Ending the occupation of Palestinians and ensuring Israeli security is the overall goal for moderates on both sides of the Middle East conflict.

According to many historians, the 1973 war was a major driving force for the peace agreement signed between Israel and Egypt only six years later. However, there is another avenue to achieve peace that does not require such tragic violence: negotiations.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a new government in March 2009, there have been no direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insists that there be a full Israeli settlement freeze in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem before bilateral talks can resume.

At the beginning of Netanyahu’s term, this might have made sense. Netanyahu was considered a hard rightist. He refused to back a two-state solution, and during his election campaign he fervently supported the settlement movement in the West Bank.

However, like many politicians, Netanyahu has changed his platform. In June 2009, he delivered an important policy address supporting a Palestinian state, and a few months later agreed to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank for 10 months. George Mitchell, the United States special envoy to the Middle East, commented on Netanyahu’s move saying that, “it is more than any Israeli government has done before, and can help move toward agreement between the parties.”

In addition to Netanyahu freezing settlements, the prime minister has initiated several concrete gestures to assist the average Palestinian individual. Israel’s policy of removing checkpoints throughout the West Bank along with additional security cooperation between the two sides has boosted the Palestinian economy in the West Bank by seven percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. For over a decade, Palestinians have not experienced such a dramatic financial growth.

It is true that currently Netanyahu refuses to freeze building within East Jerusalem as Abbas demands. However, is not settling differences between the two parties the reason why negotiations exist? If everyone agreed, then a peace treaty would have been signed years ago.

Israel also has significant disagreements with the Palestinian National Authority regarding terror incitement in Palestinian schools and security threats, but Israel has not derailed peace talks. A year ago, Netanyahu’s policies were hawkish, but he has taken significant steps towards peace while in office. Despite Israel taking these moderate steps, Abbas is punishing Netanyahu by refusing to hold negotiations.

It is interesting to note that before Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister to freeze settlement building in the West Bank, Abbas never had a policy of refusal to enter into negotiations. Intense final status talks were held with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who according to Abbas “had a great desire for peace.” Even during the Second Intifada, a period of extreme violence, both sides continued to meet. But now Abbas refuses to speak directly with Netanyahu.

Maybe Abbas believes that Netanyahu is a right wing leader who will never really change. But politicians in the Middle East can and do change. Before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem to extend a hand for peace, he initiated one of the bloodiest wars in the Middle East. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was a champion of the settler movement. This same man was later the first Israeli leader to evacuate settlers in a peace treaty with Egypt. If Abbas is looking for Netanyahu to make a bold decision at the negotiating table, he has to give him a chance.

In the Middle East, history has proven that an absence of negotiations can take a violent turn. When talks stalled between former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000, violence filled the void and lead to the bloody Second Intifada. Sometimes leaders are faced with a dramatic decision. It is either yes or no, forwards or backwards — there are no alternatives. Sometimes the reality really is that simple.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban said, “Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Whether this statement is accurate or not, the past cannot be undone. And this suspicion still lurks on both sides. After almost a year of stagnation on the peace front without negotiations, something needs to change. Abbas, please prove Eban wrong. Too much is at stake for both Israeli and Palestinian children. Seize the moment, or the extremists will.

This viewpoint was written by Aaron Magid on behalf of the American Movement for Israel.

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