Can the weight of responsibility and the small window of opportunity enable these two men to go where they have never gone before?
Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to begin in the near future. The international community under the conductor’s wand of the Obama Administration has applied considerable pressure to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw from all of his demands for setting the conditions for his participation in the negotiations.
Abbas’s demands were not without logic. His main concern is that negotiations are not the problem – decision making is. After so many years of Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations it is quite clear where the gaps are, or more correctly, where they were each time the negotiations reached their breaking point. The only way, according to Abbas, to ensure that there would be a chance of progress is to make sure that the talks begin from the point they arrived to in the last round. Why should the talks have to begin from the zero point, as if nothing has happened in the past 20 years?
In times gone by this would have been called “constructive ambiguity,” a diplomatic term devised by Henry Kissinger which enabled previous Israeli-Arab talks and understandings. Since that time, much water has flowed in the Jordan and one of the lessons learned from the Oslo process is that there is no such thing – there is no such thing as constructive ambiguity in the Israeli-Palestinian process; it often has had deadly consequences.
The main point of concern of the Palestinians remains the continued building of settlements and their expansion. During the Oslo process the number of settlers more than doubled in the same territory that the Palestinians believe must be part of their state, so how can Israel be negotiating in good faith if the settlement drive continues? This point is shared by the international community. However, no one has been able to apply significant pressure on the Israeli government to continue the full settlement building freeze beyond the initial 10 months. It appears that it is much easier to apply pressure on the Palestinian side.
The apparent compromise or “fudging” that the international community has connived is the issuing of a statement by the Quartet which will indicate the basic parameters of the negotiations without Israel having to state out loud that it accepts them. This, it is believed, will satisfy Abbas’s need to turn to his people with a victory before he sits at the very table that he has refused to sit at since the election of the Netanyahu government. The main problem with this is that both parties are essentially entering into negotiations under false pretenses.
ABBAS PROBABLY didn’t have a choice. He was surely told that the only way that the international community could persuade Netanyahu into continuing the settlement freeze, even partially, is if real negotiations were taking place. But soon the reality will sink in when the two sides are sitting at the table and there is no agreed starting point.
I had advised the Mitchell team to use the proximity talks in a very different way than they did. Proximity talks could have been intensive, they could have been held in the United States continuously. The proximity talks created the position of mediator which has not existed until now in the process. The process could have empowered the mediator to conduct the talks on the basis of “single text negotiations” where the mediator is the author of the text and the point of reference in the negotiations is that text. The proximity talks could have been used to advance agreement on issues of substance and not on process.
From the outset of the proximity talks, “success” was defined as getting to direct negotiations. So, we can declare that we have success, but what now?
The direct talks must have a place at the table for the US mediator – direct talks, yes, but with Senator Mitchell there guiding the process, like he did in Northern Ireland. The mediator must be the one setting the agenda and when necessary, which will be from the very outset, offering the bridging proposals.
The mediator must be frank and direct with both sides, both when sitting together and when in private. Neither side has a BATNA (a term used in negotiations theory which stands for “the best alternative to a negotiated agreement”). Both parties might live in some kind of delusionary reality which feels like the status quo is alright. There may not be any sense of urgency on the ground in Israel and Palestine, as public opinion research demonstrates on both sides of the conflict line. But reality is significantly more complex. Failure to reach a permanent status agreement in this round is dangerous for both peoples. Leading us to another dead-end in this process is no less than criminal negligence and an abuse of power and responsibility by both leaders.
NETANYAHU AND Abbas are the obstacle and the key to an agreement at the same time. Senator Mitchell and the Obama Administration will be there to help, but the agreement must be reached between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Can the weight of responsibility and the small window of opportunity enable these two men to go where they have never gone before? Will Abbas be able to make the deal that will liberate his people and enable them to be free in their own land? Will Netanyahu be able to let go of the dream of greater Israel and let loose the shackles of control over the Palestinians that Israel has held since 1967?
The answer is yes if the two will stop lying to their people and face up to the reality that the mutual survival of both peoples resides in an agreement that partitions the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea into two states, for two peoples, on the basis of the 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as the capitals of both states, and the right of return for both peoples to their own nation-states.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.