It wasn’t the three-way Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat-Jimmy Carter handshake on the
White House lawn sealing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979, nor
even the Bill Clinton- Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat photo opportunity at the
signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993.
But still, there was a
sense of “moment” on September 1, 2010, when US President Barack Obama, Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II gathered in the
White House Rose Garden to announce commencement of direct Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations for the first time in two years.
With all the current
wrangling regarding the terms of reference for the just announced resumption of
talks, it is instructive to listen how Obama defined the purpose of those talks
back then: “The purpose of these talks is clear,” he said.
“These will be
direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. These negotiations are
intended to resolve all final-status issues. The goal is a settlement,
negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and
results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian
state, living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel
and its other neighbors. That’s the vision we are pursuing.”
talks lasted three weeks and ended when the Palestinians walked out after Israel refused to renew a 10-month settlement
Beyond defining the purpose of the talks (it will be interesting
to see how the purpose of the upcoming round is defined, and to what degree, and
why, it varies from the parameters spelled out above), Obama said something else
very instructive in light of recent developments.
“The United States will
put our full weight behind this effort,” Obama said. “We will be an active and
sustained participant. We will support those who make difficult choices in
pursuit of peace. But let me be very clear. Ultimately the United States cannot
impose a solution, and we cannot want it more than the parties
There, it appeared, in Obama’s mouth; that sentence that ran
like a motif through both the Clinton and Bush administrations: the idea that –
try as it may – the US can’t want a peace deal more than the parties.
Secretary of State John Kerry, apparently, does not believe this. Here is a man
who will not take no for an answer.
On the one hand, one could admire
Kerry for his determination to get the sides talking to each other, even if they
don’t want to. And many signs indicate that they do not want to.
Israel there are central members of the coalition, such as Bayit Yehudi, part of
Likud, and Yisrael Beytenu, who have not hidden their opposition to a two-state
solution at this time.
And on the other side, the Palestinian leadership
Thursday night in the form of PLO and Fatah heads – people it is safe to assume
have their ears tuned to the grass roots – met and decided to turn down the
But the indomitable Kerry would not be deterred. He huffed,
he puffed, he carried on with his efforts and he won an agreement by the
Palestinians on Friday to return to the table. And the world
It is worth asking, however, whether it is good to force the
sides into doing something they might not want, or be ready, to
Robert Malley, who was involved on the US side in the disastrous Camp
David summit in July 2000 where it became clear that the most a left wing
Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, could offer did not meet former PA chairman
Yasser Arafat’s minimum requirements, wrote a now famous essay in August 2001
with Hussein Agha trying to knock down the notion that Arafat was responsible
for Camp David’s failure. They argued that tactical errors by both Barak and
Clinton were equally responsible.
One of those tactical errors, they
posited, was foisting the summit on an Arafat not interested in it. (Malley, by
the way, is now being considered – according to diplomatic sources – for a
senior post in the US State Department’s Near East bureau.) “On June 15, during
his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case:
Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the
negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards,” they wrote in
the New York Review of Books. “The only conceivable outcome of going to a
summit, he told Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright, was to have everything
explode in the president’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will
still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said – do you really want to
burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been
to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on
benefiting from it.”
Camp David was a failure, a failure that many
believe triggered the second intifada. And anyone watching how hard Kerry
struggled to get the Palestinians to the table over the weekend, especially
following Thursday night’s “no” from the PLO leadership, cannot help escape the
feeling that – like Arafat before him – Abbas is going to these negotiations
principally so as not incur America’s wrath.
But then what? What happens
when the sides get to the table and come up against what seems like the
inevitable brick wall? What if the type of Palestinian state that Netanyahu is
willing to give – demilitarized, sans settlement blocks, a final refuge for all
Palestinian refugees and their descendants, with Israeli control of the Western
Wall, and an Israeli presence on the Jordan River – is not the type of state
Abbas can accept? What happens when the talks break down? Or, as Arafat –
according to Malley – told Albright: “If there is no summit, at least there will
still be hope.”
In other words, perhaps it is better at times not to ask
questions you don’t want to hear the answers to.
What if for a plethora
of reasons ranging from the turmoil in the region, to the bifurcated nature of
the Palestinian entity (Hamas vs. Fatah) and a strong right-wing component in
the Israeli government, conditions are not amenable now for a final status
agreement? In April 2002, Dennis Ross, who was the chief Middle East negotiator
during Camp David, was asked in a Fox interview what, in his view, was the
reason Arafat said “no” at Camp David (Malley and Ross deeply disagreed on this
“Because fundamentally I do not believe he can end the
conflict,” Ross said. “We had one critical clause in this agreement, and that
clause was, this is the end of the conflict.”
“Arafat’s whole life has
been governed by struggle and a cause,” Ross continued. “Everything he has done
as leader of the Palestinians is to always leave his options open, never close a
door. He was being asked here, you’ve got to close the door. For him to end the
conflict is to end himself.”
What Ross said of Arafat may, to a lesser
degree, extend to Abbas as well.
At 78-years-old, is he going to want to
be the one to go down in Palestinian history as the leader to have closed the
door on all the maximalist Palestinian aspirations, including the right of
refugees and their descendants to return to pre-1967 Israel? And do his people –
and Hamas is a big part of his people – want him to do so? Kerry is forcing the
issue, dragging the sides back to the table kicking and screaming. For this he
has already won many plaudits. But is what is good for Kerry and America’s
standing in the region, necessarily good for Israel and the Palestinians?
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