Analysis: ‘Wanting it more than the parties themselves’

What if the type of Palestinian state that Netanyahu is willing to give is not the type of state Abbas can accept?

Abbas and Netanyahu 2010 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abbas and Netanyahu 2010 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It wasn’t the three-way Menachem Begin-Anwar Sadat-Jimmy Carter handshake on the White House lawn sealing the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979, nor even the Bill Clinton- Yitzhak Rabin-Yasser Arafat photo opportunity at the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993.
But still, there was a sense of “moment” on September 1, 2010, when US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II gathered in the White House Rose Garden to announce commencement of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for the first time in two years.
With all the current wrangling regarding the terms of reference for the just announced resumption of talks, it is instructive to listen how Obama defined the purpose of those talks back then: “The purpose of these talks is clear,” he said.
“These will be direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. These negotiations are intended to resolve all final-status issues. The goal is a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state, living side-by-side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors. That’s the vision we are pursuing.”
Those talks lasted three weeks and ended when the Palestinians walked out after Israel refused to renew a 10-month settlement freeze.
Beyond defining the purpose of the talks (it will be interesting to see how the purpose of the upcoming round is defined, and to what degree, and why, it varies from the parameters spelled out above), Obama said something else very instructive in light of recent developments.
“The United States will put our full weight behind this effort,” Obama said. “We will be an active and sustained participant. We will support those who make difficult choices in pursuit of peace. But let me be very clear. Ultimately the United States cannot impose a solution, and we cannot want it more than the parties themselves.”
There, it appeared, in Obama’s mouth; that sentence that ran like a motif through both the Clinton and Bush administrations: the idea that – try as it may – the US can’t want a peace deal more than the parties.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, apparently, does not believe this. Here is a man who will not take no for an answer.
On the one hand, one could admire Kerry for his determination to get the sides talking to each other, even if they don’t want to. And many signs indicate that they do not want to.
In Israel there are central members of the coalition, such as Bayit Yehudi, part of Likud, and Yisrael Beytenu, who have not hidden their opposition to a two-state solution at this time.
And on the other side, the Palestinian leadership Thursday night in the form of PLO and Fatah heads – people it is safe to assume have their ears tuned to the grass roots – met and decided to turn down the Kerry plan.
But the indomitable Kerry would not be deterred. He huffed, he puffed, he carried on with his efforts and he won an agreement by the Palestinians on Friday to return to the table. And the world celebrated.
It is worth asking, however, whether it is good to force the sides into doing something they might not want, or be ready, to do.
Robert Malley, who was involved on the US side in the disastrous Camp David summit in July 2000 where it became clear that the most a left wing Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, could offer did not meet former PA chairman Yasser Arafat’s minimum requirements, wrote a now famous essay in August 2001 with Hussein Agha trying to knock down the notion that Arafat was responsible for Camp David’s failure. They argued that tactical errors by both Barak and Clinton were equally responsible.
One of those tactical errors, they posited, was foisting the summit on an Arafat not interested in it. (Malley, by the way, is now being considered – according to diplomatic sources – for a senior post in the US State Department’s Near East bureau.) “On June 15, during his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case: Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards,” they wrote in the New York Review of Books. “The only conceivable outcome of going to a summit, he told Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright, was to have everything explode in the president’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said – do you really want to burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it.”
Camp David was a failure, a failure that many believe triggered the second intifada. And anyone watching how hard Kerry struggled to get the Palestinians to the table over the weekend, especially following Thursday night’s “no” from the PLO leadership, cannot help escape the feeling that – like Arafat before him – Abbas is going to these negotiations principally so as not incur America’s wrath.
But then what? What happens when the sides get to the table and come up against what seems like the inevitable brick wall? What if the type of Palestinian state that Netanyahu is willing to give – demilitarized, sans settlement blocks, a final refuge for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, with Israeli control of the Western Wall, and an Israeli presence on the Jordan River – is not the type of state Abbas can accept? What happens when the talks break down? Or, as Arafat – according to Malley – told Albright: “If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope.”
In other words, perhaps it is better at times not to ask questions you don’t want to hear the answers to.
What if for a plethora of reasons ranging from the turmoil in the region, to the bifurcated nature of the Palestinian entity (Hamas vs. Fatah) and a strong right-wing component in the Israeli government, conditions are not amenable now for a final status agreement? In April 2002, Dennis Ross, who was the chief Middle East negotiator during Camp David, was asked in a Fox interview what, in his view, was the reason Arafat said “no” at Camp David (Malley and Ross deeply disagreed on this matter).
“Because fundamentally I do not believe he can end the conflict,” Ross said. “We had one critical clause in this agreement, and that clause was, this is the end of the conflict.”
“Arafat’s whole life has been governed by struggle and a cause,” Ross continued. “Everything he has done as leader of the Palestinians is to always leave his options open, never close a door. He was being asked here, you’ve got to close the door. For him to end the conflict is to end himself.”
What Ross said of Arafat may, to a lesser degree, extend to Abbas as well.
At 78-years-old, is he going to want to be the one to go down in Palestinian history as the leader to have closed the door on all the maximalist Palestinian aspirations, including the right of refugees and their descendants to return to pre-1967 Israel? And do his people – and Hamas is a big part of his people – want him to do so? Kerry is forcing the issue, dragging the sides back to the table kicking and screaming. For this he has already won many plaudits. But is what is good for Kerry and America’s standing in the region, necessarily good for Israel and the Palestinians?