Are Israeli-Palestinian Direct Talks Finally Imminent?

Aug 20, 2010

Update from AIJAC

August 20, 2010
Number 08/10 #06

The US government is reportedly expecting that direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may finally be announced – after months of efforts – as soon as Monday. This Update deals with why it has taken so long to get to this point and what to expect if direct talks actually do resume.

First up is former Jerusalem Post editorial page editor Dr. Elliot Jager, who looks at what it took to get the Palestinians to agree to direct talks and what this says about what is likely to happen when talks resume. Looking at the preconditions the Palestinian side has repeatedly imposed on talks, Jager argues that it looks more like the Palestinians have run out of excuses for avoiding talks rather than being prepared for a genuine give and take. He concludes that with Hamas still controlling Gaza, getting Abbas to the negotiating table may actually be the easy part, compared to making peace progress. For his full argument, CLICK HERE. Similarly, Dr. Ed Lettig, the American Jewish Committee representative in Israel, explains why, while past launches of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “seemed pregnant with hope and excitement”, this one seems “grey and blasé”.

Next up is veteran Washington insider Steve Rosen calling for the Obama Administration to modify its expectations of what the talks can achieve when they begin. He advocates limited steps as the only possible route forward given Abbas’ reluctance to even be part of the negotiations and the limits to what the Israeli government can offer. He holds up the gradualism of the Roadmap for Peace as the way forward and especially its mention of “an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders”. He urges the Obama Administration not to let the Roadmap’s provenance in the previous Bush Administration lead to an automatic refusal to see its virtues. For the all the details, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post looks at why Abbas has apparently been so reluctant to enter direct talks with Israel. He points out that, while it is true that Abbas has a distrust of Netanyahu based on the Israeli PM’s first term in office in the 1990s, Abbas could have opted to put Netanyahu on the spot and shifted the pressure off himself by just agreeing to talk. Diehl argues that in fact, we may be discovering that, like Arafat, Abbas prefers the messy status quo to going down in history as the leader who conceded most of “Palestine” to the Jewish state. For this important piece in full, CLICK HERE. Making some similar arguments about Abbas’s questionable intentions based on the preconditions the Palestinians are reportedly demanding is Barry Rubin.

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Getting Abbas to the Table

By Elliot Jager

Jewish Ideas Daily, August 19, 2010

The barrier built a decade ago to protect the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from Fatah fire is being dismantled. Some residents are worried: today’s tranquility is welcome, said one, but why tempt fate when there is still no peace agreement with the Palestinians, and not even direct negotiations?

Actually, direct negotiations, or a semblance of them, may be in the offing. Under intense American and EU pressure, Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority is expected grudgingly to end its year-long boycott and return to the bargaining table. But there is no sign that Abbas has any intention of seizing the moment to engage Israel in a fruitful give-and-take. Rather, the Palestinian leadership, its electoral legitimacy long expired, appears simply to have run out of excuses.

Abbas had insisted he would not talk with Benjamin Netanyahu unless Israel stopped housing construction over the Green Line. When Israel duly instituted a building moratorium, he said it was not enough since the freeze did not include Jerusalem. A further, unfulfillable precondition then followed: Israel had to commit itself in advance to withdrawing to the 1949 armistice lines. Then Abbas insisted that talks begin where they had left off with former premier Ehud Olmert, whose final magnanimous offer he had simply pocketed without comment.

Now, even as the Palestinians are being dragged back to the table, they are demanding that the construction moratorium they have denigrated for the past eleven months be extended beyond its September sunset date. If not, in the words of chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the talks will be “buried” before they can be re-launched.

Jerusalem appears unlikely to accede to this, though the cabinet might agree to limit new building to settlement blocs: i.e., strategic areas that all agree must remain within Israel in any deal. Meanwhile, the international Quartet—consisting of the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the UN—may set parameters for direct negotiations framed by its earlier statement catering to Palestinian preconditions while giving short shrift to Israel’s sensibilities. If so, Jerusalem is expected to take part only in response to a separate invitation from Washington, and without preconditions. As for the other half of the Palestinian polity, the one autocratically run by Hamas in Gaza, it refuses either to entertain an accommodation with Abbas or to accept Israel’s legitimacy under any circumstances.

If the fractious Palestinian polity is in no way ready for a viable deal, and if imposing a solution on Israel is politically unfeasible and strategically self-defeating, what explains the full-court press to cajole Abbas to the table? The answer appears to be this: George Mitchell (for the American administration), Tony Blair (for the Quartet), and Catherine Ashton (for the EU) are deeply invested in the notion that Abbas is prepared to deliver on a historic two-state solution, and therefore even the illusion of momentum trumps the status quo.

