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What Netanyahu should propose to bring peace

Because I wish for someone to do something for peace, I wrote up a few remarks that I wish Prime Minister Netanyahu would deliver.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending a news conference in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014.
REUTERS/Nir Elias

I am heartbroken by the bloodshed in Gaza. I will risk the ire of some by acknowledging that I personally assign much more of the blame for it to Hamas than to the government of Israel. But, as a late friend of mine liked to say, blame is for God and little children.

What the larger situation calls for (stop me if this is blitheringly obvious) is some serious, steady peacemaking. Personally, I have not always viewed Benjamin Netanyahu as the guy who would make the peace that the situation has needed for many decades. But in the hope that I’m wrong about Netanyahu, and because I earnestly wish for someone to do something to turn the recent, and recently paused, bloodshed into a peacemaking opportunity, I wrote up a few remarks that I wish Prime Minister Netanyahu would deliver:

I would like to address my remarks to Israelis, to our Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians, and to the world, especially those in the world who will be skeptical of the sincerity of my next two sentences.

Israel wants peace. I want peace.

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The government that I lead wants peace. And we know that peace means a two-state solution. To be even more explicit, peace means a sovereign state for the Palestinian people, alongside of which we Israelis hope to live in peace as long as that Palestinian state is prepared to accept the existence of the state of Israel within permanent, defined borders, and live in peace alongside of us.

Therefore, I announce today that Israel will put in place an immediate halt to the expansion of any West Bank settlements outside of several settlement blocs that the parties agree will remain a part of Israel after the creation of the future Palestinian state.

I say this now, knowing that some will doubt my sincerity and understanding why they will doubt it. I am a man of the political right. My political party has generally been viewed as hawkish and relatively unsympathetic to the Palestinian desire for a sovereign state of their own. My own father, whose memory I cherish, was a figure of the so-called “revisionist” movement within Zionism, which generally rejected the idea of a two-state solution.

My own career as prime minister has included the use of violence against Palestinians, and has included failed efforts to seek a peace agreement with the Palestinians of the West Bank. Surely, some who hear my words today will remain skeptical, believing that if I really wanted peace, I could have had it.  

I ask for a momentary suspension of your skepticism. I know it is difficult, but I ask skeptics to open your minds to the possibility that the killing of civilians during the recent Israeli military actions in Gaza was deeply painful to most Israelis and to me personally. We wish it could have been avoided. Consistent with the need I felt to protect Israeli lives from Hamas actions, and the actions Hamas took that put their civilians into harm’s way, we tried to minimize the killing of innocents. We welcome the latest ceasefire and hope it becomes permanent, although the world must understand that Israel, as any state in the world, cannot be asked to tolerate rocket attacks aimed at its cities.

We also hope peace negotiations with our partner, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, can resume soon. I am ready to resume them with no preconditions, as soon as President Abbas is willing and able.

But, of course, as I already said, I understand the skepticism. And I understand that that skepticism of whether I personally am prepared to make peace is supported by the continued expansion of settlements that will have to be removed to make the two-state solution practical. And that is why I make the pledge to permanently stop expanding those settlements.

To clarify briefly for those who do not follow the details of past negotiations: There is only one seriously imaginable peace plan that matches where we are now. All of the West Bank, minus the settlement blocs near the pre-1967 borders, must become part of the Palestinian state. Israel must cede other lands, contiguous to the current West Bank boundaries, of equal size to offset the settlement blocs. The settlements that are now deeper within the West Bank will have to be within the Palestinian state. Israelis who live in those settlements now will have to move to homes in Israel unless they prefer to live under Palestinian rule and the Palestinian state allows them to stay.

And yet, during my prime ministership, Israel has expanded those settlements and started new settlements. I understand why skeptical Palestinians and reasonable observers elsewhere in the world would take the expansion of those settlements to be a sign that Israel does not really plan on allowing a viable Palestinian state to come into existence. And so today, understanding that many in the world are more skeptical than ever that Israel is willing to make peace and allow for the creation of a Palestinian state, I promise, unilaterally and not in exchange for any concession from President Abbas, that we will stop expanding those settlements. And I affirm to those living in those settlements now that they will someday have to move their homes when a two-state solution is negotiated, which I hope it soon will be.

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Within the context of Israeli coalition politics, this announcement may cost me. But that’s nothing serious at a time like the present.

My announcement is not a concession to Hamas. Israel will not make military or territorial concessions to an organization that is deeply and unalterably committed to Israel’s ultimate destruction. That is not negotiable and never will be. In order for the territory of Gaza and the population of Gaza to someday enjoy the benefits of Palestinian statehood, the people of Gaza will need to follow different leadership.

I am not under the illusion that this pledge I make today to stop settlement expansion guarantees an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. There are other issues to resolve. Recent events make it clearer than ever that we Israelis live within bombing distance of enemies who still want to destroy us. It may be difficult to reach an agreement, even with President Abbas, that strikes the right balance between his expectation of true sovereignty in a Palestinian state and Israel’s vital and legitimate defense needs. But we must keep trying to find it.

As I have acknowledged today the skepticism that many feel toward the sincerity of my commitment to peace, I ask our once and future Palestinian negotiating partners, and the rest of the world, to consider the skepticism with which  many Israelis view the idea of a true, enduring willingness of our neighbors to accept the existence of our state within the region.

We have a sad and serious situation in Gaza. My statement today will not fix it. It is possible to hope and perhaps even to believe that if President Abbas and I can make progress toward a two-state solution, and if the people of Gaza see their countrymen and women in the West Bank enjoying the benefits of progress toward peace and sovereignty, the Gazans will find a way to get in on that action, a way that leaves Hamas and bloodshed behind.