Words don't matter. That's what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said for many years about Palestinian promises of peace. What matters is what the Palestinians do. To achieve statehood, they must define clear borders, end legal claims to Israeli land, and help secure Israel against terrorism.
But now that Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is delivering security and pressing for sovereign borders in an appeal to the United Nations, Netanyahu's attitude has changed. The prime minister is finding new reasons to impede or complicate the quest for Palestinian statehood, based on Abbas' words, not his deeds. It's a cynical game of semantics.
On Friday, as both men spoke at the U.N., Netanyahu tried to exploit four key terms:
1. Negotiate. In his speech, Netanyahu framed Abbas' request for U.N. recognition as evidence that "'the Palestinians have refused to negotiate" with Israel. "We need to have real security arrangements, which the Palestinians simply refuse to negotiate with us," said Netanyahu.
Nonsense. The P.A. has been negotiating with Israel all along. They just don't call it negotiation. Their emissaries meet backstage to negotiate terms of negotiation. It's stubborn, slow, often petty, and seldom productive. But it's still negotiation. In recent months, Abbas has met secretly with Israeli President Shimon Peres at least four times to negotiate possible negotiations.
The Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition is itself a negotiating strategy: Abbas hopes it will give him leverage in talks with Israel. He said so in his speech: U.N. recognition "enhances the chances of success of the negotiations." Abbas blamed the breakdown of talks on Israel's refusal to accept "terms of reference for the negotiations." In other words, Abbas is trying to negotiate better terms for negotiation.
2. Jewish state. Netanyahu told the U.N. that "the core of the conflict has always been and unfortunately remains the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize a Jewish state in any border." More nonsense. The "Jewish state" formula is an issue Netanyahu cooked up in the last couple of years. In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized "the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security." Abbas has reaffirmed this commitment. So Netanyahu has tacked on an additional demand: The recognition must specify Israel's Jewish character.
Why? How Israel defines its religiosity is none of Palestine's business. The only aspects of Israeli statehood Palestine is obliged to affirm are what it has already agreed to: peace and security. So why is Netanyahu hell-bent on the "Jewish" part? Apparently because he thinks it will preclude the asserted right of Palestinians to return to Israeli land they fled in 1948. "We just don't want the Palestinians to try to change the Jewish character of our state," he told the U.N. "We want them to give up the fantasy of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians."
If that's the issue, then say so. Don't paper it over with this "Jewish state" stuff. Three million Palestinians live in Jordan, and many, if not most, would be eligible for a right of return to Israel. Yet Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan includes no acknowledgment of a Jewish state. So you don't need "Jewish state" language to make peace or avert a flood of Palestinians. You just need to negotiate the right of return, or lack thereof.
3. 1948. In his speech, Abbas recalled the "Nakba" (catastrophe) of 1948, in which Palestinians "were forced to leave their homes and their towns" during Israel's war of independence. He told the U.N.: "After 63 years of suffering of the ongoing Nakba: Enough. It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence." These remarks echoed what Abbas said two weeks earlier: "We have been under occupation for 63 years."
Netanyahu pounced on Abbas' words:
He said that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the settlements. Well, that's odd. Our conflict … was raging for nearly half a century before there was a single Israeli settlement in the West Bank. So … I guess that the settlements he's talking about are Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Be'er Sheva. Maybe that's what he meant the other day when he said that Israel has been occupying Palestinian land for 63 years. He didn't say from 1967; he said from 1948.
This is another Netanyahu ploy. Of course Abbas regards all Israeli territory as occupied. That doesn't mean he won't cede it. He explicitly said he would:
In the absence of absolute justice, we decided to adopt the path of relative justice—justice that is possible and could correct part of the grave historical injustice committed against our people. Thus, we agreed to establish the State of Palestine on only 22 percent of the territory of historical Palestine—on all the Palestinian Territory occupied by Israel in 1967.
So when Netanyahu accuses Abbas of refusing to accept Israel's 1948 borders, he isn't identifying a substantive issue. He's using a clash of narratives to cloud the Palestinian case against new West Bank settlements.
4. Peace. Netanyahu told the U.N. that Israel presented a "sweeping peace offer" in 2008, but "President Abbas didn't even respond to it." He charged that "the Palestinians want a state without peace" and that they "should first make peace with Israel and then get their state."
Make peace with Israel? How? By signing a piece of paper? Or by not killing Israelis?
For many years, Netanyahu's principal contribution to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has been his insistence on "peace with security." What matters, on this view, is what you do, not what you say. If Palestinians sign the Oslo accords but then launch an intifada of suicide bombings against Israel, that isn't peace. And that's exactly what happened under Yasser Arafat, as Netanyahu reminded the U.N.
But in that case, the true measure of Abbas' commitment to peace is Palestinian violence. Abbas became prime minister of the P.A. in 2003 and president in 2005. During his tenure, Palestinian violence against Israelis has plummeted. In 2001 and 2002, more than 3,500 Israeli civilians were wounded in terror attacks, according to official Israeli data. After that, the tally of wounded fell by half almost every year. By 2007, it was down to 110. In 2002, suicide terror attacks killed 220 Israelis. By 2004, that number was down to 55. By 2007, it had fallen to three. So far in 2011, Israel has reported 12 deaths in Israeli territory from Palestinian violence. Of these, virtually all were traced to militants from Gaza, which Hamas controls. The data show no known fatal terror attacks in Israel from the Abbas-controlled West Bank.
None of this invalidates Netanyahu's legitimate concerns. Israel has well-founded fears for its security, backed up by years of Palestinian terrorism and the rise of Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu is right that Israel's withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza failed to bring peace. Palestinians, intermediary nations, and international bodies will have to do a much better job of planning and delivering Israeli security in a transition to Palestinian statehood.
But facts are facts. Abbas has proved his commitment to peace on the ground, and he has agreed to give up more than three-quarters of the original Palestine. The right of return will have to be negotiated, as will settlements, and no diversionary alarms about the Nakba or acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state will change that. Netanyahu has a tough job ahead of him. All we can ask is that he do it.