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Trying to Revive Mideast Peace Talks, Kerry Finds a Conflicted Israel

June 20, 2013 by  


By Jodi Rudoren

JERUSALEM — The intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen as a trio of conflicts.

There is, of course, the bitter enmity between Israelis and Palestinians, hardened over decades, with many on each side questioning the other’s claim to the land bridging the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. There is the deep rift between the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas factions that many recent reconciliation meetings have failed to resolve. And there is a cleavage within Israel over whether the two-state solution is desirable or even possible.

With Secretary of State John Kerry planning his fifth visit here in three months to revive peace talks, the Israeli divide was on stark display last week, as several right-wing ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government professed their profound opposition to a Palestinian state and promised to prevent one. While Mr. Netanyahu distanced himself from the remarks, questions about the sincerity of his recent pleas for peace resurfaced. Clearly, a dissonance exists in Israeli public opinion, where a strong majority supports two states, but only along parameters the Palestinians have roundly rejected.

“One of the tragedies of the last decade is that the security fears and pressures have dulled the Israeli conscience,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an author and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute here. “You come to a certain point where the disparity between what Israelis want and what Israelis believe is possible starts to break down. Given that there are no good alternatives, that’s a frightening possibility in the evolution of Israeli thinking.”

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said there was a consensus in Israel favoring a Palestinian state, but not along the 1967 borders (as the Palestinian leadership insists); not with East Jerusalem as its capital (a cornerstone of every Palestinian plan); and not without maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley (which Palestinians reject as a challenge to their sovereignty). Israelis have also become more vigilant about security and less trusting of so-called moderate Arab leaders in the wake of the Arab uprisings exploding around them.

“There’s the idea of a two-state solution in the abstract, and then there’s converting it into a map,” said Mr. Gold, a former peace negotiator and Netanyahu adviser. “Israelis want negotiations, they want to see a settlement that addresses the issue, but they also have certain red lines that they don’t want any arrangement to cross.”

The current tempest began when Danny Danon, a hawkish member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party and deputy defense minister, told the Web site The Times of Israel that “there is no majority for a two-state solution” within Likud or Israel’s governing coalition. Later, in a television interview, he said that the majority of the Israeli public “has given up the idea of land for peace”; that Israel should declare sovereignty over the Jewish settlements and empty areas of the West Bank; and that the fate of Palestinian “blocks” should be “determined in an agreement with Jordan.”

Opposition leaders called for Mr. Danon’s ouster. Palestinian leaders condemned his remarks as racist but said they revealed the “true face” of Israel.

“Danon is an honest man who discloses the Israeli real policies and plans,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab-Israeli member of Parliament, was quoted as saying in gulfnews.com, the online version of a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. On Monday, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, issued a statement saying that “Israel has officially declared the death of the two-state solution,” and “is determined to make Kerry efforts fail,” citing policies Mr. Netanyahu “is pushing on the ground.”

While Mr. Netanyahu had appeased Washington by not proceeding with new settlement projects this spring, plans already approved for the West Bank have continued to move ahead, including more than 1,000 housing units in the far-flung settlements of Itamar and Bruchin pushed forward last week. Mr. Netanyahu’s housing minister said last week that he was ready to build thousands more apartments in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Naftali Bennett, a senior minister and head of the Jewish Home Party, declared at a settlers’ conference on Monday, “The idea that a Palestinian state should be established within the land of Israel has reached a dead end.”

Ari Shavit, a columnist at the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, blamed the failure of Israel’s center-left movement to propose “a new, relevant and attractive peace idea” for the rise of what has come to be called “Danonism.”

“Danon is not Israel, but there is no political force in Israel to stop Danon right now,” Mr. Shavit said in an interview. “The reasonable center does not express itself, and the militant minority — determined, with a vision, with political power — is working day and night to kill the two-state option. Because this minority is very effective politically, and because the majority is in a state of fatigue, they are having their way.”

Despite Mr. Kerry’s push, the Palestinian conflict has faded from view here as Israelis worry more about threats from Syria and Iran, as well as domestic social and economic issues. A poll by the Peace Index project of the Israel Democracy Institute in April showed the Palestinian issue ranked fifth among seven top concerns for Israelis, with fewer than half of the respondents supporting negotiations or believing that they will bear fruit.

Several analysts noted that while Israel’s Jan. 22 elections resulted in a less conservative Parliament than the previous one, the coalition Mr. Netanyahu assembled in mid-March tilts further to the right, particularly on the Palestinian question. David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel, said that the most telling thing was not what Mr. Danon said but that Mr. Netanyahu had given him and the others who disagree with the prime minister’s stated support for two states prominent positions in the cabinet.

Some political experts here see the open airing of these divergent views as a sign of Mr. Netanyahu’s weakness within his own party, and of the fragility of his coalition. Others wonder whether Mr. Danon and the others may be voicing more than a fringe view. Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister, said Friday in Washington that Mr. Kerry’s initiative had “failed so far” and that he was not optimistic about the prospect of an agreement.

For some, Mr. Danon’s directness is instructive. “If you ask me, he tells us the truth, while they are playing with the image they would like to project,” said Tamar Hermann, vice president of Israel’s Open University and director of the Peace Index project. “The proximity between Danon and the real Netanyahu — not the Netanyahu talking to Washington — is much smaller.”

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