It’s hard to get excited about Tuesday’s start of negotiations between Israel
and the Palestinian Authority in Washington. First of all, we’ve been there,
done that numerous times – to little positive effect – since the signing of the
Oslo Accords in the White House Rose Garden two decades ago. And secondly, yet
again, neither side seems particularly anxious to reach an agreement.
Middle East peace process began before Oslo, with the Madrid Conference in 1991.
Then, Israel’s hardline prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was dragged by a
determined US secretary of state, James Baker, to an international conference
where, for the first time, Israel officially met with a Palestinian delegation,
albeit in the disguise of a joint Palestinian-Jordanian mission.
had no interest in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In his
speech to the conference, he made it very clear that the most he was prepared to
discuss was some form of “interim self-government arrangements with the
Territorial concessions were not part of his
vocabulary and he made it clear he had little expectations from the Arab
Noting the fact that the conference was jointly sponsored by once
implacable enemies, the United States and the Soviet Union, and held on a
European continent that had seen hundreds of years of bitter conflict, Shamir
said he envied the fact that “now, they are together – former bitter enemies –
in a united community.” But the Middle East, Shamir continued, was different:
“The gulf separating the two sides is still too wide, the Arab hostility to
Israel too deep, the lack of trust too immense to permit a dramatic, quick
So why did Shamir, who had earlier voted against the peace
agreement with Egypt, even attend an international conference aimed at promoting
peace in the Middle East? It all boiled down to money; or rather $10 billion in
loan guarantees Israel needed from Washington to help cope with the sudden mass
influx of Soviet Jews moving to Israel. Shamir knew that without these
guarantees, the Israeli economy would not be able to cope with this new wave of
aliya, and that he would lose the next elections.
And so Shamir
reluctantly made his way to Madrid, but then did his utmost to ensure that the
talks that came in its aftermath went absolutely nowhere. Nevertheless, the
sight of the prime minister sitting around the same table as Palestinian figures
such as Saeb Erekat and Haidar Abdel-Shafi broke a taboo and helped pave the way
for the Oslo talks with the real Palestinian leadership once Shamir anyway lost
the 1992 elections.
THE PARALLELS between Shamir and Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu are clear. Netanyahu, too, does not believe in the
possibility of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a prime minister
with two terms of leading the country already behind him, Netanyahu has a record
of inactivity on the peace process front that would make Shamir proud. Moreover,
he has also used this period to help further spread the growth of Israeli
settlements in the West Bank, which makes hopes of securing a peace agreement
ever more elusive.
So why is Netanyahu sending Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak
Molho to Washington to begin talks with Erekat (who really should consider
writing a book about Middle East peace negotiations entitled Déjà vu)? Like
Shamir, Netanyahu simply wants to buy time.
Not because the United States
is pressing him in the same way that James Baker and George H. Bush forced
Shamir to the negotiating table. In fact, President Barack Obama’s very clear
distancing of himself from Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to broker
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations shows how little confidence the White House has
in seeing a positive result from these talks.
Rather, Netanyahu is
concerned about pressure from the wider international community and the
diplomatic damage the Palestinians could cause Israel at the United Nations and
the International Court of Justice.
By skillfully negotiating a staged
release of Palestinian prisoners over the course of the planned of talks,
Netanyahu has bought himself nine months of quiet on the diplomatic front;
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have no interest in scuttling
the negotiations until all the prisoners are back with their families; and he
has an accomplishment to rival the prisoner swap for Gilad Schalit achieved by
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, nine months is a lifetime in the
Middle East and there is no need to worry for now about the inevitability of
this new round of talks breaking down. In the short term, the prime minister is
perhaps correct, but he should ponder the recent assessment of retired US Marine
Corps General James Mattis, the former commander of the US Central
“I’ll tell you, the current situation is
unsustainable....We’ve got to find a way to make work the two-state
solution... and the chances are starting to ebb because of the settlements. For
example, if I’m Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers to the east and there’s
10,000 Arabs already there, and if we draw the border to include them, either
[Israel] ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote –
apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a
country.”The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.
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