Negotiations? No thanks

The Palestinians have become enamored with the status quo, particularly insofar as they can obtain without negotiations what they cannot obtain by talking.

abbas on couch 298 (photo credit: AP)
abbas on couch 298
(photo credit: AP)
Since the Netanyahu government was elected in late March 2009, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been frozen. It looks like the two sides prefer it that way. Of course in addressing the international community, and particularly the United States, each side has to pretend to be interested in renewing talks. But beneath the surface, both are afraid to proceed.
The government of Israel fears the moment when the core issues are put on the table since it is incapable of selling its constituents any concessions concerning Jerusalem, settlements and borders. In this sense, merely commencing negotiations is liable to end the government's term. PM Binyamin Netanyahu apparently does not want to follow in Ariel Sharon's footsteps: the latter will be remembered in the national consciousness as the leader who gave the Palestinians the Katif bloc, removed the Jews from Gaza and got Kassam rocket attacks in return.
Netanyahu knows that any concession in east Jerusalem is unacceptable to his voters and that he would forever be remembered as the man who gave Israel's enemies the holy city. Another concern for Netanyahu is his inability to ensure that a Palestinian state would not at some point become a Hamas state. For all these reasons, he prefers not to even enter into discussions with the Palestinians regarding core issues.
The Palestinians have also become enamored with the status quo, particularly insofar as they can obtain without negotiations what they cannot obtain by talking. The president of the United States repeatedly pronounces on the need to establish a Palestinian state with territorial continuity. The Europeans - and perhaps a few State Department and White House officials as well - support a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence, without negotiations, with borders along the green line and territory that includes the areas Israel annexed to Jerusalem in 1967, even those that have become Jewish neighborhoods. So why would the Palestinians need negotiations if they can get what they want without them?
ANOTHER PROBLEM the Palestinians can avoid by evading negotiations is the quarrel between the PLO/Ramallah and Hamas/Gaza. There is no certainty that Palestinian peace negotiators can prove that they control what goes on in Gaza or could compel the Haniyeh government there to honor whatever agreement Israel and the Palestinians reach. Negotiations held in the shadow of the Palestinian schism are liable to perpetuate a situation of two Palestinian entities: Ramallah, by negotiating, might advance toward a solution, whereas Gaza would remain willfully stuck with positions that cannot possibly enable negotiations to begin.
Palestinians are not yet prepared emotionally, publicly and politically to admit that the split is permanent, hence they cannot commence negotiations on final status in which Ramallah participates without Gaza.
Worse, the very fact of negotiations would provide Hamas with ammunition against the Palestinian Authority. Hamas could spread rumors regarding Palestinian concessions; even if the rumors are baseless, they could deprive the PA leaders of what little public legitimacy they currently enjoy. Besides, the Ramallah leadership knows that through negotiations it cannot obtain all its demands, particularly regarding the refugee issue, insofar as the refusal to permit refugee return is supported by a broad consensus of the Israeli public. Hence it doesn't want to enter into a negotiating situation in which it will have to offer concessions. Better to let the world pressure Israel to make more and more concessions even before talks have commenced.
The perception that negotiations are not worthwhile and that if entered into will not yield significant achievements has been spreading of late among Palestinian intellectuals. Again and again, the one-state alternative is broached. This solution seeks to perpetuate the existing situation by means of Palestinian withdrawal from the concept of an independent state, coupled with the demand for citizenship and voting rights in a single state.
Let demography win: Palestinian birth rates would rise and there might be a certain return of refugees, as against widespread Jewish emigration reflecting Jewish refusal to live in a bi-national state that comprises a large proportion of Arabs. Thus, through demographic changes, the single state would within a few years become a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. So why should Palestinians enter into negotiations over a state in only part of the land? This approach is supported by a growing number of Israelis who fear that even a final status agreement won't end the conflict because many Palestinians here and abroad would not settle for a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza.
Therefore, I don't think serious negotiations will be resumed in the near future. There might be a photo-op or two, primarily for the White House picture album - but little more.
The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Arabic and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University. This article originally appeared in and is reprinted with permission.