When it comes to the Middle East, Israeli Ambassador to Mexico Jonathan Peled is an optimist, even though he admits that there is not much chance of a real peace accord between his country and the Palestinians being reached out any time soon.
“I don’t really know if we are any closer to peace now than we were five years ago, but definitely, we see today a more promising attitude and trend in the region,” he told The News in a recent one-on-one interview at his embassy.
And while there are still only a handful of countries in the region that even acknowledge Israel diplomatically, Peled said that many of the Middle East’s biggest players are now beginning to recognize the fact that “Israel is here to stay.”
He added that, political and ideological differences aside, these regional leaders are now also acknowledging Israel’s potential as “a great source of technology and knowledge, a partner, to be taken into account and to work with, rather than as an old adversary.”
Within the Arab World, Peled said, more and more countries are coming to the understanding that “today, Israel is an asset and has a lot to contribute.”
And, he said, whether they like it or not, Israel is now a regional power, and it behooves them more to work with Jerusalem on common regional and international issues than to keep expending resources on an unwinnable war to annihilate the Jewish State.
But while many surrounding countries may be willing to try to move past the 50-year-old conflict in order to focus on more crushing regional concerns, Peled said that the real obstacle to peace with the Palestinians is their own internal political feuds and steadfast intransience when it comes to finding a viable solution.
To begin with, Peled said that since Hamas took control of Gaza as a result of a violent military coup against the Palestinian Authority in 2007, there have, essentially been two Palestinian governments.
“Since there is no longer just one Palestinian camp peace, [we are left with the question of] who do we talk to?” he said.
Indeed, the 10-year standoff between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas-run Gaza Strip seems to be at an indeterminable impasse.
Just last month, the PA formally notified Israel that it would no long pay for providing electricity to the Gaza Strip, a clear sign that Ramallah has lost patience and given up on trying to reunite the two Palestinian territories under a single banner, and that it would now let the war-torn and politically and economically anarchic region fend for itself.
Without a unified Palestinian voice, Peled said that there is no path to negotiations with Israel.
“At the end of the day, the Palestinians have to make a strategic decision which will mean taking action on their part, to come as one unified camp with the support of their people to do it,” he said.
Asked if there could come a point when Israel would have to sit down with two Palestinian camps to iron out a peace deal, Peled was resolute.
“Absolutely not,” he said.
“I can’t speak on behalf of decisions that haven’t been taken by my government, but nobody in his right mind would accept a split Palestinian side as a partner at any talks, especially when one of those sides is attacking us.”
As it stands now, the ambassador said that Israel is being “threatened on a daily basis by Palestinian terrorist organizations … which are doing everything in their power to hinder any kind of rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
Peled said that unless these terrorist groups — specifically, Fatah and Hamas in Gaza — are willing to put down their arms and agree to a real ceasefire, it is unlikely that the fundamental framework for peace negotiations can be assembled.
“Our policy has always been that we are willing to sit down with anyone who is willing to sit down with us,” he said.
“But Hamas is calling for the destruction of the state of Israel, and for us, that is a nonstarter.”
Peled also made a point of saying that while outside brokers such as the United States might play a role in offering their auspices as an umbrella venue for the negotiations, Middle East peace can only be reached through one-on-one negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“This is something that we and the Palestinians have to hammer out face-to-face, and it’s not going to be easy,” he said.
“It is not going to be a short process, and there are going to be ups and downs, but, in the end, it is going to be up to us to decide. We’re the ones living in the region.”
So what is Israel willing to put on the negotiation table? Is Jerusalem in play?
“Our position all along has been to return to the negotiating tables without preconditions,” Peled said.
“Everybody knows we have borders. We have settlements. We have refuges. We have Jerusalem. We have our security needs, first and foremost. All these issues can only be dealt with in a direct approach. So our position has been very clear. The Palestinians have to come to the negotiating table, sit down with our prime minister, with our government, and hammer out all these issues.”
But the envoy said that, at least so far, the Palestinians have been naively inflexible in their position.
“When you walk into the negotiating table, you have to be willing to make compromises,” he said.
“That’s the whole idea of a negotiation. You come with 100 percent demands, and I come with 100 percent demands. And in the end, we understand that none of us can come out with 100 percent. We will both come out with less than 100 percent. That’s a notion which the Palestinians have not accepted. They are still playing a zero-sum game. For them, it’s all or nothing. And when they play for all, they will be left with nothing. Because Israel is here to stay. We are strong. That is basically where we stand.”
Still, Ambassador Peled said that his country is hopeful that the Palestinians will eventually overcome their internal squabbles and realize that it is in their own vested interests to find a path to peace with Israel.
“It’s not in anyone’s interests to continue being in a situation of conflict,” he said.
“But we can only bring ourselves to the negotiating table; we can’t force the other side to come to the table.”
But, ever the optimist, Peled said that there is, at least in one sense, a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“As I already said, more and more countries in the region understand that Israel is an asset,” he said.
“And they also understand that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is in no way part and parcel of their day-to-day problems and security concerns.”
Consequently, Peled said, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is now being viewed in a more realistic context, in keeping with its “normal dimensions.”
“I think the world in general realizes that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the main problem in the region,” he said, pointing to Syria and Yemen, as well as the growing tensions between predominantly Sunni and predominantly Shi’ite nations.
“Israel is definitely not part of this. All of this has absolutely nothing to do with Israel or with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
Peled said that by compartmentalizing the Israeli-Palestinian situation and not clumping it together with much larger conflicts, it becomes much easier for negotiators to maneuver a path to peace.
And if outside sources were to stop funding the Palestinians in their incessant guerrilla war against Israel, Peled said the Palestinians would have no choice but to “get their act together and sit down with Israel, because nobody else is going to do it for them.”
Rather than playing the eternal victim card, the ambassador said, the Palestinians need to follow Israel’s example and look ahead to a more promising future through economic and social development within the framework of peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.
“Israel today has a thriving economy; we’re the second Silicon Valley of the world,” he said.
“And, we have proven that, despite living under adverse conditions and having no natural resources, you can be successful … If we can do it, there’s no reason why [the Palestinians] can’t do it.”
If the Palestinians truly want peace with Israel (which would open the door for a better life for all their people), Peled said they are going to have to make a courageous commitment to honest negotiations and realistic compromise.
Peled said that Israel wants peace, and is willing to make concessions to get it,
“No country in the world wants peace more than we do,” he said.
Over and over again, Israel has stretched out its arms with olive branches to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating tables.
For now, Israel is engaged in a one-step solo recital in the convoluted ballet of Mideast peace negotiations, and, as the old refrain goes, “it takes two to dance a tango.”
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.