But does it? Yes, Israel wants to achieve a breakthrough through direct talks. But ill-conceived negotiations, in which Abbas is encouraged to advance maximalist demands regarding refugees, borders, Jerusalem, and security, could prove as counterproductive this time around as at Camp David in 2000—when, unprepared for compromise, the Palestinians unleashed a years-long paroxysm of violence.

Getting Abbas to the table, like dismantling the concrete slabs protecting Gilo, is the easy part.

Dr. Elliot Jager is a former Editorial Page Editor of The Jerusalem Post, and currently Managing Editor of Jewish Ideas Daily.

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Bush’s Gift to Obama

by Steven J. Rosen

ForeignPolicy.com, August 18, 2010

The opening of direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, rumored for weeks, is likely to put the spotlight back on U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. The Israeli public does not trust him and will be looking for signals of his intentions. If he does not restore confidence in the role of the United States, it is hard to see how American mediation can succeed. Conversely, the Palestinians will be looking for signs that he is willing to lean on Israel, something the “professional left” of his own party — to borrow a phrase from press secretary Robert Gibbs — also would love to see.

No president has ever raised expectations so high with promises to transform the region through personal involvement and fresh ideas. Obama won the office partly by feeding the belief that the Middle East problem could be solved if only Americans had a president like himself who was ready to make a commitment, not one like George W. Bush who, Obama asserted, had ignored the problem.

Almost no one in the region shares Obama’s audacity of hope. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas enters the talks as the reluctant dragon who wishes he did not have to be there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to take some significant steps to achieve a more stable relationship with Israel’s most immediate neighbors, but neither he nor the Israeli public believes that sweeping steps like those advocated by many in the Obama entourage can be taken without unacceptable levels of risk to Israel’s security.

Can Obama scale back his objectives to more limited steps that can be achieved but fall short of ending the conflict forever and transforming the region? Netanyahu is coming to the talks with ideas that can measurably improve the lives of the Palestinian people and move them toward their objective of a sovereign Palestinian state with territorial contiguity. But under the circumstances that exist today, the zone of the attainable for Obama will fall short of the “Clinton Parameters” that Yasir Arafat rejected in 2000 at Camp David, not to mention the more ambitious ideas urged upon this administration by a thousand “progressive” voices.

The Palestinians deeply distrust interim arrangements, and they have frequently asserted that they will not enter another interim agreement. For example, Abbas told then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Aug. 31, 2008, that the Palestinians would accept nothing less than a complete settlement. “Either we agree on all issues, or no agreement at all.” His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, reiterated the point three times in December 2009: “We strenuously reject … solutions involving interim arrangements … We have no intention of continuing with the formula of interim arrangement…We will reject every attempt to once again enter … long-term interim arrangements.”

But the Palestinian Authority might not hew to this uncreative position if intelligent American mediation led the way. Abbas accepted the Quartet’s Middle East Roadmap in 2003 knowing that it called very clearly and explicitly for an interim arrangement with a Palestinian state having “provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty … as a way station to a permanent status settlement.” The Roadmap made this interim Palestinian state Phase II of the process, after Phase I (“Ending Terror and Violence, Normalizing Palestinian Life, and Building Palestinian Institutions”) and before Phase III (“Permanent Status Agreement and the End of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”) During Phase II, the Quartet members are to “promote international recognition” of the provisional state, “including possible U.N. membership.” And during this period of the Palestinian state with provisional borders, the Arab states are to “restore pre-intifada links to Israel (trade offices, etc.)” and “revive multilateral engagement” with Israel “on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms-control issues.” In other words, the Palestinians have already accepted the idea of “interim arrangements.” (Palestinian objections to interim agreements have been a continuing feature of Middle East diplomacy, but the record is replete with past examples where they did in fact agree to the step-by-step approach.)

Will Obama build on this recorded agreement to pass through an interim stage, or will he throw it away in a headlong rush to the dream of a millennial rearrangement?

The Roadmap that the Palestinians accepted is the only document providing a pathway to a Palestinian state ever accepted by all the parties involved in Middle East peace negotiations. It was issued by the Quartet, consisting of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the secretary-general of the United Nations on April 30, 2003. Then it was endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council (including Syria!) in Resolution 1515 on Nov. 20, 2003. It was endorsed again by the Quartet on March 19, 2010. It was accepted “without any reservations” by Abbas at the Middle East peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan on June 4, 2003. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted it on May 23, 2003, and Sharon’s government, by a majority vote, accepted it on May 25, 2003. Both sides are bound by the Roadmap, and it does not require a fresh endorsement by either. It is one of the signed written commitments of the Palestinian government on which the peace process is based today.

Obama could construct an interim agreement on the “bottom up” approach of Salim Fayyad, who is building the institutions of Palestinian statehood in the West Bank in his capacity as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority. Israel is already cooperating importantly with this process, by lifting most of the Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks even where there is an element of risk in trusting Palestinian security forces instead of the Israeli army. Netanyahu is prepared to go further in this direction. Here is a concrete foundation on which Obama could stand, instead of chasing an illusion beyond anyone’s reach.

