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3 November 2016

Lieberman: Demonstrate Your Credibility

By: Alon Ben-Meir
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I am skeptical of what Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman says as I have judged him only by his actions. For the Palestinians, however, to immediately dismiss what he said in an interview with the Palestinian daily al-Quds—that he supports a two-state solution and would lift Israel’s blockade of Gaza if Hamas relinquishes its military stance—is shortsighted and self-destructive at best. And by rejecting Lieberman’s offer, Hamas is doing nothing but further worsening the plight of the Palestinians living under its rule, forfeiting yet another opportunity to end a conflict that they cannot ever win on their terms.  The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, who perhaps for good reason do not trust Lieberman, should at a minimum call his bluff, if he is indeed bluffing.

Instead of putting Lieberman to the test, the Palestinian Authority chose to denounce what he is offering as if it were a forgone conclusion that Lieberman and his government are simply engaged in public posturing. But even if this was the case, why reject off-hand any offer which only plays into the hands of the extreme right-of-center political parties in Israel? As they see it, the Palestinians are simply unwilling to accept Israel’s right to exist, and anything else they publicly state to the contrary is only for international consumption.

Given that both sides have been engaged for decades in public acrimony against one another, they have created an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust. As a result, they have systematically alienated successive Israeli and Palestinian governments and the general public from one another, thus dooming any overture by either side, however well-intentioned and sincere it may be.

In response to Lieberman’s statement, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry accused him of spreading lies, stating “Lieberman declares himself to be in favor of a two-state solution, while taking pride in being a settler and legitimizing the continued building of settlements and the Judaization of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry further blames Lieberman for trying to create a schism between the Palestinian people (i.e. Hamas vs. PA), when in fact no outsider can rival the Palestinians’ propensity to create and perpetuate their own internal schisms.

Whereas I take what Lieberman stated with a large grain of salt, I believe that the Palestinian Authority should challenge him to offer some practical steps to demonstrate his true intentions. Instead, they opted to attack the newspaper al-Quds for publishing the interview, determined to stifle any public discussion on such critical issues, even when there is a desperate need to change the acrimonious public narrative.

Lieberman, like most Israelis, has long since concluded that the status quo is not sustainable. When he talks about a two-state solution, he is not promoting that for the sake of the Palestinians, but for the preservation of Israel as a secure Jewish state.

Yes, the Palestinians have every right to disagree with his vision about the final contours of a future Palestinian state and its demographic composition, as he (like Prime Minister Netanyahu) envisions that any future Palestinian state will end up with a significant Jewish minority.

But whether or not the Palestinians accept such an eventuality, any peace proposal put on the table should be entertained if for no other reason than to prevent the appearance of being rejectionist and uncompromising.

Thus, any effort made by either side to change the public narrative and promote a process of reconciliation between the two sides that could foster trust and mitigate the prevailing sense of insecurity must not be rejected—especially since both sides claim to seek a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.

In connection with Gaza, Lieberman’s offer must be taken at face value. Anyone who understands Israel’s position regarding Gaza knows that it has no interest in engaging in another futile war against Hamas, or reoccupying the territory and assuming the burden of caring for nearly two million Palestinians.

This is precisely why late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally withdraw Israelis forces from the Strip, as well as evacuate the settlers. As the newly-appointed Defense Minister, Lieberman studied carefully the pitfalls of another war against Hamas and decided to take a different approach from a position of strength.

The lessons that Lieberman has learned from the last three wars between Hamas and Israel were instructive enough to tell him that even if he decapitates Hamas’ leadership, there will be no end to Palestinian resistance emanating from Gaza, and that the blockade is not and will never provide the answer.

What Lieberman is offering Hamas is practical from the Israeli perspective and even more practical from Hamas’ standpoint.  While Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade, it still wants to be in a position to threaten Israel’s very existence.

The illusion that still possesses Hamas’ leadership is that someday, somehow, they will manage to destroy Israel, even though they know only too well that they cannot now or at any time in the future hope to pose an existential threat to Israel and live to see the day.

The vast majority of the two million Palestinians in Gaza live in poverty, the young have no future, the old are despondent and despairing, and all are being held hostage by Hamas to serve its delusional design.

Meanwhile, Hamas is squandering hundreds of millions of dollars to buy more rockets, build tunnels, and prepare for the next war that promises to invite devastation, the likes of which Hamas has not yet seen. Hamas would be wise to take Lieberman’s warning seriously—that “If they [Hamas] impose the next war on Israel, it will be their last.”

“If Hamas,” as Lieberman stated, “stops digging tunnels, rearming and firing rockets, we will lift the blockade and build the airport by ourselves.” This is not a rhetorical gesture on Lieberman’s part. He is focusing on a process of reconciliation—government-to-government—which is sine qua non to reaching a durable peace agreement at a later date.

I fully subscribe to the notion that the conditions on the ground today are not conducive to solving all conflicting issues between the two sides. A process of reconciliation should first take place, and Lieberman’s offer must be viewed in that context, which is the only way the Palestinians could potentially realize their aspiration to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Given Lieberman’s past record and public statements against the Palestinians, they have good reason to be extremely suspicious of whatever he says or does. The onus now falls on Lieberman to demonstrate that he is sincere about his offer.

For Lieberman to lend credibility to his plans and the concessions he is preparing to make, he should share it with Turkey and Qatar and urge them to use their influence on Hamas to persuade it not to be dismissive of Lieberman’s opening.

The same can be said about the involvement of a few European countries, especially France and Britain, in playing a constructive role between the two sides. This approach will put Israel in a better standing, as it is regularly criticized by the EU as being the intransigent party in the conflict.

Moreover, should Hamas accept Lieberman’s offer, it would open the door to removing Hamas from the list of terrorist organizations that would encourage many countries, specifically in the European Union, to invest in Gaza, which could over a few years turn the Strip from an impoverished land into a thriving entity.

It takes a strong and determined leader to go against the current, and only by engaging Lieberman will the Palestinians be able not only to test his credibility, but change the discourse of a seven decades-old all-consuming conflict.

* Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. - alon@alonben-meir.com



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