Peace negotiations: Parallels with the 1990s

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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
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.
The 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.
Shamir 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 Palestinian Arabs.”
Territorial concessions were not part of his vocabulary and he made it clear he had little expectations from the Arab world.
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 solution.”
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 Hamas.
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 Command.
“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.