Editor's Notes: Look who’s (almost) talking

The dispute over the modalities of peace negotiations was only the first, and the least, of the problems

Abbas speaks to Channel 2 311  (photo credit: Channel 2)
Abbas speaks to Channel 2 311
(photo credit: Channel 2)
With Mahmoud Abbas now seeking Arab League approval for the launch of indirect “proximity” talks with Israel, we are belatedly back to where things stood on the eve of Vice President Joe Biden’s unhappy visit to Israel seven weeks ago.
Biden’s was a long-planned trip intended to reassure Israel about the Obama administration’s oft-stated “unbreakable, unshakable” commitment to Israel. But it was also timed to coincide with the scheduled launch of the indirect talks.
While the Israeli announcement of planned new construction at Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem that was mainly populated without controversy during Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership, has been universally understood to have torpedoed many of the positive aims of the Biden visit, and the intended launch of the proximity talks, too, the truth, as so often, is rather more complicated.
The Ramat Shlomo announcement did indeed blight the visit. But Biden accepted Israel’s explanations and apologies for the embarrassing timing of a decision in an area of policy – the question of Israeli building in Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhoods – where the US and Israel have a longstanding fundamental disagreement. What has not hitherto been made known is that the Biden visit exposed a second crisis, regarding the modalities of the proximity talks.
Broadly speaking, three separate sources have confirmed in the past few days, Israel understood that it was agreeing to enter the shortest-possible sequence of indirect contacts, mediated by special envoy George Mitchell and his team, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, and that these would quickly be superseded by a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the core issues. By contrast, the Palestinian Authority understood that it was consenting to some four months of indirect talks, grappling substantively with core issues.
When each side realized that it had a very different impression of the “proximity” modalities, frustrations erupted among all three players, the scheduled launch of those talks was rendered impossible, and that intended crowning element of the Biden visit was scuppered.
The diplomacy of the past seven weeks has been concentrated on reconciling those conflicting impressions, to find parameters that both sides can live with, amid what the US delicately calls the two sides’ mutual doubts and suspicions. The guarded optimism of the last few days, including public comments by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, indicates that a formula has been found.
My understanding is that, although Israel wanted direct talks as close to straight away as possible, the proximity talks may indeed last for several months, but that the US and Israel would certainly be pleased if it proves possible to move into the direct framework sooner. Moreover, while aspects of some final-status issues will be raised in the indirect framework, the knottiest matters of dispute will still necessarily be addressed in the direct-talk phase. As Jerusalem sees it, there’s not much point in debating matters of critical substance via a third party when Ramallah is a 20-minute drive away.
SO MUCH for the modalities.
As regards matters of substance, the plain, unfortunate fact remains that not only are Israel and the Palestinians deeply and predictably at odds, so too are Israel and the Obama administration.
The administration argues that since Israel regards an accommodation with the Palestinians as central to its capacity to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, the Netanyahu government should be doing whatever it can to create the climate for such an accommodation. It argues further that since the US is strategically committed to Israel’s Jewish and democratic well-being, its work to foster such an accommodation is emphatically an American strategic interest, and it wonders why it gets criticized for describing its efforts in those terms.
It may have accepted that Netanyahu’s publicly stated “red lines” mean he will not order a halt to building in Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhoods, it may have persuaded the Palestinians to enter proximity talks without such a declared halt, but it thinks Netanyahu’s position is unhelpful – unhelpful to Israel.
It claims, furthermore, not to quite understand what it is that Netanyahu is offering or planning to offer the Palestinians, and The Jerusalem Post’s report earlier this week that the government has no plans to dismantle so much as an unauthorized West Bank outpost in the foreseeable future won’t have helped. Noting that former prime minister Ehud Olmert failed to cut a deal with Abbas when, having left Gaza, Israel offered almost all of the West Bank, the division of Jerusalem and a readiness to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue without altering Israel’s demographic balance, the Americans wonder why Netanyahu thinks he might have more success when trying to drive what the prime minister has described as “a harder bargain.”
