreement was signed. His actions at that time sealed the peace agreement for Israelis in a way that no simple signature on a document could ever have done.


In March 1997, a group of Israeli schoolgirls were visiting the “Island of Peace,” a manmade island in the Jordan River that is open to Israelis, but owned by Jordan. A Jordanian soldier opened fire, killing 7 of the girls and wounding several others. During the mourning period, King Hussein visited the families of the girls to offer his condolences. In keeping with Jewish tradition, the families were sitting on cushions on the floor. To the surprise of one and all, the king went on bended knee to shake hands with the mourning parents. The pictures of the event went viral. In the Arab world, critics were dumfounded that a king would go on bended knee to anyone, least of all a Jew…and even more so, a woman. In Israel, though, as I noted, the event sealed the peace agreement as no other action could have.


Criticism of Hussein’s act was almost universal in the press of Moslem-majority countries. But, crucially, the critics did not claim that Hussein had done anything wrong religiously. After all, Moslems are commanded to comfort mourners. The criticism focused on a secular sin that Hussein had supposedly been guilty of. How, his critics asked, could Hussein, a king, have deigned to go down on bended knee before a simple commoner?


During the Kerry round of peace talks, precisely because the US failed to stop Netanyahu’s exercise in gamesmanship and because it failed to have Abu Mazzen finesse the “Jewish Homeland” issue, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been left to confront a seemingly insuperable problem.


Here then is a perfect example of a fundamental issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that was part of the open debate, but was not addressed in its entirety.


But it is no less important to query why those involved felt it necessary to totally ignore and even hide from the public one of the most critical, substantial issues that, unless resolved, must inevitably throttle any peace initiative.


Islamic law demands that any land captured by Moslems must become the possession in perpetuity of the Waqf, the Islamic charitable trust. Therefore, by religious law, land once occupied by an Islamic army cannot be given up in any negotiation. In this regard, Anwar Sadat and King Hussein were in a far better starting position than any Palestinian negotiator will ever be. They could offer any number of other concessions during their peace talks because they primary stated goal was the return of land to their “rightful” Islamic owners.


By contrast, Abu Mazzen was in a position where had he publicly accepted that Israel is a legitimate Jewish national political entity that could have separate sovereign rights over land that was once Moslem-controlled, he would also have implied that he accepted the principle that Waqf land can be given away to non-believers. To Moslems everywhere, that would have been sheer heresy and anything he did after that would have been considered illegitimate in the Moslem world.


The problem Abu Mazzen faced then goes a long way to explaining why the Palestinian negotiators have refused to accept something that would otherwise appear to be self-evident and that is an integral element of UN Security Council resolution 242—the fundamental document on which all the peacemaking efforts have been based. Israel, and UN resolution 242 demand that the Palestinians agree that any so-called “final agreement” include a clause stating that the two sides will have no further claims on each other.


Shimon Peres claims that he suggested that the “Jewish National Homeland” issue be finessed only at the very end, when Abu Mazzen would sign the treaty “on behalf of the Palestinian state,” and Netanyahu would sign it “on behalf of the Jewish state.”


But that would not have resolved the underlying problem. The Palestinians would still have needed a way of being able to claim to themselves and to the other Moslem states, that the borders agreed to would always remain “temporary” because all the “Waqf land” held by the Jews had not been returned to their rightful Moslem owners.


It has been suggested by some that one way to resolve the problem would be to get a friendly Moslem legal scholar to issue a legal ruling (fatwa) that would reinterpret Islamic law in such a way that the needs of the treaty would be satisfied. But that would be almost impossible.


Unlike many other religions, Islam has no central body that is empowered to make binding decisions about religious law. Instead, as the suggestion implies, every Moslem is expected to find a religious scholar and then follow his example. This then naturally leads to multiple interpretations of the law. However, the issue of Waqf-held land is so fundamental to Islam, that no ruling by a single cleric would be able to change it.


One escape from this bind, as a very bright Palestinian woman once explained to me, would be to mold what she called a “generational decision.” In other words, an entire generation of Moslems, including leading religious scholars, would have to come to a consensus decision on this matter. That is the rationale used by some of those who support the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute can only be resolved within the context of an overall Israeli-Arab agreement—of which the Israeli-Palestinian agreement would be only one part. The argument is that a broad agreement would be indicative that a consensus had been arrived at.


