Here are 48 hours from life in the Middle East.
Tuesday night: Meeting of the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams along with the American mediators. For the first time in a long time, the atmosphere was excellent. New solutions were proposed for old problems and the word “breakthrough” was mentioned more than once. The goal was a clear and mutual one — to reach an agreement that would extend the negotiations and move them to an even more senior level.
Wednesday morning: Shock, disappointment. Without warning, President of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen declares that he is signing an agreement for a unity government with Hamas. Just two days prior, during the Passover holiday, Hamas fired Qassam rockets into southern Israel. Rockets landed not far from a synagogue in the town of Sderot and miraculously no one was hurt.
Thursday evening: After an unusually long meeting of the Israeli government’s security cabinet, of which I am a member, it was decided to suspend peace talks until it becomes clear whether or not the new Palestinian government is formed. The decision, to which I was party, passed unanimously.
This was by no means a trivial decision for me. When the current Israeli government was formed, I told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that while I would not stand by with a stopwatch, I had no intention of remaining in a government for the long term that would not undertake negotiations aimed at separating from the Palestinians.
My views have not changed. I believe that we must not yield one inch when it comes to Israel’s vital security needs, but we must stop building settlements outside the so-called “blocs” and achieve a separation with the Palestinians in the context of which a large portion of the settlements will be dismantled and Israel will withdraw from much of the West Bank.
An arrangement along these lines would be no easy feat, since the Palestinians already refused twice — in 2000 and in 2008 — to sign an agreement that would have granted them more than 90 % of their territorial demands. Israel is still ready to go great lengths to reach an agreement, however Abu Mazen has time and time again avoided at the last minute signing an agreement.
Despite all this, I have not given up. Nothing is easy in the Middle East, but we must continue to work towards an agreement with all our might and despite all the obstacles, because the alternative option is eternal conflict and the loss of Israel’s Jewish identity. My party and I remain committed, within reason, to continuing the peace process and will continue to support it.
And yet, I cast my vote for suspending the negotiations. Why?
Because Hamas is a not the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, but rather a Jihadist terror organization whose express purpose is to kill and maim Jews simply because they’re Jews.
I voted the way I did because I cannot understand how anyone could expect us to negotiate with a government, half of which claims to want to reach an agreement with us while the other half claims it is not bound by that same agreement. One half claims to want peace and the other half — simultaneously — shoots thousands of rockets and mortar shells on innocent civilians and rules over Gaza in a reign of Islamic terror that has resulted in the murder of hundreds of Christians just because they are Christians, the oppression of women, and the public hanging of homosexuals from electricity poles.
One half speaks English and tells the world what it wants to hear, and the other half is an Islamist organization that denies the very existence of the Holocaust, was outlawed in the U.S. and in most European countries and has claimed, in an official statement of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (and as of this week, the new partner of Abu Mazen): “Osama bin Laden was a Muslim freedom fighter” and condemned his execution.
As mentioned previously, I am willing to sacrifice a lot to reach an agreement. This is also why the cabinet decision was worded so carefully and so precisely. Whoever reads the actual text of the decision will discover that we did not call for the cessation of the talks, but rather for their suspension. Abu Mazen declared that the Fatah-Hamas government would be formed in five weeks’ time. Despite this flagrant breach of trust, we have not closed the door. When the new government is formed, we can decide — in consultation with the U.S. — where to go from here. Our goal was and remains to continue talks until an agreement is reached. But before that, we must know something very basic: With whom exactly are we talking?
Yair Lapid is Israel’s minister of finance and the head of Yesh Atid party.