Word on the Street: Crossroads

July 17th, 2013

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

As I write these words, Secretary of State John Kerry is in the midst of another Mideast trip, having spent two days in Amman meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and representatives of the Arab League. A visit to Jerusalem may come later this week.

We remain hopeful that his efforts to get meaningful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations re-started on achieving a two-state solution are about to bear fruit.

The stakes for Israel certainly were raised this week with revelations of a new European Union directive regarding financing for Israeli entities over the Green Line. In the directive, set to take effect in January 2014, the EU states that any Israeli entity applying for a “grant, prize or financial instrument” from the European Union must first submit a declaration stating that it has no direct or indirect links with the West Bank, the Golan Heights, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The EU move should serve as a stark wake-up call that the international community has simply run out of patience with the 46-year occupation.

If diplomacy cannot solve this conflict now, more and more countries will turn to boycotts. They may start with Israeli institutions located over the Green Line but will probably quickly encompass individuals who live there as well. Israeli artists, academics, athletes and officials increasingly will find doors slamming in their faces around the world.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the Israeli point person for the peace talks, put the move in the correct perspective: “We can easily get to a point where we are isolated by Europe,” she said. “It’s a bad decision for Israel, and we need to learn the lessons. It’s very difficult for Israel to explain that we want two states for two peoples and at the same time to continue building settlements. That is a colonial point of view.”

J Street opposes the BDS movement because we strongly believe that negotiations are the only path to ending this conflict. However, in the absence of meaningful negotiations, Israel will face ever-increasing isolation, not just from Europe but from much of the rest of the world.

For the Palestinians, the stakes are also high. If the Kerry initiative stalls, they are likely to request the International Criminal Court to consider war crimes charges against Israeli officials or citizens for actions in the occupied Palestinian territory. The Israeli government regards this as crossing a red line and its response would be severe. At a minimum, Israel would probably again freeze Palestinian tax receipts and the US Congress would halt aid, driving the Palestinian Authority into bankruptcy within a few weeks.

As former Shin Beth director Yuval Diskin, one of the “gatekeepers,” wrote this week: "There is no alternative but to enter into a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, here and now, despite the anxieties and the numerous risks. Without such a process, we will certainly cross the point of no return, after which we will be left with one state from the river to the sea for two peoples. The consequences of such a state for our national identity, our security, our ability to maintain a worthy, democratic state, our moral fiber as a society, and our place in the family of nations would be far-reaching."

Kerry has wisely kept details of his talks confidential so we, along with the media and other organizations, are largely in the dark as to what exactly he is proposing. We know he has been delving deep into the substance of the issues, trying to establish an agreed framework for talks including President Obama’s formula of borders along the 1967 lines with some territorial swaps.

We know there has also been much discussion of an informal cessation of Israeli settlement building – but we don’t know how far-reaching and comprehensive it would be and whether loopholes for continued building would remain. And we also know there has been discussion on the release of some 120 long-term Palestinian prisoners.

What we do know is that Kerry’s efforts have brought the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to a crossroads. One road leads to negotiations and the promise of an end to the conflict. The other leads toward growing isolation for Israel and possibly even a return to violence.

This should be an easy choice for both leaders. They need to take the road to peace.