The recent US-led efforts to resume direct talks, that ended with the two sides agreeing to renew direct negotiations, reminded many observers of US efforts to establish a peace process and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in the early 1990s, then described as "constructive ambiguity".
The move from indirect to direct talks this time was delayed because Palestinians and Arabs were insisting on clear terms of reference as well as behavior from both parties conducive to talks in order to avoid previous mistakes. Previous efforts have led to years of negotiations but little progress toward peace.
However, in the last few days, two different statements were released. One was the Quartet statement, which dealt with most of the requirements and concerns of the Palestinian side. But then there was a concurrent public invitation by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a subsequent press conference by the US government's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in which neither made any reference to the Quartet statement.
This appears to be an effort to satisfy Israeli requirements and concerns ahead of the resumption of negotiations. But it has caused a situation in which the two sides are coming to the same negotiations with different anticipations and two separate sets of terms of reference.
Hence, if the objective of direct talks is simply a process of negotiations and physically ensuring that the two sides are sitting at the same table, the international community has scored a success. However, if the objective is to have the parties move toward the kind of peace that the international community foresees in the roadmap and other international resolutions, then we are still very far from achieving these objectives.
The Palestinian side was always eager to engage in the kind of negotiations that can help roll back the occupation and realize comprehensive and lasting peace and thus wanted to show a positive attitude toward international efforts. However, the absence of clear, agreed-upon and binding terms of reference for negotiations enables the Israeli government, which represents a coalition whose politics are far from the international consensus and international legality, to manipulate the resulting vagueness and ambiguity in order to further stall and thereby satisfy its right-wing constituency, in thrall to the Israeli settler movement.
This is a fatal flaw. In previous negotiating attempts, the failure of the peace process to prevent the consolidation of occupation through the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory, including occupied East Jerusalem, was the single most important factor responsible for failure. The Palestinian and the Arab parties are coming to the negotiations in good faith, but they will be looking at Israeli behavior on the ground, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, as the major criterion for judging Israel's intentions and the credibility of the peace process.
It is thus of paramount importance that the international community, which in the roadmap agreed that the objective of the peace process is to "end the occupation that started in 1967", not tolerate any attempts by Israel to create unilateral facts on the ground of the kind that would jeopardize that objective.
The peace process is supposed to complement the serious state-building process that the Palestinian government has been undertaking. It will also answer the question of what the international community is ready to do in order to realize a two-state solution in case the bilateral process fails to achieve that objective. - Published 23/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Where these negotiations could be useful
by Yossi Alpher
The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that is projected for September 2 in Washington serves a number of useful purposes. Sadly, none of them is directly connected to the effort to "resolve all final status issues" trumpeted last Friday in statements by the Quartet and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One advantage of these talks for Israel is that their very existence is good for Israeli-American relations. As General David Petraeus explained not too long ago, a peace process facilitates improved US-Arab relations that in turn ease the task of American forces in the Middle East. And that reduces the potential for US resentment against Israel. This explains Defense Minister Ehud Barak's insistent calls for a serious peace process in recent months.
The talks are also good for Israeli-American relations because hopefully they set the scene for some sort of negotiated extension of a full or partial settlement freeze--a key administration demand--prior to the September 26 expiration date.
Then too, the administration needs these negotiations for its own political purposes. By pointing to this achievement, it hopes to shore up its support base as mid-term elections approach in November.
But when it comes to the substance of Israeli-Palestinian relations, these negotiations become much more problematic. Neither Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu nor PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas is ideologically inclined or politically positioned to resolve all final status issues. The two leaders are far apart on the core issues of refugees and the disposition of the Jerusalem Holy Basin; all claims to the effect that "the parameters of final status are well known" are completely misplaced when it comes to these two negotiating categories. Further, Netanyahu has deliberately surrounded himself with coalition partners who seriously constrain his freedom of diplomatic maneuver, while in Abbas' case, both his Fateh allies and his Hamas enemies are a major problem.
These negotiations could even breed violence. On the Israeli side, we could encounter attempts by extremist settlers (remember Baruch Goldstein in Hebron in February 1994) to protest and provoke by attacking Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, on a much larger scale, Hamas is poised to launch rocket attacks from Gaza with the objective of disrupting negotiations. Moreover, as we saw in 2000, the perception of failed negotiations can even generate a new intifada in the West Bank. In this sense, the near certainty that Abbas and Netanyahu will not resolve all final status issues renders these negotiations, as projected by Washington and the Quartet, dangerous.
Where the negotiations could conceivably be useful (and safer) for all concerned is if the American sponsors steer them toward reinforcing and facilitating the one success story they can point to: the Palestinian state-building effort in the West Bank. But this means precisely not seeking to resolve all final status issues in this round and, instead, focusing on confidence-building measures and gestures that narrow the gap on borders and security. Netanyahu's apparent positions on these issues may differ little from those of his predecessors, so there could be a better chance here for progress. This in turn would ease the political endgame of international recognition for a Palestinian state--which is projected by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for next August when, coincidentally or not, the administration and the Quartet want the new negotiations to be completed.
