The cliché has it that “both sides know full well the contours of a final Israeli-Palestinian deal.”
Essentially, according to such conventional wisdom, the key elements could be summed up on the back of an envelope: Israel has gone from Gaza. It will have to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank, too. Any territory that is maintained, to encompass major settlement blocs, will have to be traded for equivalent territory from within Israel’s current sovereign borders.
Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods will remain under Israeli control. Arab Jerusalem neighborhoods will come under Palestinian control. A separate, delicate arrangement will be agreed upon for the Temple Mount and possibly the wider Old City area.
And the Palestinians will abandon the practical implementation of the “right of return,” so that there is no significant influx of refugees and their descendants to Israel.
Except that, even when listed as superficially as that, it is immediately clear that the cliché and the conventional wisdom are mistaken. It’s really not that simple at all.
Relatively moderate Palestinians do not control Gaza; emphatically extremist Hamas does.
The Netanyahu government, most of whose influential members are deeply committed to the settlement enterprise, does not want to withdraw from most of the West Bank. It has major security concerns, too, and wants to ensure no influx of missiles – in part, via a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley. In any case, when the Olmert government proposed a near-full withdrawal, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rebuffed the offer.
Even president Bill Clinton, knowledgeable, committed and widely trusted by both sides, proved unable to foster a workable arrangement for Jerusalem 10 years ago; the Obama administration has no comparable record of commitment, and enjoys no remotely comparable level of trust.
And while the US believes Abbas is ready for a deal on the refugees, the Netanyahu government largely doubts this.
Given the bitter 16-year record of failed direct negotiations, it is hard to imagine former senator George Mitchell – no matter how indefatigable he may be, and no matter how impressive his Northern Ireland peacemaking credentials – wresting dramatic achievements from an indirect track that will see him and his team shuttling back and forth along the road from Jerusalem to Ramallah.
Worse, it is painfully clear that the two sides themselves are entering “proximity” talks with conflicting goals and expectations.
The Palestinians hope to gain American and possibly Israeli concessions on core issues over the next four months, and have bitterly resisted any resumption of direct negotiations. Israel has only grudgingly agreed to even raise final-status issues in the proximity talks, wants direct negotiations as soon as possible and says nothing can be finalized in the indirect track.
The very fact that the two sides are finally about to start talking
again might reasonably be considered a positive development, especially
if the uninspiring framework nonetheless yields a gradual
reestablishment of mutual confidence and thus paves the way for genuine
But recent history has also shown that when talks
break down, violence can swiftly follow. Thus, negotiations themselves
are not necessarily a good thing; if they fall apart in acrimony, as
they so often do, they can cause terrible damage.
of Camp David in 2000, for instance, when Yasser Arafat chose to
shatter the high expectations of many Israelis and Palestinians, and
opted not to legitimize Israel, was followed by his fostering of the
second intifada’s terror war.
The silver lining this time may be
that no one, on either side, is entering these proximity talks with
high expectations. Quite the contrary. Failure is all but assumed.
And that means even the smallest success would truly be a pleasant surprise.