For the last 20 years, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have broken up on the
shoals where the most Israel feels it can offer falls short of the minimum the
Palestinians feel they can accept.
It happened in 2000 at Camp David and
later at Taba, where Yasser Arafat came up against a Center-Left Israeli prime
minister in Ehud Barak and found that the most Barak could give him – which was
100% of Gaza, about 97% of the West Bank and a formula for Jerusalem whereby
what was Jewish would remain in Israel, and what was Arab would go to the
Palestinian state – did not meet his minimum requirements.
again in 2008 after Annapolis, when Mahmoud Abbas came up against a centrist
prime minister in Ehud Olmert and said the gaps were too wide between what
Olmert was offering, and what he could accept. And what Olmert offered was more
generous than Barak’s plan.
And, apparently, it is happening again
The difference is that in 2000 and 2008 the gaps emerged regarding
what was needed to conclude an agreement; now the gaps are over what it will
take just to get the sides into the room.
The very hopeful and super
energetic John Kerry, who worked tirelessly over the last three days trying to
get the sides back to the table, seemed to be engaging in some wishful thinking
when, at the press conference he gave before boarding a flight for Brunei,
quoted Quartet envoy Tony Blair as saying the “hardest part” is the
The reason the launch is so tough, Kerry said, “is because both
sides want to understand what the parameters are, how you will negotiate and
what you negotiate about. And once you get to that, then you can begin to dig in
and get to the hard work.”
The history of the last 20 years of
negotiations, however, belies that rather rosy assumption. Barak and Arafat were
able to launch talks, that was the easy part. What they could not do was
conclude them. The same with Olmert and Abbas. They launched the talks and had
dozens of fruitful and convivial discussions. They couldn’t conclude the
And they could not seal the deal because the over-used mantra
that “everyone knows what an agreement will look like, and all you need to do is
get the sides into a room until smoke comes out of the chimney” is
Not everyone knows what an agreement will look like. If everyone
knew what an agreement would look like, it would have been reached long
Not all Palestinians know, or accept, that Har Homa – let alone Gush
Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim or Ariel – will stay in Israeli hands. Not all Israelis
know tens of thousands of Jews living beyond the Green Line will have to be
Not every Palestinian knows that they are going to have to give
up dreaming of “returning” to Haifa, Jaffa or Safed. Not every Israeli knows
that Jerusalem will not be Israel’s undivided capital for eternity.
things are not known, the parameters are not agreed upon by all.
on these issues are huge, and it is reckless to promote the expectation that if
you just sit down and talk again, everything will work out.
difficulty in launching the talks is only a skeleton of the difficulties that
will emerge once the talks are launched. If that was true in 2000 when there was
only one Palestinian entity, not one in the West Bank and another in Gaza as
today; and if that was true in 2008 when the region was not imploding as it is
now, then it is even more the case today when those two elements no longer
Unlike what Kerry said, getting into the talks is the easy part.
And if – as is the case now – even that feels like splitting the Red Sea,
imagine what actually reaching an agreement will be like.