You can always find a good front-page story in America’s greatest newspapers — if you are willing turn enough pages.
On Monday, if you were lucky enough to be reading The New York Times, you only had to turn a few pages before you found, on page A7, a story of Page One prominence. It was about a rare and potentially significant happening in the Middle East.
On Sunday, a convoy of Israelis had entered Ramallah, on the Palestinian West Bank, and rolled right up to the Mukata, the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters. The Israelis came not by tanks or armored military carriers, as they had after the suicide bombings of a decade ago. They came in buses.
For, while they were military age, these weren’t members of Israel’s military.
They were Israeli university students and some activists, a force totaling 250 or 300, depending on your news sources. They had come to discuss the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace with the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas.
They had come to this session at Abbas’ headquarters, which was once targeted by Israeli tanks and troops, at the urging of Israel’s deputy speaker of the Knesset, Hilik Bar, a Labor Party member who leads the parliament’s caucus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflagration. A grass-roots organization known as One Voice Israel made the arrangements.
Abbas’ Israeli guests were hardly hardliners. None of his questioners wore yarmulkes, none were menacing or even antagonistic, according to news reports. But they did ask the Palestinian Authority president about many of the sticking points that have so far hung up the latest round of peace talks.
And importantly, the answers they got are undoubtedly being parsed, even as we speak, by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his staff. Kerry plans to come to the region soon to try to present a framework for peace, one more time.
Abbas was of course mindful of his many audiences, but he also seemed intent upon showing some understanding (Note to Kerry: creative flexibility?) on one crucial issue: What to do about Palestinian refugees’ claimed right to return to the land that is now Israel.
“I am not looking to drown Israel with millions of refugees to change its nature,” Abbas told the Israelis. “We want to put the problem on the table and find a creative solution ... you will be satisfied and we will be satisfied.”
Abbas can help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on this — if he intends to live up to his words. During and after the battles that led to Israel’s creation in 1948, 700,000 Palestinians fled the land that became the Jewish state. Palestinians estimate these refugees’ relatives now number 5 million, most living in the Arab world. Do they have a right to return to their old homes? Israel cannot accept the prospect of Jews becoming a minority in Israel. Clearly, the resolution to the refugee issue will hinge on reparation, not repatriation.
Just how important was that event? Editors differ. The New York Times editors played the story back on A7 knowing some readers would miss it; yet they gave front-page prominence that day to this story: “Saving an Endangered British Species: The Pub.”
Editors, shmeditors. We can find better experts at judging the newsworthiness of the Q&A in Ramallah. For example, Hamas. Yes, the rulers of the Palestinians in Gaza, adversaries of Abbas’ Fatah, who for years have fired rockets into Israeli villages, whose economy is in shambles (as are their poll ratings among constituents), as they beg Iran for more aid. Hamas proved to be a reliable expert on the diplomatic and journalistic relevance of Sunday in Ramallah.
Hamas blasted the event and Abbas.
“Such meetings reflect a normalization of ties with Israel, and only serve to improve their image in the world,” a Hamas spokesman officially scoffed. “It is necessary to stop these meetings.”
As Israel’s most predictable (see also: contemptible) enemy, Hamas knows the political reality: If Abbas delivers for his people on the West Bank, he will soon be speaking for all of Gaza as well.
With Islamic militants and Iranian acolytes gaining footholds in Syria and throughout the Arab world, an Abbas who can deliver a workable peace may be the best of today’s options for Netanyahu and Israel.