Abbas enters these negotiations having been forced by American and Arab pressure to abandon his demand that the 2008 talks with Olmert and the 1967 lines serve as points of departure. He clearly miscalculated his negotiating position, thereby weakening his political position at home and among his Arab neighbors. He would have been far better off abandoning preconditions and calling Netanyahu's bluff months ago.
Finally, in view of the growing concern over Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions in Washington, Jerusalem and many Arab capitals, one can only wonder at the administration's failure to place greater emphasis on negotiations between Israel and Damascus as well. This is the only diplomatic way of to weaken Iran's penetration into the Levant. It's also extremely important as the US draws down its forces from Iraq, which borders Syria.
While an Israel-Syria negotiating breakthrough is far from certain, the chances are much better than between Israel and Ramallah, and the immediate regional payoff at least as great. President Bashar al-Assad is an extremely problematic partner (for both the US and Israel) and Netanyahu is far from enthusiastic. But Washington's silence on this issue is troublesome.- Published 23/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Not just difficult, impossible
by Joharah Baker
Compared to the Palestinians, Sisyphus had it easy. It's true the poor guy never did get the boulder up the hill, but the peak was at least in view. For the Palestinians, the slippery slope of negotiations has yet to get them anywhere close to the top of the hill and thus to independence.
Nevertheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must feel a bit like Sisyphus right now. After months of refusing to launch direct talks with Israel until he sees some tangible progress on the ground, he has finally been prodded and pressured to breaking point. Days ago, he, along with the PLO's Executive Committee, finally buckled, approving the move to direct talks with Israel early next month.
This can't possibly feel right to him. It doesn't to every Palestinian out there, if, for no other reason, this move back to the negotiating table with no real bargaining chips in Palestinian hands only reminds everyone of previous, failed attempts. The question, therefore, is why did the Palestinians concede yet again, and who is really to gain from this false sense of progress?
The second answer is pretty clear. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is exactly where he wants to be in this charade, and can have his cake and eat it too. He can claim to want peace and an end to the conflict and pretend to be making "difficult concessions" in the name of a settlement, all the while bringing forth absolutely nothing new. If anything, he has further shaved off the edges of the already truncated offers from previous Israeli leaders, leaving very little room for maneuver for the Palestinians to enter negotiations in good faith.
Netanyahu, who has never shied away from voicing his opinion about the Palestinians, is certainly not mincing his words now. For a man who demands no preconditions for entering direct talks, he seems to have laid down quite a few. Any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state and Israel's security trumps all else. And one more thing: the Israeli army must have a presence in the Jordan Valley, along the eastern border of any future Palestinian state, ostensibly as a buffer zone against the smuggling of rockets and weapons.
In other words, Netanyahu is taking no risks at all. On the contrary, his eager acceptance to enter talks is nothing more than another political maneuver to once again be able to blame the Palestinians for being an "obstacle to peace". Netanyahu is fully aware that the negotiating setup as is, will not hold. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even the watered-down Quartet statement on August 21 all left out mention of Israel's 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, scheduled to end on September 26.
A freeze on settlement growth is one of the basic Palestinian demands for any movement in peace talks. However, not only did Israel play unfairly during the 10 months of its so-called "construction freeze", in terms of finding loophole after loophole for continuing building in settlements, but Netanyahu also made it clear that a renewal of the freeze would be detrimental to his own survival and cause further cracks in his already shaky coalition. In addition, settlements, at least the major blocs, are non-negotiable for Netanyahu, as are those in and around Jerusalem, which Israel conveniently calls "neighborhoods" or "suburbs".
No matter from which angle you look at it, the Palestinians are getting the short end of the stick. And they know it. Just days after accepting to begin direct talks, Abbas sent a letter to the Quartet leaders warning that continued settlement expansion (presumably after the September 26 deadline) would derail negotiations.
"Settlements and peace represent two parallel tracks which can never meet," Abbas wrote. "An Israeli decision to continue settlement construction would mean Israel decided to stop negotiations because talks cannot continue if settlements continue." A day earlier, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Palestinian Authority would pull out of talks if settlement activity continues. "If the Israeli government decides, on September 26, to continue to permit the submission of settlement bids, then there will be no talks," he said.
So why start at all? President Abbas knows the Israeli government will not comply with any of the PLO's negotiating demands, especially after Netanyahu has already outlined Israel's conditions for a peace deal. Settlements will--and have never ceased to--continue to grow; Israel's premier already made it clear when he rejected the Quartet's original statement in March that his government will not accept negotiating terms based on the 1967 borders; and Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the conflict, is to remain united under Israeli rule despite the international community's lack of recognition of the city's annexation.
