The ever alluding peace, the Holy Grail that Israel has been seeking fr years, is not here yet. After years of negotiations there are still major obstacles on the way to peace in the Middle East. met with Professor Itamar Rabinovich to discuss the peace process and the way it is viewed by both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Professor Rabinovich was Israel’s Ambassador to the US from the years 1992-1996 and is still involved in the negotiations with the Palestinians as part of the 2nd informal circle. The peace process has been going on for many years – do you believe there is a future to that process?
Prof. Rabinovich: The process will take many more years, but I believe there must be a positive outcome since Israel has no choice but to make peace with its neighbors, the Palestinians and Syria. At the end of this process, Israel will remain a strong and thriving country but will be much smaller, style Singapore. This will require many adjustments some of which have already began. For example, we recently learned that the Israeli Air Force is training in Romania. That fact was revealed due to a sad accident but that is part of the reality of a small state.
Though the process is long and will take many more years, we are in the right direction and peace will be achieved eventually. Israel is negotiating with Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. Considering Abbas does not control Gaza, is he a relevant representative? Can he commit the Palestinians to a peace agreement?
Prof. Rabinovich: With the exception of Israel, there are no democratic societies in the Middle East. So it’s not a question of representation but rather is Abbas an effective peace partner. One that can sign an agreement, fulfill it and stand behind it for the long run. Under these criteria, Abbas is not an effective partner for peace. Even if we assume he has full control of the West Bank he does not control Gaza and cannot deliver a full agreement.  The Palestinians claim that if Abbas can reach an agreement with the Israeli government, he can go back to his people, call for new elections and win over Hamas.
This is the corridor problem, one of the main issues of the peace process. When Abbas cannot immediately deliver peace results due to Gaza/Hamas problem, any Israeli Prime Minister “walking” down that corridor between the agreement and its delivery is at risk. Despite his limitations, Israel is in fact dealing with Abbas. Please describe what happens when we do reach an agreement?
Prof. Rabinovich: Abbas will present the agreement to the Palestinian people and ask them to support it. Assuming they will support it, the international community will then have to decide what to do with Hamas that will try to sabotage this agreement. We might be able to start to act upon the agreement in the West Bank and leave Gaza to the international community to deal with. Is there any way that Hamas can be part of the negotiations?
Prof. Rabinovich: It is still unclear – there are two main theories. One is that Hamas sees itself as a Palestinian movement. They may be more radical than Fatah but they represent a different generation. While they are vocal about their unwillingness to accept Israel, there might come a moment when Hamas turns around and join the agreement. The other theory claims that Hamas is a fundamentalist Islamic movement that can never turn over land to a Jewish state. They can only commit to a lengthy “Hudna” a long term intermediate agreement. It is still unclear which way Hamas will choose. The Palestinians have passed on many opportunities to establish a state of their own. They have recently discussed the possibility of self declaring their own state. How much are they willing to accept the Jewish state?
Prof. Rabinovich: Let’s talk about the main stream of the Palestinian people as represented by Fatah. Fatah have accepted the Jewish state through Oslo agreements. But the Palestinians are still having a hard time grasping the concept of the Jewish state. They do not fully comprehend the difference between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Accepting Israel as a Jewish state has implications for the right of return and the status of Israeli Arabs – two issues which make this demand tough for the Palestinians to swallow.
If you look at the peace process over time, you see what I call the far away horizon effect. When you think you covered all problems a new one is raised. The Arabs call it the Nail of Juha. The story goes like this: Juha had a house. A man asked if he could buy the house, and Juha offered to sell him the entire house, except for one nail. The man was a bit perplexed, but agreed. What difference could one nail make? So the house was sold, Juha moved out, and the man and his family moved in. A few weeks went by, and the man heard a knock on his door. It was Juha, coming to visit his nail. This began to happen more and more, and when the man complained, Juha said, “This nail is mine, and I have the right to see it any time I want.” Juha came by so many times that one day the man and his family stormed out of the house in frustration, saying, “Take your nail and take your house! I don’t want it!”
The fact that every time a new issue rises is part of the reason the peace process is delayed.
As for the Palestinians self declaring their state, it is not a realistic scenario. It will not pass the UN’ general council. Furthermore, Abbas may declare the West Bank as a Palestinian state but he does not control Gaza. So the issue of Gaza will turn up immediately. This is not good for the Palestinians. What about the idea that Israel and the West Bank will swap heavily populated regions of Israeli Arabs and Jewish settlers?
Prof. Rabinovich: this solution may work on paper as a mathematical formula but it is not a realistic solution. Simply put, Israeli Arabs will not give up their Israeli citizenship. Despite their empathy to the Palestinian cause they enjoy living in a democratic state with social security benefits, health insurance and freedom to do as they like. They will not have these benefits in a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are open to the concept of swapping territories but are looking to get clean unpopulated areas in exchange for heavily populated Jewish areas. The right of return seems like a major obstacle. What’s your take on this complex issue?
Prof. Rabinovich: I’m not willing to accept the term “right of return”. If you look at UN resolution 194, which describe the rights of refugees and on which the Palestinians rely on when discussing the issue, there is no mention of the right of return. When talking about this topic I call it the “claim of return” and here are some points to explain the issue:
  • Compared with the 600,000 Palestinians that left when Israel was established. An even larger number of Jews left their homes in Arab states.
  • Israel helped those Jews settle in and make a new home. They did not remain refugees. The Palestinians, however, remained refugees in the Arab states that took them in.  UNRWA and its food stamps made the problem worse for the Palestinians.
  • Practically speaking, there is no way to allow 2-3 million Palestinians into Israel.  If this is what you demand, you do not want peace.
  • Israel was established in 1948, 3 years after the end of WWII. So many people have been displaced in those years and yet none of them remained refugees. The only people that remained refugees were the Palestinians.
If you talk to a pragmatic Arab leader he’ll say OK, I understand, Israel cannot take in 2-3 Million Palestinians. So just accept we have a right of return and take in 50,000 Palestinians. I’m against this categorically. Israel was not established in sin. More ever, over the years, many Israeli Arabs have married Palestinian women. In my estimate about 100,000 Palestinians have returned to Israel that way.
In Camp David summit, Clinton has said that the refugees issue should be resolved either by the Arab States taking in the Palestinian refugees as full citizens or having the refugees return to the Palestinian state, not to Israel. The other major issue is Jerusalem. What do the Palestinian want there?
Prof. Rabinovich: The problem in Jerusalem eventually focuses in the holy area. Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem are not citizens of Israel and there is no issue in adding those neighborhoods to the Palestinian state.
But as for the holy areas in Jerusalem to date there is no solution to this issue. Part of the problem is that the Palestinians turn to the Muslim states on every issue. The Palestinians need a brave leader that will stand up and say I want to reach a resolution on the issue of Jerusalem. When that happens we will be able to find an accepted solution. Our last question deals with the issue of incitement. Despite talking about peace, the Palestinians keep inciting against Israel – how does that work together?
Prof. Rabinovich:  Oslo has failed and so the Palestinians keep inciting against Israel. Part of it is through children’s TV programs and some is through the efforts to de-legitimize Israel.
As long as there is no peace agreement the Palestinians will keep on spreading hate against Israel.