Two realities undermine such an approach. The first is that any one Arab country could refuse to accept the terms of such a deal—which would make the issuance of a declaration that a consensus had been achieved impossible.


Of far greater importance, however, is that even if the political leaders announced that a consensus had been achieved, it might not be accepted by the religious scholars and the masses. In the Moslem world, a real consensus decision—one accepted by the vast majority of Moslems—has been made only twice. In the early years of Islam, many Moslems were open to new ideas, including those that were produced by the use of Greek philosophy and scientific exploration. That openness was called “Ijtihad,” or “independent reasoning.” In the 12th century, though, the continuation of this acceptance of openness in the search for knowledge was challenged. The leading opponent was a mystic named al-Ghazali. The leading defence attorney was a brilliant philosopher and qadi named Ibn Rushd.


Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West, lost that battle. A generational consensus formed around Al-Ghazali and the great period of Islamic scientific achievement came to a close. Similarly, in the 19th century, largely under the influence of local Christians, who had, in turn, been influenced by European secular Christians, a cultural renaissance among Arab Moslems, called the “nahda” swept through the main cities of the Arab world. However, once again, religious conservatives launched a counter-assault and won.


Clearly, unless another, imaginative solution can be found to the dilemma of how to finesse the “Waqf land/Jewish Homeland” conundrum, no peace agreement, at least not as such agreements are conceived of in international law, can be negotiated.


Here then, is a clear example of a critically important issue that went totally unaddressed.


Incidentally, although it has nothing to do with the Kerry initiative itself, I think, based on what I have discussed about the role of the Waqf in Moslem concepts of landholding, that it is worth noting just how extraordinary an Arab diplomatic success was the establishment of UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency). Established in 1949, it was created to maintain the Palestinians who had lost their homes and property during their war with the Jews in 1948 in a permanent state of non-citizenship. It is the only UN refugee operation that is intended to be multi-generational and for which there is no task completion date. Essentially, the Arabs succeeded in getting the world to fund a political position, based on a Moslem religious belief, that the Palestinian refugees should and could be kept in a state of paid dependency until their previously-held lands were returned to the sovereignty of the Waqf.


All of which leads me to my next question.


Throughout the Kerry mediation mission, Abu Mazzen, resolutely refused to make any modification in in the Palestinians’ long-standing demands that Israel accept, in advance, that all border negotiations be based on the June 6 1967 lines, that there be an immediate halt in settlement construction, and that East Jerusalem be accepted as the capital of the Palestinian state.


However, even more importantly, the Netanyahu government resolutely refused to place any comprehensive peace proposal of its own on the table. For that reason, no one, least of all the Palestinians, knew where the Israeli government stood officially on any issue. And for that reason, no one could figure out where to even start looking for trades or concessions that each party could offer the other. Any subject that was discussed was essentially ad hoc

Israel is a vibrant democracy that depends on popular debate to resolve major existential issues. There is no more existential an issue than how to make peace. Why, then, was there not a single opposition party within the Knesset available, willing and capable of offering a reasoned, comprehensive, alternate proposal as a response to the Palestinians’ demands…and as a counter to Netanyahu’s refusal to do so? More to the point, why did Kerry not cultivate such a party?


There were several “peace proposals” that had already been formulated by extra-parliamentary bodies such as the so-called “Geneva Initiative,” that were available for consideration and that Knesset parties could have accepted holus bolus, or in a modified form. Some Knesset members, as individuals, had already voiced their support for some or all of these proposals, but they never took the effort to try to have these ideas included in their party’s electoral platform.


Because of the absence of a fully-formulated Israeli opposition peace plan that could have been offered to the public as an alternative to the Likud’s intransigence, Netanyahu, had he wanted to or needed to find strong parliamentary backing for his declared belief that there should be “two states for two peoples,” had few alternate weapons he could use to defend the peace process when the extreme neo-nationalists in his own and other parties launched their full assault on the peace initiative itself.


There has been an absolutely foolish belief among many if not most non-Israelis that the Labour Party has already taken on the role of “Likud Party alternative” because many of its leaders had given lip service support for the peace negotiations.


But the fact is that despite Israel being a strong democracy, Israeli politics has not had an effective “fighting” opposition since the Likud was nearly wiped off the political map in 2005 and had to rebuild itself, virtually from scratch. And amazingly, but true, before that short, interim period, Israel had not had a genuine Knesset opposition party, ready to take office, since the 1970s.


