Time to hold serious, but quiet, talks between Abbas and Netanyahu

The mistake made by former secretary of state John Kerry, in which he tried to push the two sides to make impossible moves, must not be repeated, Yossi Beilin argues.

PM Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, 2010 (photo credit: GPO)
PM Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, 2010
(photo credit: GPO)
Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, arrived in Israel this week for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials during which he plans to discuss the possibility of holding an international or regional conference, which – with the help of the Americans – would lead to talks between the two sides.
Convening such a conference, however, would be a grave mistake. The role of special representative for international negotiations is not to organize events like the one that took place in Annapolis 10 years ago or the many others that never achieved their goals. The objective of this position is, rather, to identify what the real situation is, to ascertain the readiness of both sides to reach an agreement, and to relay this information to the president. If Washington sees that there is a basis for holding talks, then it would be best to hold said talks initially and quietly in the US, so that neither side would have to set preconditions and unrealistic end goals even before they sit down together.
What’s important now is to hold serious talks between the two leaders who really matter: Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. They need to be asked tough questions, try to understand how much leeway they really have, and then decide whether Israel has a true partner in Ramallah and the PLO a true partner in Jerusalem. After all, both sides claim that they have no partner, and the world seems to agree with them.
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For the moment, Netanyahu is not willing to make the concessions that would be necessary to reach a permanent agreement, and neither is Abbas capable of including the Gaza Strip in such an agreement. Both leaders speak about the importance of reaching such an agreement, both speak about the importance of reaching it now, and both of them know that it will not happen.
It’s highly likely that Greenblatt will reach the conclusion that although neither side is overly enthusiastic about a gradational agreement, no other alternatives exist. Such an agreement would include the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state, with temporary borders (for the meantime). The two sides would have to discuss the location of these temporary borders, and about security arrangements during the interim period until a final agreement can be reached.
Ostensibly, they could accomplish this in a matter of months. They’d have to agree on the length of the interim period (between three and five years), and the US (or the Quartet it heads) would have to formulate a vision for the final agreement, which both sides would be required to acknowledge, but not necessarily accept.
This vision might include the possibility of establishing a confederation between an independent and sovereign Israel and an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. Such a confederation would allow for Jewish settlements outside of Israeli territory to remain intact inside a Palestinian state, while at the same time allow an agreed upon number of Palestinians to live within Israel as residents. There would also be a division of security services, which would grant Palestinians full responsibility over internal security issues within their country, with Israel playing a key role in providing protection over the entire future areas within the confederation.
The Arab League will be required to make decisions regarding what steps it plans on taking during the interim period (and which will be retracted if the sides fail to meet the time constraints).
The international or regional conference may be postponed for a few months, which would allow time for the gradational agreement to be implemented, for a Palestinian state to be established and for the start of negotiations between the two governments which would lead to a permanent agreement.
The mistake made by former secretary of state John Kerry, in which he tried to push the two sides to make impossible moves, must not be repeated. A public event should not be planned, because this would only ensure that each side would make extremist statements, and would also cause great frustration if it did not lead to success.
This opportunity, which has developed as a result of the arrival of the new Trump administration, and following the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and a phone conversation between the former and the president of the Palestinian Authority, is wonderful and surprising. If it fails to come to fruition, it’s unlikely that another attempt will be made any time in the near future, and so this is a one-time chance.
The intermediary here has a very heavy responsibility. It’s in the interests of both sides to pull the talks in different directions, and so it is up to the American envoy to make a cold, comprehensive assessment of both sides’ positions, and then decide if he’s ready to make a recommendation to Trump, and dive head first into our conflict, hold secret talks and push the envelope past everyone’s comfort zone.
The author is a former minister of justice and Israeli statesman who has served in multiple positions in the Israeli government and was an architect of the Oslo Process and the Geneva Initiative. Translated by Hannah Hochner.