The Security Council could also play a role if either Abbas or Netanyahu were to face internal political obstacles to an interim agreement. Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said on July 3, 2010, that the Arab League will turn to the council to declare an independent Palestinian state if peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians do not bear fruit by September of this year. This could be an entirely unconstructive step if the Security Council called for arrangements that the people of Israel believed would entail intolerable risks, like going back to the 1967 armistice line. But Aboul Gheit also said that taking the issue to the Security Council would be done in reference to Resolution 1515, the 2003 statement endorsing the Roadmap. If a new resolution were to help the parties take the constructive but difficult step of creating an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty, the Security Council could be a plus rather than a minus.

Will Obama take the advice of the pressure-on-Israel enthusiasts who twice led him into the cul-de-sac of the “freeze on natural growth” of settlements? If he does, we are headed for another nasty squall with no constructive outcome. He has another choice, staring right at him in the Roadmap. Does the Roadmap’s provenance in the hated Bush administration make it so repulsive to this administration that miss the opportunity Bush left him?

Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign policy director of AIPAC. He now heads the Washington Project of the Middle East Forum.

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Why doesn’t Abbas want peace talks?

By Jackson Diehl

Washington Post “Post-Partisan”, August 12, 2010;

Give Mahmoud Abbas credit, at least, for consistency. Eighteen months ago, when the then-new Obama administration tried to jump start Middle East peace negotiations, the Palestinian president balked. He said he would not agree even to meet the newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, unless Netanyahu made several big concessions in advance — including recognition of a Palestinian state on the basis of Israel’s 1967 borders and a freeze on all Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank.

Convinced that Netanyahu was the problem, the Obama administration spent the next year in a crude and clumsy effort to extract those concessions. Netanyahu stoutly resisted; the administration belatedly discovered that it could not compel a democratic ally to comply with its demands. Eventually a rough compromise emerged: Netanyahu publicly accepted the idea, but not the pre-defined borders, of a Palestinian state; and he imposed a partial and temporary freeze on the settlements, which is due to expire in September. The administration agreed that should be good enough to start formal peace talks.

But Abbas, who watched this diplomatic drama from the sidelines, never changed. He’s still refusing to meet Netanyahu unless the Israeli leader — or Obama — guarantees those big concessions on borders and settlements in advance. He’s held firm through multiple visits by the administration’s long-suffering envoy, former senator George Mitchell. He’s resisted pressure from Arab leaders. He’s been warned that the White House — home to the most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter — is about to lose patience with him. Still, he refuses to budge.

This is not, as Abbas’s spokesmen contend, a matter of either principle or domestic politics. The Palestinian president has negotiated with numerous Israeli leaders and did so without a settlement freeze or other preconditions. His domain in the West Bank is as quiet as it has ever been under Israeli occupation. Elections have been put off and Hamas bottled up in the Gaza Strip. Average Palestinians are more likely to quietly welcome a U.S.-brokered peace process than rebel against it.

So what explains the intransigence?

In part, I think it stems from Abbas’s deep distrust of Netanyahu, dating back to the latter’s first stint as prime minister in the 1990s. As one of Obama’s advisors, Dennis Ross, recounted in a memoir, Abbas jokingly threatened to jump out a window if Netanyahu won reelection (he lost). When I met Abbas in May of last year, I got the impression that he was expecting Netanyahu’s second government to end like his first: He would be forced from power by his intransigence on peacemaking and Washington’s displeasure with it.

Yet Netanyahu has not followed that path. He has at least appeared to be more flexible and more open to a peace settlement. Perhaps because of his deep concern with the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s nuclear program, and the need for U.S. support against it, Netanyahu appears to be seriously considering a deal on Palestinian statehood — though not, perhaps, on terms that Abbas or other Palestinian leaders would accept.

So why not begin negotiations and put the Israeli leader on the spot? If Netanyahu’s terms are unreasonable, he is likely to come under renewed pressure from Obama, who seems to have made a rare emotional investment in the goal of Middle East peace. By holding out, Abbas only focuses pressure on himself — more pressure, he said the other day, than he has ever experienced. He also opens the way for Netanyahu to resume settlement construction when his partial freeze expires.

Here we come to the real mystery about Abbas: Does he really want peace? Or would he, like Yasser Arafat before him, prefer the messy status quo to going down in history as the Palestinian who once and for all accepted that a Jewish state would fill two-thirds of the former Palestine? Abbas received a far-reaching offer from Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, that met the territorial conditions he now sets. He refused to accept it even as a basis for negotiations. All through the last year, the Obama administration has disregarded that history; it has told itself and anyone who asked that Abbas was ready for a two-state settlement. In the next few days or weeks, it may find out if it was wrong.

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