Analysis: Despite what Kerry says, launching talks is the easy part

The difficulty in launching talks is only a skeleton of the difficulties that emerge once talks are launched. Barak and Afarat, Olmert and Abbas were able to get into the talks. Reaching an agreement is the problem.

July 1, 2013 06:00
3 minute read.
President Shimon Peres, US Secretary of State John Kerry and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Peres Abbas and Kerry at WEC 370. (photo credit: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell)

For the last 20 years, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have broken up on the shoals where the most Israel feels it can offer falls short of the minimum the Palestinians feel they can accept.

It happened in 2000 at Camp David and later at Taba, where Yasser Arafat came up against a Center-Left Israeli prime minister in Ehud Barak and found that the most Barak could give him – which was 100% of Gaza, about 97% of the West Bank and a formula for Jerusalem whereby what was Jewish would remain in Israel, and what was Arab would go to the Palestinian state – did not meet his minimum requirements.

It happened again in 2008 after Annapolis, when Mahmoud Abbas came up against a centrist prime minister in Ehud Olmert and said the gaps were too wide between what Olmert was offering, and what he could accept. And what Olmert offered was more generous than Barak’s plan.

And, apparently, it is happening again now.

The difference is that in 2000 and 2008 the gaps emerged regarding what was needed to conclude an agreement; now the gaps are over what it will take just to get the sides into the room.

The very hopeful and super energetic John Kerry, who worked tirelessly over the last three days trying to get the sides back to the table, seemed to be engaging in some wishful thinking when, at the press conference he gave before boarding a flight for Brunei, quoted Quartet envoy Tony Blair as saying the “hardest part” is the launch.

The reason the launch is so tough, Kerry said, “is because both sides want to understand what the parameters are, how you will negotiate and what you negotiate about. And once you get to that, then you can begin to dig in and get to the hard work.”

The history of the last 20 years of negotiations, however, belies that rather rosy assumption. Barak and Arafat were able to launch talks, that was the easy part. What they could not do was conclude them. The same with Olmert and Abbas. They launched the talks and had dozens of fruitful and convivial discussions. They couldn’t conclude the agreement.

And they could not seal the deal because the over-used mantra that “everyone knows what an agreement will look like, and all you need to do is get the sides into a room until smoke comes out of the chimney” is empty.

Not everyone knows what an agreement will look like. If everyone knew what an agreement would look like, it would have been reached long ago.

Not all Palestinians know, or accept, that Har Homa – let alone Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim or Ariel – will stay in Israeli hands. Not all Israelis know tens of thousands of Jews living beyond the Green Line will have to be uprooted.

Not every Palestinian knows that they are going to have to give up dreaming of “returning” to Haifa, Jaffa or Safed. Not every Israeli knows that Jerusalem will not be Israel’s undivided capital for eternity.

Those things are not known, the parameters are not agreed upon by all.

The gaps on these issues are huge, and it is reckless to promote the expectation that if you just sit down and talk again, everything will work out.

The difficulty in launching the talks is only a skeleton of the difficulties that will emerge once the talks are launched. If that was true in 2000 when there was only one Palestinian entity, not one in the West Bank and another in Gaza as today; and if that was true in 2008 when the region was not imploding as it is now, then it is even more the case today when those two elements no longer exist.

Unlike what Kerry said, getting into the talks is the easy part. And if – as is the case now – even that feels like splitting the Red Sea, imagine what actually reaching an agreement will be like.

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