That lacuna had opened up the moment the Likud won power for the first time in 1976. But the actual origins of that problem can be dated to June 13, 1967. Israel had won the 6-Day War, but the ruling Labour Alignment, as it was then known, could never decide what to do with the territories Israel had occupied during that war. The party was deeply divided. Some of its leading figures had already joined the burgeoning Land of Israel Movement that sought to annex all the territories that had once been part of the holdings of the Biblical 12 tribes. Not only that, the second largest faction in the party, Achdut HaAvodah, was led by a fierce believer in settlement, Yitzchak Tabenkin.


Worse still, a newly founded peace wing led by Abba Eban was almost immediately undermined and almost silenced by the so-called Khartoum resolution of August 1967, in which the Arab states declared that there would be no negotiations, no recognition, and no peace with Israel.


With no comprehensive, accepted, settlement ideology to guide it, decisions by Labour on what should and could be done with the occupied territories became haphazard at best.


For example, Shimon Peres negotiated a deal with a settler group under which the settlers could set up a community in the northern West Bank as an election gesture in 1976. That set the precedent for the massive wave of settlement that began as soon as the Likud won that election.


Then, crucially, despite the shock of losing the election, Labour’s leaders developed a form of political catatonia. They could never accept that they had lost what they believed was their right to rule.


During that same time period, several European socialist parties also lost elections. However, unlike the Europeans, Labour never did any real soul-searching about why it had failed and what it should do to win reelection. Instead, it went through a period of interminable leadership squabbling between Peres and Yitzchak Rabin.


Mind-boggling as it may appear to be, from that time onward, Labour never really tried to win an election by offering itself up as a genuine alternative to the Likud.


Worse still, so abhorrent was the idea that the party leaders might lose the perks that had come from occupying ministerial chairs that whenever possible, Labour’s leaders chose to become members of what were termed “national unity governments.” Being a member of such a government provided the biggest and best excuse for work avoidance imaginable. The party’s members could then always place the blame for their intellectual inactivity on the fact that they were bound by the coalition agreement they had signed with the Likud.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, their strategy, if one can call it such, was to hope and pray that disgruntled voters would eventually throw the Likud out of office.


The strategy actually worked…but not in the way they had anticipated.


Twice during the 1990s, Labour was returned to office. Yitzchak Rabin became Prime Minister after the extreme neo-nationalists refused to support the Likud after it had agreed to participate in the Madrid peace initiative. And Ehud Barak became prime minister only because the extreme neo-nationalists again chose to punish the Likud and withdraw their support after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he chose to fulfill the terms of the Wye accords that had been signed while Labour was in office.


Throughout his long political career, Yitzchak Rabin was extremely skeptical about whether any negotiations with the Palestinians could bear any fruit. Nonetheless, once elected to office because of the infighting within the Likud, he did make a significant effort to develop a comprehensive approach to peace-making. However, once he was assassinated and once Yassir Arafat began blatantly breaking the terms of the Oslo agreement, the peace effort that had been initiated on the White House lawn with such fanfare began to collapse.


Shimon Peres, who succeeded Rabin in office, tried to keep the process alive. However, he was too distrusted by the public because of his years of concocting sleazy backroom political deals, and he lost the next election.


Amazingly, at no time during the past 30 years has the Labour party either given up its predilection for infighting or its obsession with focusing on personalities. Even more importantly, in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, it never took the time and the effort to use Rabin’s intensive policy-making efforts as a base for formulating a comprehensive national political platform. Thus, after Barak’s debacle as a party leader at the turn of the millennium, it even failed to play the role it had earlier staked out for itself—the default party to vote for if the Likud and its allies screwed up too badly.


Labour’s cop-out created a political vacuum that has continued to this day. Kadima, which replaced Labour as the default party, might have filled that vacuum, but failed to do so. With the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political scene, his followers in the Kadima Party, a coalition of political has-beens and ambitious wannabes began to lose any sense of political direction—if they had any to begin with.


And when Tzippi Livneh became Kadima party leader, the party’s fate was sealed. Kadima did win more seats than the Likud in the 2009 election, but then Livni too became politically catatonic. Not only was she unable to form a coalition, she failed to use her time in the opposition to fashion a comprehensive set of domestic policies that would have positioned Kadima to become the alternative to the Likud that Labour still refused to be.