In that case, what do the Palestinians hope to achieve by going back to direct talks? Probably nothing. But unfortunately, Abbas is familiar with what American pressure means and what happens when you do not heed it. America needs to score here, even if on a small scale. US President Barack Obama's popularity needs a boost, which could easily be given by perceived progress in the intractable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This can't be done without the parties, however, so the US has pushed hard on Abbas to "just say yes".
There have even been rumors of a possible tightening of funds to the Palestinians if they don't obey Washington's rules, which if true is a form of arm-twisting Abbas will find it hard to resist. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have become so dependent on foreign aid, American dollars included, they have grown accustomed to compromising on once strong positions. This is the only credible explanation as to why Abbas resisted pressure to return to direct talks only to fold weeks later even though Israel has, if anything, made the grounds for a final settlement even more impossible for the leadership to accept.
The outcome of these talks seems tragically predictable even before they begin. As long as the perimeters of the negotiations have not changed and only serve Israel's purposes, the direct talks are doomed to fail, just like all those before them.- Published 23/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Joharah Baker is a writer for the Media and Information Department at MIFTAH and a former editor of Palestine Report Online.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The Annapolis test
by Akiva Eldar
The Washington summit scheduled for September 2 is reminiscent of the Annapolis summit that was held in late November 2007. Then, too, the American president (George W. Bush) invited leaders from the region (along with "spear-holders" from all over the world) to an Israeli-Palestinian final status negotiations-launching ceremony. Then, too, the US administration dragged President Mahmoud Abbas kicking and screaming to the meeting. Then, too, it was agreed "to try to reach agreement within a year" (to be precise, by the end of 2008). Then as now, everyone undertook to implement earlier agreements.
Will the leaky ship of negotiations run aground on a sandbank this time too, there to remain until the next ceremony?
The Annapolis process generated a significant narrowing of the gaps separating the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. In the unofficial channel, PM Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a Palestinian state in 93.5 percent of the West Bank, and an additional 5.8 percent in territorial swaps with Israel and a "safe passage" linking the Gaza Strip to the West Bank. Olmert also offered to divide the Latrun no-man's land and to turn over to the Palestinians the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. He was even prepared to absorb several thousand Palestinian refugees in Israel. Due to the war in Gaza and elections in Israel, final status discussions ceased at the end of 2008 and have not been renewed to this day.
The change in government in Israel did not in any way change the Palestinian position regarding the core issues. The paper Abbas sent PM Binyamin Netanyahu through the good offices of George Mitchell repeats the very same proposals that were discussed with Olmert. From the Palestinians' standpoint, the right-wing victory in Israel's elections does not oblige them to update their principles in accordance with the will of the Israeli voter. Abbas is much more concerned with his rivals from Hamas, who present him as a "traitor" to the Palestinian cause, and even with his friends from the Fateh leadership who want him to fail, than with threats from the Israeli far right and pressure applied to Netanyahu by Likud hawks.
Actually, an Israeli right-wing government that has difficulty temporarily freezing settlement construction serves Palestinian interests better than a moderate government that supports peace but does very little to change the reality on the ground. The more extreme an Israeli government looks, the more dividends PM Salam Fayyad reaps from the international community in return for his effort to establish viable Palestinian government institutions and efficient security services. The Palestinian leadership is also aware that with the passage of time, there is growing fear among the Israeli public and even among the settlers that the Netanyahu government will turn Israel into a bi-national state.
Accordingly, Abbas is not likely to offer Netanyahu territorial and other concessions that Olmert did not receive from the Palestinian leader. Nor have Washington's principled positions regarding final status changed since the Annapolis conference. President Obama embraced the roadmap presented to the sides seven years ago by his predecessor and adopted by the United Nations Security Council. Both administrations understood that a final status agreement will be a variation on the Clinton parameters, the Geneva initiative and the Olmert-Abbas understandings. Thus far, while demonstrating active involvement in the peace process, the current administration has not been prepared to present an Obama plan for Middle East peace.
Abbas and Olmert made impressive progress without having to fall back on the diplomatic good offices of the US. Given the opportunity to continue their contacts, they would have reached agreement. This time around, however, it's doubtful the two sides can make progress without the help of a third party.
The US acquiesced in Netanyahu's demand to renew negotiations without preconditions. Netanyahu refuses not only to resume negotiations where his predecessor left off; he does not agree that the terms of reference mention the June 4, 1967 lines as the basis for a permanent border between Israel and a Palestinian state. This means ignoring understandings and even agreements reached in the past and beginning negotiations on the basis of new positions and maps presented by Israel. To this day, no one knows what map of a Palestinian state Netanyahu had in mind when he spoke more than a year ago at Bar Ilan University of two states for two peoples. Some of his confidants argue that the prime minister himself still doesn't know what he really wants.
Even if the Washington summit ends up no more successful than its predecessor at Annapolis, perhaps the Israeli public and the rest of the world will finally know where Netanyahu is heading and how to deal with him.- Published 23/8/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Akiva Eldar is a columnist and editorial board member at Haaretz, and coauthor of "Lords of the Land" (2007), about the settlers.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.