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Israelis and Palestinians talk about talking

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Lead Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho met with his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat in Amman on January 9 for the second time in as many weeks, with the aim of restarting direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. These were the first direct contacts between the parties since the breakdown of peace talks in September 2010.

While both sides have downplayed expectations of real progress, neither wants to take the blame for the failure of this latest attempt to restart negotiations. With one eye on the Quartet (comprised of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russian Federation), and the other on their domestic audiences, are Israelis and Palestinians on the brink of substantive talks?

Why are these talks happening now?

These meetings are the result of sustained international pressure on the Palestinians to enter direct talks without their preconditions first being met. The Palestinians demand a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction, including in east Jerusalem, and explicit Israeli acceptance of the pre-1967 lines as the basis for territorial negotiations.

Israel would like talks without preconditions, as was the case under previous rounds of negotiations. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did appear to implicitly accept US President Barack Obama's call to use 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations when speaking at the UN in September 2011, he has not made this explicit. The Israeli Government has not been willing to revisit the possibility of a settlement freeze since Israel's ten-month moratorium on new construction expired in September 2010.

When the Quartet met on Sept. 23, 2011, it set out a new timetable for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. After more than a year of failed attempts to bring the sides together, the new timetable called for a preparatory meeting within a month, "comprehensive proposals on territory and security" within three months, and "substantial progress" within six months.

On Oct. 26, the Quartet issued a new statement highlighting that the parties had agreed "to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months in the context of our shared commitment to the objective of direct negotiations leading toward an agreement by the end of 2012."

There is a battle of interpretations over these vaguely worded and inconsistent Quartet statements. The Palestinians claim that Israel has until Jan. 26 to table a position on borders and security, after which they say they will resume unilateral efforts to secure recognition at the UN. Israel argues that the Quartet requires them to table formal positions only after three months of direct negotiations.

It took two months longer than planned from the original September Quartet statement just to get to the first preliminary meeting, in Amman on Jan. 3. Israeli officials contend, therefore, that the deadlines should be moved back.

The decision of the Palestinians to come to these meetings in Amman, which they are unwilling to describe as negotiations, is the result of pressure from Europe, the US and Arab states. They are being held in Amman at the invitation of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who has begun to take a more active role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs in recent months.

His visit to Ramallah in November 2011 was the first in a decade, and indicates that he sees the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as key to maintaining the stability of his own kingdom.

What is happening in the talks?

Both sides are being extremely tight-lipped about the precise content of the talks, with the only official comments being the briefest of statements from the Jordanian moderators. However, some details have emerged.

In the first meeting, in the presence of Quartet representatives, the negotiators showed each other position papers from previous rounds of talks. Erekat brought a Palestinian position to the table that has been in circulation since the 2008 Annapolis talks. The paper describes a minimal land swap of around 1.9%. Any Israeli Government would require a significantly larger land swap to incorporate more of the West Bank settlements into Israel.

Israel has brought general principles to the table, rather than specific proposals. This is in the form of a 21-point document which reportedly sets out Israel's thinking on the whole range of final status issues, including refugees and Jerusalem. In the Jan. 9 meeting, held without the presence of Quartet representatives, the Palestinians reportedly gave a response to this document, criticising it as too vague.

Having responded to international pressure to go to the table without first achieving their demands of a settlement freeze and an explicit commitment to 1967 borders as a baseline, the Palestinians are likely to feel that the onus is now on Israel to present some concrete proposals. Since Israel's position is that all issues should be discussed in direct, bilateral talks without preconditions, Molcho is unlikely to show Israel's hand before the Palestinians agree to a sustained and substantive series of negotiations.

For Netanyahu, building up to specific proposals through a longer-term process of bilateral discussions is preferable. The Israeli Government considers the question of territory bound up with other issues, including security arrangements, particularly in the Jordan Valley. In the past, Netanyahu has been reluctant to discuss detailed maps without prior security assurances.

Talking about specific borders or percentages of land also poses a very high domestic political risk for Netanyahu. If offers made in closed-door talks were to be made public prematurely, his political opponents on the right would use them to attack him, particularly if they do not result in any significant breakthrough.

Although recent polling confirms that most Israelis still believe that a negotiated agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the best option, there is little faith within Israel in the Palestinian partner. PM Netanyahu has a stable government coalition, and there is little public expectation on him to deliver significant progress.

What happens next?

There are further meetings to come in this process, and according to the US State Department. Israeli sources quoted in the media say that the Palestinians have committed to the Jordanians to continue the process until the end of January.

However, the Palestinians seem keen to turn Jan. 26 into a critical date, after which they can declare the failure of talks due to Israeli bad faith, withdraw from the process and return to seeking recognition unilaterally at the UN. This date relates to the Quartet's Oct. 26 statement calling for the sides to present positions on borders and security within three months. Having already presented "comprehensive proposals" on borders and security, the Palestinians may feel that they are in a strong position to blame Israel for the failure of the talks.

For the Palestinians, the return to talks is only one of a number of issues on their political agenda. The strategy of applying for Palestinian membership to the UN and its associated bodies has strong support on the Palestinian street. This popular support is particularly important for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in the context of Fatah and Hamas' faltering progress towards a unity agreement, which could lead to Palestinian elections this year.

However, abandoning the talks is not without significant risk for the Palestinians. They may be vulnerable to the charge that they have not fully committed to the process themselves, since they appear unwilling to enter into any formal, sustained process of talks with Israel whilst their preconditions are not met.

According to a report in Haaretz, Israel is considering confidence-building gestures, such as freeing Palestinian prisoners and expanding the PA's control in additional West Bank territories, in return for a Palestinian agreement to continue the talks.

Pressing ahead with the UN membership bid would cause significant friction with the US and Israel, thereby endangering the PA's sources of funding. Were Abbas to form a unity government including Hamas, this would also risk strong opposition from Israel and the international community. The recent call of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal for non-violent struggle was rejected by the movement's Gaza-based leadership. Overall, the movement looks a long way from meeting the Quartet demands to renounce violence, uphold existing agreements and recognise Israel. Hamas also demands the replacement of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has very strong support in Western capitals.

The fate of the current round of talks looks likely to depend on whether the PA leadership can be persuaded to sign up for a longer-term process and put the brakes on their UN membership bid and the Palestinian unity agreement. Otherwise, the Quartet's time frame is likely to expire without delivering any kind of breakthrough.

© British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

 

 

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