Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are considered by many countries, and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to be a major obstacle to peace. As such, the PA has traditionally put forth two demands; either Israel immediately freezes settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or Israel recognizes pre-1967 borders as a basis for a future Palestinian state. These demands are the preconditions that the PA requires of Israel before they will commit to any negotiations, under the justification that they are needed to prevent Israel from changing facts on the ground while both parties are negotiating final status arrangements.
Israel has historically refused to acknowledge these preconditions, and instead believes that both parties should negotiate without setting conditions. Yet, if the demands of the PA are logical and reasonable, why refuse them? Let us look back to 2009, when, in an effort to restart peace talks, Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of instituting a freeze on settlement construction; an act that had never before been performed by an Israeli prime minister. Ignoring members of his own party, and his coalition government of right-leaning parties as a whole, Netanyahu took an enormous gamble in an attempt to restart stalled negotiations. The result, unfortunately, was that very little was accomplished since the settlement freeze did not include construction underway in East Jerusalem, an area which Israel maintains is comprised of suburbs, not settlements.
If history and Netanyahu’s actions in 2009 are any indication, a future settlement freeze would not result in peace talks. By agreeing to a freeze Netanyahu would only alienate elements of his party and parliamentary coalition, potentially causing the government to collapse. Moreover, there is the issue of increasing incidents of violence being perpetrated by radical settlers under the name of “price-tag,” a term which encompasses acts of “retaliation” against Palestinians for the demolition of settlers’ houses by the Israeli government. Thus, settlement freezes have the potential to increase violence against Palestinians, and ultimately hinder any form of settlement negotiation.
Another problem with preconditions is that it forces Israel to give up bargaining power over its security concerns. According to a video released by the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, a fighter jet can travel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in only four minutes, posing a significant threat to the security of all Israelis. Similarly, rockets fired from the Judean hills in the West Bank could easily strike Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s only international airport.
Palestinian accommodation for Israel’s security needs is essential to any successful peace agreement. To that effect, as it stands now, Israel’s options for achieving security include controlling key hilltops, demilitarizing Palestine and controlling airspace over the West Bank. Recognizing pre-1967 lines before negotiations commence limits the possibility of bargaining for any of these options, each of which would significantly increase Israel’s ability to defend itself. If preconditions are structured so that Israel is incapable of attaining its goals for a lasting peace, what is the point in negotiating at all?
It is interesting to ask ourselves what would happen if Israel proposed preconditions on negotiations equivalent to those of the PA. Just as the PA does not want Israel changing the demographics of Palestine, so too does Israel reject the idea of the PA altering the demographics of Israel. What if, for instance, Netanyahu declared that Israel would only enter into negotiations if the PA publicly denounced the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper, otherwise known as the “Right of Return?” In this scenario, Abbas would be unable to denounce the Right of Return without losing the support of his people, once again leading to no negotiations occurring.
Thus preconditions, no matter how logical they may be, are not conducive to furthering the peace process. If both parties are truly sincere about attaining a peaceful solution they should realize that playing politics is destructive rather than useful, and is contrary to the interest of both of their peoples, to whom they are ultimately responsible.