And where the latest ostensible bust-up between Netanyahu and Barack Obama in late March is concerned, some in the administration are asking why the prime minister so fervently sought the presidential ear when it turned out he had nothing particularly dramatic to convey.
The insistence from Washington is that the last thing this administration wants to do, contrary to certain reports, is to change the Israeli government. It believes Netanyahu has the ability and the credibility to achieve an agreement with Abbas. It just doesn’t know whether he wants to.
(In Jerusalem, incidentally, it is firmly asserted that Netanyahu did not seek that March White House meeting in the first place, but rather was invited by the president after it became clear that Obama was not going to be away in Indonesia as originally scheduled.)
Nonetheless, the administration does appreciate that Netanyahu was willing to sanction the 10-month settlement-home moratorium, and it has detected other shifts in his stance of late. One of these was his widely overlooked statement, in his Channel 2 interview last week, that the final status of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem such as Abu Dis and Shuafat would need to be addressed in the final-status talks – a stance that is more in keeping with the long-time Labor position about Jews not having prayed to Shuafat during their centuries of exile, and rather less in tune with the traditional Likud opposition to any territorial concessions within post-1967 Israeli-claimed sovereign Jerusalem.
A second, again largely overlooked change in stance was Netanyahu’s declared readiness, in his late March speech to AIPAC, to “review security arrangements” if a peace deal with the Palestinians were to “prove its durability over time.”
The prime minister made this unprecedented concession after stating that, because of the missile and other military threats that an independent Palestine might pose, “a peace agreement with the Palestinians must include an Israeli presence on the eastern border of a future Palestinian state.”
Essentially, therefore, Netanyahu was saying that Israeli security deployment in the Jordan Valley, and other Israeli security requirements, could be reconsidered, and need not be permanent, if peaceful reconciliation was palpably developing.
THE MOST profound difference between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu coalition, however, relates to the gauging of Abbas’s peacemaking intentions.
Although it concedes the possibility that Abbas is only entering the proximity talks in order to create a sense of momentum and then blame Israel for an inevitable breakdown, Washington believes Abbas is prepared to endorse viable terms for peace. Jerusalem does not.
In the Prime Minister’s Office, there is full awareness that the international community is growing ever more supportive of Palestinian statehood, with ever less empathy for Israel’s concerns and reservations.
Despite Abbas’s insistence this week that he was not seeking “unilateral solutions” and that his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, would not unilaterally declare statehood next year, the conviction among many in Netanyahu’s orbit is that the PA is aiming eventually to secure a new UN resolution for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, with a fudging of the refugee issue. Aiming, that is, to establish a Palestinian state not at peace with Israel, but to continue the conflict with Israel. (It is noted in these circles that Fayyad’s published program for his government from last August, “Palestine: Ending the Occupation, Establishing the State,” mentions Israel overwhelmingly in negative contexts, and contains no direct, unambiguous reference to making peace with Israel.)
While the administration pays great heed to Abbas’s repeated restating of his support for a two-state solution, and gives serious weight to the representations of President Shimon Peres, no less, to the effect that Abbas does not intend to seek to flood Israel with refugees, those around Netanyahu do not share the sense that Abbas will make an historic reconciliation.
It is asserted, indeed, that not a single one of Israel’s key decision-makers consider that Abbas is ready for such a move. Different ministers might be prepared to offer more or less in the effort to change that rejectionist mindset, but their conclusion, for now, is unanimous and bleak. Netanyahu, incidentally, is said to sit in the relatively more optimistic camp – being given to wondering aloud in certain meetings whether the Palestinian leader might yet somehow rise to the occasion.
The word from within the coalition is that if Abbas is indeed prepared to take viable positions on the refugee issue, this welcome news has certainly not reached the government’s ear. If he stands by some of the demilitarization arrangements that Tzipi Livni and others have suggested he supports, again, this government has seen or heard nothing categorical to that effect.
