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Update – 8 November 2012

Posted by Emily Gian on 8 November 2012 at 2:56pm:

The results of the world’s most important elections are in and Barack Obama has been re-elected as President of the United States of America. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have all sent their congratulations.

There has been much speculation and analysis for what this will mean for Israel but in his second term as President, I would hope he will be up to the challenge of changing the current status quo.

In October 2009, after only spending nine months in office, President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. His “vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” was also commended. Given the short amount of time he had been in office at the time, many wondered what he had actually achieved to further the cause of peace. At the time, I felt it was an award that carried with it a hope for what Obama could achieve in the future.

Indeed, in his first election, he campaigned under a banner of hope and change. I am sure it has been said before, but as Jews we know a thing or two about Tikvah, about hope. So my hope for President Obama is that in his next four years in office, he finds a way to bring some peace in the Middle East, to bring a comprehensive and practical plan for how the Israelis and the Palestinians can move forward and to stop Iran before it is too late. If this can happen, he will prove himself a worthy winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

On the subject of peace, last Friday evening, Udi Segal of Channel 2 in Israel conducted an interview with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. For those that do not understand Arabic and cannot read the Hebrew subtitles, the interview switches to English at around the 4:20 mark, and it is worth watching.

Segal challenged President Abbas on a number of occasions, particularly in regard to his accusations at the United Nations last year of ethnic cleansing. Abbas also claimed that in going to the UN this year seeking membership as a non-member state, he is not seeking unilateral independence. He also declared that there will be no armed intifada, no use of terror, weapons or violence. Of course, Fatah has no control over what is happening with their rivals firing rockets over in Gaza.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview came towards the end when Segal asked about how official PA-controlled television refers to places such as Akko, Ramle and Jaffa as part of Palestine. Chairman Abbas, who was born in Safed declared, “I visited Safed before once. But I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there”. When Segal continued, asking if that is Palestine, Abbas replied, “Palestine now for me is ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever… This is Palestine for me. I am (a) refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that (the) West Bank and Gaza is Palestine and other parts (are) Israel”.

Taken at face value, these statements mark a change in attitude from any Palestinian leader, particularly in regards to his comments on Safed, as it would appear Chairman Abbas is giving up on the “right of return”, which has been a major sticking point in negotiations for decades. Palestinian leaders have always insisted on a right of return to Israel not only for Palestinian refugees, but their descendants, which now totals over 5 million. They have constantly refused to recognise Israel as a Jewish State or a homeland for Jews whilst at the same time demanded that Palestine be Arab in character. Israeli leaders from all ends of the political spectrum would agree that this is not only unrealistic, but would be a demographic nightmare that would essentially create two States both with a Palestinian majority.

Either way, any optimism about his statements appears to have been short-lived. Almost immediately, Palestinians in refugee camps in Northern Gaza were burning images of Abbas, and Hamas leader in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh proclaimed that “no one has the right, whoever he is – a common man or president, organisation, a government or authority – to give up an inch of Palestinian land” (see more).

Furthermore, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared “no Palestinian would accept ceding the right of our people to return to homes, villages and towns from which they were displaced… If Abu Mazen (Abbas) does not want Safed, Safed would be honoured not to host people like him” (see more).

Abbas was also quick to clarify his comments declaring, “What I said about Safed was my own personal position, and it did not mean giving up the right of return. No one can give up the right of return, since all international records and Arab or Islamic resolutions speak explicitly of fair and agreed upon solution to the problem, in accordance with resolution 194” (see more).

One of Abbas’ spokesmen, Nabil Abu Rudeina stated that “a TV interview does not mean negotiations. The purpose of [Abbas’] interview on Israeli TV [Channel 2] was to influence Israeli public opinion” (see more). This makes sense given that Israelis will be heading to the polls in the general election on 22 January 2013.

As one Arabic commentator put it, “if it is true that Abbas’s statements meant abandoning the “right of return”, then such a stance should have been announced following a long series of negotiations rather than be offered on a silver platter like Abbas did” (see more).

The day after, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office said, “the Prime Minister’s proposal to meet with Abu Mazen without any preconditions whatsoever still stands… in relation to what Abu Mazen said [on Channel 2], there is no connection between his words and his deeds” (see more).

On Sunday, he commented further, “I watched President Abbas’s interview over the weekend. I have heard that he had already managed to go back on his remarks… this only proves the importance of direct negotiations without preconditions… Generally, I can say that if Abu Mazen [Abbas] is really serious and intends to advance peace, as far as I am concerned, we can sit together immediately. Jerusalem and Ramallah are only seven minutes apart; I am ready to start negotiations today (see more).

Commentary has been divided on Abbas’ statements and Netanyahu’s response and this is one perspective from famed Israeli author David Grossman, who wrote an open letter in Ha’aretz to Prime Minister Netanyahu. He writes, “You surely understand, Mr Prime Minister, what it means for the leader of the Palestinian people to speak even these hesitant words publicly… You can, of course, write off his words as a manipulation, but deep in your heart you, too, as a leader who is subject to the pressures of extremists and fanatics, can appreciate the courage that is required of him to say aloud what he did, knowing full well the price his is liable to pay”.

At the end of the day, the statements made by both leaders mean nothing unless they actually get back to the negotiating table. But even then, there is still a very serious question that needs to be answered by both the Palestinians and the Israelis about what they are doing to prepare their people for the prospect of peace. If one comment which was the personal stance of the leader of the Palestinian people sparks a violent response, what would happen one day if a proper negotiation did take place? Would it be accepted universally by all factions of the Palestinians? Would Hamas honour a negotiation between the Israelis and Fatah, and would the people be prepared as well?

There is of course, another problem. As long as the Palestinian Authority continues to honour terrorists through the naming of sports stadiums and streets, and continues to teach the children that Palestine exists from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, that cities such as Ashkelon, Haifa, Ramle and Lod are Palestinian cities, it is always going to be very difficult to move the process forward at the grass roots. Even taking a simple picture of a child with a key symbolic of the houses left behind in 1948 perpetuates an unrealistic view of the endgame.

So this might be President Obama’s biggest challenge in terms of proving that that Nobel Peace Prize means something. His task is not simply about bringing together the two leaders, but also about bringing together their people as well.

In the meantime, the next election on our mind is the Israeli elections, which I mentioned will be taking place next January. As this is an extremely complex issue, and the political landscape has changed quite dramatically over the last few years, and even in the last few weeks, I will tackle the issue in my next update.

We have some very interesting functions coming up at Beth Weizmann in the next week, with author and commentator David Hazony speaking this Sunday night at 8pm and a public forum next Thursday 15 November with Maariv journalist Ben-Dror Yemini also at 8pm. These are two functions not to be missed! Contact the ZCV office on 9272 5544 for more information.

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