Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians “get back to the damn table”?

Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians “get back to the damn table”?
US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta

There has been much written about the impasse in restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in recent years. Most recently, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta sparked controversy at the Brookings Institute on Dec. 2 when, following a speech, he was asked about what steps Israel “should take now” to move toward peace and replied “Just get to the damn table.”

Many commentators were critical of this comment (see for instance here and here), which seemed to ignore the fact that Israel has been calling for talks without preconditions, while the Palestinians have been refusing to talk, demanding Israel first meet a series of preconditions for talks which were never imposed on Israel previously during the Oslo process. Other commentators, however, defended Panetta, (see for instance Ed Rettig of the American Jewish Committee) arguing he meant for both sides to get to the table, and pointing to the rest of his reply which spoke of both Israelis and Palestinians and how “we can’t get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences.”

Interestingly, however, veteran Washington insider and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reads the comments as directed exclusively at Israel, and is not at all critical of this effort. Ignatius describes Panetta words as “tell[ing] Israel to ‘just get to the damn table” in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.” Furthermore, referring to both these words and other comments on the dangers of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, Ignatius says Panetta was “voicing comments that are widely shared by U.S. officials but rarely expressed so bluntly in public.”

Washington Post deputy opinion page editor Jackson Diehl has a very important comment on this apparent Washington phenomenon of blaming Israel and especially Netanyahu for the lack of bilateral negotiations. Basically, according to the assessment of those who know the most about the two leaders, Netanyahu and Abbas, including those inside the Administration, it makes no sense. Diehl quotes a recent talk by former Obama Administration senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, who just left his post, to prove his point:

The president appears to blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the failure to begin negotiations, describing him – especially in private meetings – as intransigent.

But Ross had this to say about Netanyahu’s counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen:

“Abu Mazen is convinced that, with this Israeli government, he can’t reach agreement. And so, because he’s convinced that there’s no agreement with this Israeli government, he imposes conditions on negotiations, since he’s convinced negotiations will only produce failure.”

Of Netanyahu, Ross said: “He sees in Abu Mazen someone who looks like he runs away from negotiations, imposes conditions for negotiations that he didn’t impose on Bibi’s predecessors, and he puts Israel in the corner.” Which, by Ross’s own account, is not an inaccurate perception.

This is a point that I, among other observers, have been trying to make since 2009: Abbas is simply unwilling to deal with Netanyahu, and his demands for Israeli concessions prior to talks – such as a settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem – are pretexts that have nothing to do with his real motives, or the real obstacles to peace. It follows that, almost regardless of concessions Netanyahu might make – such as his settlement-construction moratorium last year – Abbas will refuse to talk.

This is a vitally important point that seems to be ignored in the debate about why Israelis and Palestinians can’t get back to the “damn table” ( which indeed they urgently need to do, just as Panetta suggested.) It is not simply that Israel’s government has repeatedly and publicly called for a return to the table without preconditions (see below), while the Palestinian side is placing unprecedented conditions on even talking. Nor is it limited to the reality that Israel has gone a long way toward attempting to meet the new preconditions that the Palestinians have been imposing (not only offering the 10-month settlement moratorium in 2009-2010, but also in August reportedly exploring a formula for meeting the Palestinian precondition that the negotiations must be “based on the 1967 lines”.) It is also very likely that even if Israel met those preconditions in full, the Palestinians would find a way to either claim they hadn’t or impose new conditions, for the simple reason that they simply do not want to negotiate at the present time.

Bizarrely, there seem to be some analysts, commentators and reporters who do not understand even the first point – that Israel is calling for talks without preconditions and the Palestinians are placing new and unprecedented conditions on even “getting to the damned table.” There appears to be in some circles a “politically correct” but factually incorrect claim being made that “both sides” are placing preconditions on resuming talks.

For example, Fairfax reporter Jason Koutsoukis made this claim in an article in the Farifax papers in May 2010 insisting Israel’s preconditions for a peace deal, such as no right of return for refugees, and security measures in the West Bank, were the equivalent of Palestinian preconditions for talks to even begin. An Age editorial on Oct. 20 of this year did not say this in so many words, but accused Netanyahu of refusing to “embrace” negotiations, which seems explicable only by ignoring his numerous calls for resuming talks without preconditions.

By the way, if you know anyone who is inclined to ignore those numerous calls for talks without preconditions from Netanyahu, here is a good sample of reports of such calls over the past two-and-a-half years from mainstream media outlets:

It all started of course with Netanyahu’s June 2009 Bar Ilan University speech where he said the following:

I appeal to you, our Palestinian neighbors, and to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Let us begin peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions. Israel is committed to international agreements, and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations. I say to the Palestinians: We want to live with you in peace, quiet, and good neighborly relations. We want our children and your children to ‘know war no more.’

The calls continue right up until the present day, with Israel urging the “Quartet” envoys to convene talks immediately last week, in line with Quartet calls for such talks in September.

Finally, some have misrepresented Netanyahu’s call for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a “precondition” for talks, But he has repeatedly made it clear that this is something he wants from a final agreement, not as a precondition for “getting back to the damn table”. For proof of this see the Israeli Government’s communique on the subject:


Statement: PM Netanyahu never set recognition of Jewish State as precondition for opening of negotiations and dialogue with the Palestinians
Clarification from the Prime Minister’s Bureau
(Communicated by the Prime Minister’s Media Adviser)
Monday, April 20, 2009

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insistent in his approach that
recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People is a matter
of substance and principle that enjoys wide recognition in the country and around the world, without which it will not be possible to advance the
diplomatic process and reach a peace settlement. However, the Prime
Minister has never set this as a pre-condition for the opening of
negotiations and dialogue with the Palestinians.

Of course, some might argue that if the Israelis and Palestinians continue to disagree on the elements of a final agreement, sitting down at the “damn” negotiating table is not likely to achieve much anyway. Some might even argue that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate doesn’t matter, because of the low likelihood of reaching an agreement even if there was negotiations. To answer this I will simply quote something else Leon Panetta said in his controversial remarks about getting back to the “damn table:”

The problem right now is we can’t get them to the damn table to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences – you know, we all know what the pieces are here for a potential agreement.  We’ve talked it out, worked through, we understand the concerns, we understand the concerns of Israel, understand the concerns of the Palestinians.  If they sit at a table and work through those concerns, and the United States can be of assistance in that process, then I think you have the beginning of what could be a process that would lead to a peace agreement.  

But if they aren’t there – if they aren’t at the table, this will never happen.

Tzvi Fleischer