And while it is acknowledged that making a speech abandoning the impossible demand for a “right of return” might be too much to ask from Abbas at the start of the new negotiating effort, then why can he not, it is asked in Jerusalem, at least publicly acknowledge the Jewish connection to this land?
The thinking around the prime minister is that the PA leader’s interview with The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl last May, smartly headlined “Abbas’s waiting game,” still represents the best guide to his thinking. Abbas explained then that he had not acceded to Olmert’s offer because “the gaps were wide,” and time was on the Palestinians’ side: “In the West Bank we have a good reality,” Abbas said contentedly. “The people are living a normal life.”
Interestingly, it is noted in Jerusalem, the Palestinians are these days talking a little differently about the Olmert offer. In last year’s narrative, as exemplified by the Diehl interview, it was the substance that was problematic – those insufficient terms, those gaps. In the newer narrative, Olmert was spurned because of the issue of “delivery” – the concern that a lame duck PM might not be able to come through on the deal.
In the American read, Abbas’s rejection of Olmert is regarded both as a function of Olmert’s weakness, and, as noted above, as proof that Netanyahu is unlikely to attain a deal offering any less. In Jerusalem, the counterargument is that if Abbas balked because of the substance of the offer, then any Netanyahu gambit will indeed fail. Only if it was a matter of delivery is there some faint hope for progress now with Netanyahu’s less generous terms. “Faint” being the operative term.
No, it is stressed, without elaboration, Netanyahu will not be offering Abbas everything he wants. But if Abbas’s problem was with a soon-to-depart Olmert who might not be able to make good on a very generous deal, then maybe he can be enticed by a less generous deal from a more credible prime minister.
But the overall assessment stressed by those around the prime minister is of an uncompromising Abbas, leaping on any American pressure on Israel, giving nothing, and holding to his own “absurd” demands.
Netanyahu, it is said, was ready to announce the 10-month settlement freeze late last summer, as part of a package of expected mutual goodwill measures in the aftermath of Obama’s Cairo Muslim-outreach speech, but he held back because the US could not secure any reciprocal gestures from the Palestinian and wider Arab side.
The view in Jerusalem is that Abbas was stringing the international community along in the last few months until it became clear, only recently, that the US was no longer coddling the Palestinians, that Obama was growing impatient with him, and that the PA really needed to enter the proximity talks.
And it is noted that Abbas has lately abandoned the former insistent assertion of the Palestinians’ right to determine their own fate and instead handed to the Arab League decision-making rights as to whether and how negotiations might proceed. This might have had advantages if the Arab League were supportive of genuine steps forward. Far more probable, though, was that it would make constructive progress even less likely.
AS REGARDS the ongoing US-Israel tensions, there is sorrow in Jerusalem that the building disputes that have fueled the most controversy with Washington are precisely those that should have been the least problematic.
Gilo is a robust Jewish neighborhood in the capital that Israel would never contemplate relinquishing. Much the same can be said for Ramat Shlomo. Yet because of the deeply inauspicious timing of the announcement of new building in both those neighborhoods, they triggered more bitter public recriminations from the US than have much more potentially controversial projects elsewhere beyond the Green Line.
The firm hope in Jerusalem is that future such disputes can be avoided, but where there are differences, that the American response be better calibrated.
There is also, finally, a slightly shamefaced, very off-the-record,admission here that the “east” Jerusalem building crises were somewhatexacerbated by the fact that certain unnamed senior Israelis aren’talways as knowledgeable as they should be regarding what actuallyconstitutes “east” Jerusalem. That is, they’re not as familiar as theyought to be about which neighborhoods are located beyond the Green Lineand which are not. They don’t always know which areas, even if they mayaccurately be described geographically as situated in “south” or“north” Jerusalem, are nonetheless politically located in theultra-sensitive “east” of the city.
Implausible? Impossible? You’d think so. But evidently not.
I’ll leave it at that. We’ve all seen the consequences.