US should stay out of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, for now


Jewish activists protest in front of the Israeli Consulate to denounce a speech made by US President Barack Obama on May 20, 2011 in New York City. Obama called for a return to Israel's pre-1967 borders as part of a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.


Spencer Platt

TEL AVIV — Thursday November 15, at 6:45pm on a commuter train in Tel Aviv, a rocket alert sounds, the train stops, and we are told to get on the floor. A number of people laugh at the absurdity of the situation. One female soldier starts crying. Everyone else is quiet. Five minutes later, we are on our way.

For the last 12 years, Hamas has fired thousands of rockets on southern Israel, turning daily life into a recurrent hell, not just for border communities near Gaza, but for cities of over 200,000 people, such as Ashdod and Ashkelon, and Israel's fourth largest city, Be'er Sheva. Now Tel Aviv has come in range. This time, fortunately, there was no damage. 

Imagine life in Manhattan if Brooklyn repeatedly fired rockets on it, bringing normal life to a halt, people unable to go to work, children to school, hospital wards evacuated, the very act of stepping out of one's home a source of fear. No government in the world would tolerate this, no matter what the ostensible justification.

Some argue that Hamas rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism generally are the result of Israel’s occupation and diplomatic intransigence. Even if they were right, nothing justifies intentional targeting of civilians, which is what Hamas does consistently, as well as deeply embedding the rockets among its own population, so that any Israeli countermeasures must by necessity cause civilian casualties.

Israel, however, withdrew from Gaza in 2005, thereby ending the occupation, and even the embargo that it imposed on the region - in direct response to the thousands of rockets fired by Hamas - was lifted a couple of years ago. Hundreds of trucks cross from Israel to Gaza every day conveying food and other goods.

There is some truth to the charge that the current Israeli government has not shown sufficient willingness to make compromises for peace, but this can only be leveled in regard to Israel's policy towards the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, not Hamas in Gaza. Hamas repeatedly calls for Israel's destruction and its charter refers to Jews as donkeys and dogs. Despicable and genocidal though it is, negotiations might be worth pursuing if there was anything to truly negotiate about. Unfortunately there is not.

President Abbas, for his part, has consistently refused to come to the negotiating table for the last three years, despite American and Israeli calls. In 2008, he failed to even respond to former Prime Minister Olmert’s proposal for a deal based on a Palestinian state in 100 percent of Gaza and 93.5 percent of the West Bank, with a compensatory land swap of 6.5 percent, a division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines and internationalization of the Holy Basin. His predecessor, Arafat, rejected outright similarly dramatic Israeli proposals at Camp David and the Clinton parameters in 2000.

Furthermore, Abbas does not truly speak today for the Palestinians, certainly not for Hamas in Gaza, and all attempts in recent years to bring about Palestinian reunification have failed abysmally. Until that happens there is very little point in conducting negotiations, because the Palestinian side would not be able to deliver on an agreement even if it could be reached. For Israel, there is no point in making all of the concessions needed to reach a deal, if it does not get the ultimate return it seeks – security, and an end to the conflict once and for all.

Some believe that President Obama should make use of his second term to renew efforts to promote the peace process, as have all of his predecessors. Honorable sentiments aside, he should not, at least not now; the last thing Israelis and Palestinians need is another failed peace initiative. Both already despair of the prospects of peace, and the last thing the US needs is to squander its political capital in the Middle East once again.

If and when conditions change, that will be the time for renewed American involvement, but for the foreseeable future US efforts should be on issues where it can have an effect – preventing horrific and repugnant terrorism, ending the Iranian nuclear program, maintaining the Egyptian-Israeli peace — rather than the very worrying ones now underway.

Chuck Freilich is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel under Likud and Labor governments. He is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and the author of "Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy."