The direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are now getting under way. It is widely agreed that these talks are critical. A delay or a collapse in the talks is likely to cause grave difficulties that will impact the stability of the entire Middle East. I share the high expectations for the talks, and the concerns over a possible failure.
In my opinion, the issue of the building freeze at the settlements is marginal. The US administration made it a central issue, and the Palestinian leadership had to follow suit. As a result, the entire region and the US – as a central player in shaping the political arena of the Middle East – have been preoccupied with an issue whose success or failure will not really influence the diplomatic process in our region.
Theoretically, in the current situation, neither of the sides can give
in. If the prime minister of Israel announces the extension of the
building freeze, he might jeopardize his government’s stability when
negotiations have still not reached a substantial level. If the
Palestinian president capitulates, and agrees to negotiate even if the
freeze is canceled, he will be vulnerable to insufferable pressure from
extreme factors in the Palestinian community.
Furthermore, many in the international community support the demand for a building freeze.
How then to prevent the collapse of the talks before they have barely
begun? In my opinion, the government of Israel can and must re-focus
discussion on the core issues of dispute between us and the
Palestinians. The issues that will determine the fate of the
negotiations are not those of continued building or a freeze in the
territories. There is no point wasting energy and creative thought on
how to somehow both cancel the freeze and maintain it, as it seems to me
is being attempted.
There are five central issues that will ultimately determine the results of the talks.
1) The question of borders – or what will be the scope of the Israeli
withdrawal from the territories, and will that withdrawal include parts
2) What will be the status of the non-Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem,
and will those neighborhoods – including Sheikh Jarrah, for example –
ultimately be the Palestinian capital?
3) The status of the Holy Basin. Will the sides be prepared to decide
that the Holy Basin will be overseen by an international trusteeship and
will not be a sovereign part of either the State of Israel or the state
4) A solution to the refugee problem. Will the Palestinian leadership
and that of the government of Israel agree that the framework for
discussion of this sensitive issue is the Arab peace initiative, which
is in any case part of the road map that is accepted by both sides?
5) Will the Palestinians be prepared to respect Israel’s security needs
according to the eight points that were drafted in the past by the
Israeli government with the agreement of the American administration –
all this based on the assumption that there will be agreement on borders
based on the 1967 lines?
In my opinion, Israel, in the blink of an eye, can transform the
atmosphere surrounding the talks if it takes a clear stance on these
issues and presents them as its position for the negotiations. If it
does so, it will be able to avoid confrontation on the issue of the
building freeze, which is marginal when compared to the critical
questions that will shape the fate of the negotiations.
The writer is the former prime minister of Israel.