When Shelly Yachimovitch won the Labour Party’s leadership in 2012, she did try to use her time as leader of the opposition to create a party platform. But she lacked the expertise in foreign affairs to do so. In the end, in yet another example of intra-party self-demolition, she was dumped by the party faithful. As before, they set about looking for someone…anyone… who might get the party back into a coalition government so that the party could recover at least some of the perks that come from holding cabinet posts.


This meant that the Kerry initiative began as unpropitiously as possible. With Livneh’s new Tnuah party and shooting star Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party—both narrow sectoral parties—in the cabinet, and with Labour neutralized, there was no political being in place to counter the pressures being put on Netanyahu by the organized, disciplined group of settler supporters both in the Likud and in the HaBayit HaYehudi party.


In the past, when such a political vacuum had occurred, the Israeli public had been activated. As I have shown many times before, roughly once a decade, a majority of the public, usually led by a charismatic but otherwise unknown individual or small group, rises up and forces the government to make profound changes in its policies. But this time, with no individual or political body prepared to lead it, the silent majority of Israelis who favour a political agreement with the Palestinians remained silent.


Using the popular digital media at their disposal, members of that majority did plead with President Obama to fill the void and help them mobilize support by addressing the Israeli public directly as he had done in Cairo with the Arab public in 2009. For reasons that I find totally inexplicable, he refuse to do so. And when he finally did speak to a group of students in Jerusalem in 2013, he said nothing that was even remotely relevant to his self-chosen audience.


If the Americans or the Palestinians had expected that a major popular Israeli opposition group would emerge spontaneously, then they were clueless about how and why Israeli society operates as it does.


One fundamental characteristic of Israeli society is the way in which it perceives Jewish history. When I ask non-Israelis what Israelis view as the two most significant moments in Jewish History, they usually answer as follows:


“The Holocaust?”


When I nod “yes,” they add, “Idduno about the second.”


When I ask a person who has been a product of the Israeli school system they invariably answer:


“The Holocaust?”


When I nod “yes,” the vast majority add, “I dunno.” And then, after a short pause, “The destruction of the Second Temple?”


And therein lies a salient lesson that foreigners would do well to take into consideration. But they never do. One of the most formidable forces guiding the Israeli public is the set of conclusions the ancient rabbis came to on why the Second Temple had been destroyed.


The rabbis decided that the tragedy at the hands of the Romans 2000 years ago had been the product of two things—what the rabbis called “free hate,” and civil war. Free hate was determined to be a state of mind based on belief, not reason. This hatred had then led the Jews who were defending Jerusalem against the assault by the Roman legions to fight each other, not their common enemy. As a result, Jerusalem was destroyed and so many Jews were then taken prisoner that the price of a Jewish slave on the open market fell to less than that of an ass.


Modern surveys provide a salient lesson on how today’s Israelis have internalized the ancient rabbis’ admonitions and how those warnings have produced the political dynamics we have been witnessing.


For decades, all surveys have found that 62-64 percent of Israelis have been willing to trade land for peace. Nonetheless, the majority has not been able to prevent the settlers from having their way. Over the years, I have asked dozens of Israelis who would agree to evacuating settlements what it would take to get them publicly activated. With just a little nudging, the reason usually given for widespread popular inactivity is that there has been nothing hard and practical to debate. Most of the proposals that have been leaked to the press by the peace negotiators have been collages of ideas, rather than coherent, comprehensive packages. Those whom I have spoken to agree that only if such a package of proposals were offered up for open debate would they feel impelled to consider its implications.


If one then filters out the blah-blah that then forms the detail of the excuses why current partial proposals are not deserving of greater thought, one finds that the most important criterion these Israelis would use in evaluating the proposal is that the package would have to have a greater value than the cost of entering into a civil war.
Interestingly, a survey undertaken by the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies found that if a majority of Israelis did come to the conclusion that a peace agreement was of real value, the number opposing civil war would jump to 85 percent, because a clear majority of settlers is also opposed to civil war on this issue. In other words, a majority of settlers would accept the will of the majority.


Clearly, unless the silent majority of Israelis is mobilized as a counterweight to the highly disciplined settler supporter minority, the settler’s supporters will continue to have a disproportionate influence on how the Israeli government approaches the peace talks.


Of course none of the stuff I have just noted was even mentioned during the Kerry initiative post-mortems.







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