Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas 311 (R).
(photo credit: Jason Reed / Reuters)
After 16 months of no negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian officials met in
Amman last week and again this week. Yet, the question remains whether these
talks represent a new opening or if they are merely a tactical instrument for
each side to perpetuate recriminations?
If it is only about tactics, these talks will enable the Palestinians to rebut the Israeli claim regarding the Quartet's 90-day clock for both sides to present a map on borders and security because there are no direct meetings between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other hand, should the Palestinians walk away from the table, this will enable the Israelis to repeat what they have always said, namely that the Palestinians' refusal to stay at the negotiating table is the source of the impasse.
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‘Document Israel gave PA was just an outline’
The idea of talks having only tactical value or something more meaningful depends on a deeper question. At the core, there are internal policy debates within both Israeli and Palestinian policy circles on the value of making any concessions to each other when each side is absolutely certain that no territorial breakthrough will occur during 2012. These quiet domestic debates occur within Palestinian and Israeli policy circles, and not just between them.
differences, all sides have agreed upon two points: there will be no territorial
breakthrough during an American election year, and the debates are for
policymakers since the publics remain skeptical of the other side’s sincerity
he debates have therefore shifted toward discussing measures
that can be taken in the absence of a territorial breakthrough. On the
Palestinian side, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has publicly championed the idea
that the best means of building a Palestinian state is to continue
institution-building efforts on the ground in the West Bank that show steady
progress towards this goal. Such measures range from increased Palestinian
economic access in the West Bank, increasing Palestinian police stations outside
of Palestinian urban areas to eliminating IDF incursions in Area A, which Hamas
has continuously cited as proof the occupation continues despite Palestinian
security cooperation with Israel.
The other side of the Palestinian
policy debate, associated with Abbas’s foreign policy negotiating team argues
the best way to insulate the Palestinian Authority from the wrath of the Arab
Awakening is through continued defiance of Israel. The school of thought
believes it may be able to persuade PA President Mahmoud Abbas that his domestic
popularity reached an all-time high following his bid for UN statehood in
September, and this path of resistance will help to obscure his close
association with the unpopular Hosni Mubarak. Moreover, this school will
probably seek to persuade Abbas that diplomatic defiance of Israel will also
help Fatah to compete with Hamas after it becomes clear that Fatah lacks a
strong candidate for the May elections, especially given the political boost
that Hamas may get from the current Islamist electoral wave in the Arab
Furthermore, this school is seen as viewing Palestinian defiance as
virtually cost-free internationally. The popular unaccommodating image
of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes him an easy target, and both
the Europeans and Arabs often assume that he is therefore the cause of
On the Israeli side, the policy debate in 2012 will center on
whether there is any value in yielding to Palestinian demands on non-territorial
issues if a full peace deal is out of reach. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
identifies strongly with this view.
A contrasting view comes from key
parts of the Israeli defense establishment, which views the threat of a nuclear
Iran as strong motivation for credible progress between Israel and the
Palestinians. Three points make up this line of reasoning: first, that
progress between Israel and the Palestinians could eventually lead to
negotiations that would help to insulate the PA against any Arab Awakening
revolts. Second, progress on the peace process front could allow Israel to focus
more of its policymaking efforts on combating the Iran nuclear threat. Third,
progress with the Palestinians could only benefit Israel as it seeks to reach
out to various regional Arabs on the Iranian issue, and as it seeks to salvage
its relationship with the Egyptian military—seen by Israel as key to preserving
the bilateral peace treaty.
One might add a fourth reason, as well. Any
progress by Netanyahu in 2012 would serve to counter the prevalent notion that
only US pressure can spur Israeli steps towards peace. Paralysis in 2012 would
only strengthen this argument, which is certainly not in Netanyahu’s
Some ministers and officials close to Netanyahu suggest Israel could
accept progress on the ground if the Palestinians provide a quid pro
quo. In other words, only if the Palestinians suspend their diplomatic
efforts at the UN and other international agencies will they win any
reciprocal Israeli action. It is this tradeoff that could pit the
different sides of the Palestinian debate: those favoring progress on
the ground versus those who want to wage a diplomatic defiant approach
against Israel at the UN elsewhere.
current concern for the peace process is not what will or will not happen this
week in Amman, but rather how policy debates in Jerusalem and Ramallah will
shape a year of zero expectations. On the more optimistic note, when there are
no expectations, they can be easily exceeded. On the less hopeful note, zero
expectations, however, does not mean zero consequences. Given the current
turmoil in the region, 2012 could be a very consequential year.
Makovsky is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Project on the
Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He
is an adjunct professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s
Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.