You can’t make peace with bad leaders

December 13, 2016 by Ben Cohen -
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On one of my first assignments abroad as a rookie journalist back in the early 1990s, I found myself in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, just as the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia was getting underway in earnest…writes Ben Cohen/

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 22, 2016. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak.

One afternoon, sitting with a group of journalists and writers in a café in the city center, I was drawn into a long conversation with an Israeli professor who was temporarily teaching in Belgrade. We began comparing nationalism in the Balkans with nationalism in the Middle East, and an observation he made has stuck with me ever since. “I think the Croats should have an independent state for the same reason as the Palestinians,” he said, as we sipped Turkish coffee along with shots of the lethal local plum brandy. “It’s much better to get screwed over by your own leaders than by someone else’s.”

A quarter of a century later, Croatia’s achievement of independence seems like a distant memory, yet full national sovereignty still remains elusive for the Palestinians.

True, the Palestinian Authority (PA), created in 1994, is widely regarded—including in Israel—as a stepping stone on the path to negotiated statehood. But successive Israeli prime ministers, among them Ehud Barak of Labor and Ehud Olmert of Likud, have offered serious concessions to the Palestinian leadership—in essence, a state in more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, with land swaps also part of the bargain—only to have these rebuffed for one simple reason: neither the late Yasser Arafat nor his successor Mahmoud Abbas, never mind the Islamists of Hamas, have been willing to make peace, philosophically or politically, with the legitimacy of Israel’s presence in the region as a Jewish and democratic state.

In some ways, this persistent pattern suggests that my Israeli interlocutor all those years ago was wrong: even if you don’t have an independent state, you absolutely can get screwed over by your own leaders, when those same leaders decide to blame someone else’s leaders for your ongoing misfortune.

I’m not, of course, overlooking the polling data which shows that large numbers of Palestinians regard Israel’s leaders as their greatest enemies and remain opposed to any compromise with Israel, even tactically. The two-state solution, which has been the foundation of international efforts to bring a solution to this particular corner of the Middle East, has been obstructed by many factors, most of all Palestinian discomfort with the very idea of a Jewish state in what Hamas and others consider the “Dar al Islam”—the domain of Islam. That viewpoint, and not the promise of peace based on economic cooperation as envisaged by politicians as varied as former Israeli President Shimon Peres and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has counted for far more.

But the most tangible result of this rejectionism has been to freeze negotiations on Palestinian independence. The result is that two other solutions, both of them fraught with risk, are now in the mix.

The first “solution” involves elements of both Palestinian unilateralism and international pressure on Israel; in essence, recognizing a Palestinian state without Israeli consent, and pressuring Israel to concede territory that it currently controls. In the final days of the Obama administration, it’s an approach that is again being mooted in the context of the United Nations Security Council resolution which the U.S., in an absolute break with its policy of solidarity with Israel in U.N. forums, would support.

Will this resolution be a gift of sorts to the Palestinians from the departing administration of President Barack Obama? Concern about that prospect has been widespread, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others, forcefully restating the importance of achieving peace through direct negotiations between Israel and the PA.

Those concerns were heightened with the recent publication of a New York Times op-ed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, a proponent of the slander that Israel is evolving into an apartheid state, calling for American recognition of “Palestine” through a U.N. Security Council resolution that would define the end of result of negotiations before they begin, and punish Israel for not following these measures to the letter. The concerns were further solidified by the rather bitter recent comments of Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he portrayed Israeli settlements rather than Palestinian eliminationism as the key obstacle to ending the conflict.

Here is where we come to the second “solution.” In a speech to the Brookings Institution, Kerry highlighted the remark of Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett that Israel had reached “the end of the two-state solution.” That internal Israeli discussion, which doesn’t change the fact that government policy remains committed to a secure state of Israel alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state, has attracted a good deal of attention, especially now that certain aides to President-elect Donald Trump have been expressing sentiments similar to Bennett’s. A Wall Street Journal report on the issue even cited the head of a leading Palestinian think tank observing that, in this political climate, “There are people who say let’s have members in the Knesset from Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah.”

Israel should resist international pressure for an imposed solution. At the same time, Israeli politicians should be more wary of the implications of rejecting a two-state solution. The relationships that Israel has developed with Sunni Arab countries confronted by growing Iranian power are of major strategic value; the question, then, is whether it is worth risking those relationships’ further enhancement with provocative statements which suggest that Israel has turned its back on Palestinian statehood.

Kerry himself addressed this point. “There will be no separate peace between Israel and the Arab world. Let me make that clear to you,” he declared. “There will be no advance or separate peace in the Arab world without advancing the Palestinian issue. Everybody needs to understand that. That is a hard reality.”

Leaving aside the hint of wishful thinking here, it is important to prove Kerry wrong. By developing closer relations with Israel, Arab states might in fact exercise positive influence on the Palestinian leadership.

This is a leadership which still can’t accept that the Palestinian question is no longer at the heart of the Middle East conflict—which is one reason why it pursues offensive and self-defeating initiatives like securing an apology from the U.K. government for the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised a “Jewish national home” in Mandatory Palestine. If the outside world wants to be useful, it should start cultivating a new generation of Palestinian leaders who grasp this strategic reality, paving the way for a solution that enables Jews and Arabs alike to live with dignity and opportunity.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).


One Response to “You can’t make peace with bad leaders”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    A lot of history in that observation connected to the nationalism of Croatia and the Middle East not too well read or understood.

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