I write this from Khawalid, my (Bedouin) village in the hills of the Galilee, northern Israel, as an Israeli Arab, a Bedouin, (a minority in my own country), to offer my perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
In the midst of efforts to keep the direct talks with the Palestinians alive, one must realize a basic fact: Israel's primary interest is to see a democratic, independent Palestinian state, clean of terror and threats. Such a state is the best security for Israel's future. Israel's history and experience has taught its citizens and leaders to never give up on reaching this goal.
Israelis know this requires negotiations with the Palestinian leadership (now, sadly split) to find the framework for an agreement on the different issues. Israelis also realize very acutely that this task isn't easy, that it takes time, but that it is possible. Everything will come about through negotiations, including resolving the difficult issue of settlements.
Israelis also know that waiting too long before speaking to the Palestinian Authority can be dangerous. Hamas threatens to take over the West Bank, as it achieved success in many local municipal elections five years ago. It's clear that the Palestinian Authority leaders share this same fear.
Since the Oslo accords in 1993, Israeli authorities granted permission to build in the West Bank settlements many times, while, at the same time, talks continued and agreements were signed between both sides. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians set a condition or precondition for sitting down at the table and talking, except for the demand to fight terror, as laid out in the Road Map. Even though Palestinians who were arrested on charges of terrorist activities were released through the "back door" during the Arafat years - a process that came to be derided as "revolving door," Israel bit its lips with anguish, but talks continued.
The bottom line now is, in my eyes, that the Palestinians should stop making settlements a condition to continue or not continue in the direct talks, which started in a positive atmosphere.
In July-August 2005, when I was young Israeli diplomat, I was appointed spokesperson to the Arab world on Israel's disengagement from Gaza, which is how Prime Minister Sharon decided to deal with the settlements there. His successor, Ehud Olmert, announced his plan in early 2006 to continue this policy, and said he would dismantle settlements in the West Bank. In Gaza, it was called "disengagement"; in the West Bank, "convergence."
The "convergence" discussions in Israel grew much more complex when Hamas won the local elections on January 26, 2006 and formed the "Gaza government," which the Palestinian Authority today calls the "fired government" (alhokoma or almoqala, in Arabic)
All talk of West Bank "convergence" ended in July 2006, when Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack from Lebanon into Israel. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two reservists kidnapped. (They later died, and their remains were returned to Israel in a prisoner exchange). This attack triggered a month-long war. Israel responded with an air, sea and ground campaign, while Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets and missiles into Israel. My village was under attack.
These plans -- "disengagement," "convergence" -- demonstrate that Israel can make tough decisions on all the issues. But let's negotiate about all of them. Of course, the settlement issue is a big problem. My 2½ years as Israeli Consul in San Francisco (December 2006 - May 2009), as well as my frequent visits to many other places around the world, convinced me - to my great surprise -- that the media's anti-Israel bias in their reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is making settlements into an even bigger problem.
This is why I increasingly feel the need to explain from my village in the Galilee what Israel stands for -- and that it wants a democratic, independent Palestinian state existing alongside it in peace and security. I do not seek to portray Israel as the angle Gabriel, who has no flaws; Israel, like America, is not perfect. Rather, I wish to describe the Israeli-Palestinian situation at it really is today -- and to point out both sides' need for peace.