Editorial: Trying again

Talks offer faint reasons for cautious optimism.

It has taken Herculean efforts by the Obama administration to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority together for direct talks, including a diplomatic sleight of hand. Indeed, Israelis and Palestinians are entering the talks next month based on different working assumptions.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s long-standing demand that there be no preconditions for the launching of talks was met by the US. But PA President Mahmoud Abbas had held out for a complete construction freeze not only in Judea and Samaria, which is presently in place, but also in the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem annexed after the Six Day War.
While this demand was rightly rejected, Abbas was given a chance to save face: He availed himself of a vague declaration made Friday by the Mideast Quartet – the US, the EU, the UN and Russia – which he chose to interpret as an assertion that the pre-1967 lines will serve as the basis for the negotiations. Nevertheless, Abbas’s many critics within the PA, displeased with him for not holding out for a complete building freeze in Jerusalem or at least an explicit promise that the pre-1967 lines would serve as a basis for talks, are now accusing the PA president of caving in to US and Israeli demands.
None of this is a harbinger of future success.
THE DISPUTE over the building freeze in Jerusalem demonstrates the yawning gap that exists between the sides. To stop building in established, bustling Jewish neighborhoods such as Ramat Eshkol, East Talpiot or Ramat Shlomo, with the implication that this might signal their future evacuation, is incomprehensible from an Israeli perspective, almost as incomprehensible as giving up control over the Western Wall, which is another Palestinian demand.
Making a building freeze in Jerusalem a precondition for negotiations is tantamount to a Palestinian veto of peaceful means to resolving the conflict.
Nor is it altogether clear that the Fatah-controlled PA has completely ruled out the use of armed resistance as a means of obtaining its demands. Just two weeks ago, in an interview with PA-sponsored television, Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub said that the Fatah leadership had affirmed armed struggle as “a means, not an end” that “must cause pain to the occupation. It must be connected to a political platform,” according to Palestine Media Watch.
Rajoub’s comments came just one day after former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei voiced similar sentiments in the London-based Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Meanwhile, the PA continues to cultivate the cult of death. Omar Muhammed Ziyada, who killed 15-year-old Hadar Hershkovitz and wounded 16 others when he blew himself up in Herzliya in June 2002, was the most recent shahid to be memorialized – having the town square of Madama, which is under PA control, named after him.
Such actions are the very opposite of fostering grassroots support for peace.
In any climate, a responsible Israeli leadership would demand that a future Palestinian state be demilitarized, a requirement that is rejected by Abbas. In this climate, such demands become even more critical. Nor can Israel be expected to relinquish its military presence in the Jordan Valley in the foreseeable future, another point of dispute with the PA, even though Netanyahu has hinted at some future flexibility on the issue.
AND YET, the resumption of direct talks does offer a few, faint reasons for cautious optimism. While former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert lacked broad support when they offered far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians in 2000 and in 2008, in vain, Netanyahu heads a strong, stable government coalition. He is the most able of any Israeli leader to “sell” concessions to the Israeli public.
And never before has there been so solid an Arab Sunni coalition – that includes Egypt, Jordan and perhaps the Persian Gulf states – with a vested interest in supporting the PA against Hamas, which is aligned with Shi’ite Iran.
The direct talks offer the Palestinians a chance to realize their dream of self-determination. Israel’s caveats for Palestinian statehood are founded in the logic of survival: that the new Palestine not be able to militarily threaten the Jewish state and not be empowered to flood Israel with refugees and their descendants.
The Israeli government, with mainstream support, has signalled that it will consider the painful concessions necessary for a viable accord – provided that the PA, for the first time, both internalizes Israel’s sovereign legitimacy and emphasizes that legitimacy to its own people, creating the climate for mutual compromise and long-term reconciliation.