Friday, August 20, 2010

Direct Talk About Direct (Israel-Palestinian) Talks

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By Barry Rubin

The big story of the moment is the announcement that there will soon be direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Perhaps, but for the moment Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has merely issued of an invitation to come and talk. Generally, such an invitation would only be issued when both sides have accepted and all the details are nailed down. Nowadays, however, such cannot be assumed.

On the one hand, the U.S. government has not been so competent in recent times. On the other hand, the PA can well find new excuses for not coming or additional demands that would have to be satisfied first. Will the Fatah barons agree to let "President" Mahmoud Abbas talk?

The Quartet statement says, "Direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors."

We will see if this new round of negotiations actually happens or not.

The other thing we need to see are the terms for the talks. Are they designed as a give away to whatever the PA demands? Are they well-organized in some coherent structure? Is this a set-up to allow the Obama Administration to claim credit for getting direct talks going (after messing up and contributing to their not getting started for about 16 months?

It is amusing to see articles claiming that this is a victory for the Obama Administration. If the U.S. government had been doing such a good job it would have been able to announce the resumption of elections in April 2009, after the visit of Abbas to Washington. The president did indeed announce the resumption of negotiations in September 2009 and nothing has happened in a year.

Moreover, it is amusing to read accounts of the resumption of talks without any mention of the fact that the sole reason it has taken so long has been the PA's resistance to negotiations.

Leaving out those two facts, how can anyone possibly understand the situation or predict what will happen in future?

The same applies to two underplayed facts about the timing. Israel's one-year freeze on building inside settlements is coming to an end. For making this concession, Israel received nothing. Now it will be "rewarded" with the opportunity to renew the freeze. Of course, keeping good relations with the United States makes this worthwhile but the fact that the PA received a gift and still did not fulfill its part is worth comprehending.

The other issue regarding timing is the Obama Administration's desire to claim negotiations as proof of its diplomatic achievements for the November elections. Presumably, this will go along with the completion of combat troop withdrawal from Iraq--also timed to bring electoral benefits--as proof of how well the government is doing.

Inexplicable from the point of view of common sense is the imposition of a one-year deadline for the direct talks. Experience should have taught by now the foolishness of such artificial timetables. After all, the Oslo process failed to meet each deadline and took a total of seven years before failing.

Ironically, those who in 2000 insisted that negotiations had to hurry because PA leader Yasir Arafat had to have "something to show" his people in terms of success now say that it was some terrible mistake to rush Arafat, as if that was the reason he rejected peace at Camp David and in the proposal of President Bill Clinton.

Still one more issue is dealt with in an amazingly naive way. How is there going to be a "democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors" when about half of that supposed state--the Gaza Strip--is based on a radical Islamist regime that seeks genocide against Israel? Is it just going to go away? Are the Palestinian masses there going to rise up in support of the negotiated agreement? More likely they will rise up in the West Bank against it.

Finally, I suggest that someone in the media and politics actually begins to talk about what Israel wants out of a negotiated agreement. We hear constantly about Palestinian demands--a state, 1967 borders, east Jerusalem, return of refugees--as if these were the only things on the table. Yet if Israel's demands--recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, security guarantees, resettlement of refugees in Palestine, non-militarization of a Palestinian state, end of the conflict--are ignored that will sabotage the talks.

Remember, too, that even assuming there was a negotiated settlement, Hamas, Hizballah, Syria, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhoods, among others, would try harder to wreck it. The level of terrorism and conflict would rise even more. Iran, for example, would not stop developing nuclear weapons. The ideas that everything is linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict or that resolving the conflict would bring stability and moderation to the region are simply not based on a serious consideration of the area and its politics.

It would be a great thing if the two sides achieved a permanent, just, and stable peace agreement. But it is an ordeal to hear the nonsense about to be launched about peace being at hand, the Palestinian urgent desire for a state and "end to occupation," the ignoring of the Gaza/Hamas factor, the black-out on discussing Israel's demands, and much more.

As I finish this article, by coincidence I hear Fox radio news explain that both Israel and the Palestinians are eager for peace. Sigh.

Direct talks aren't going to lead to any major progress. If the United States and Europeans are approaching this cynically--let's do this so we can claim to be great statesmen and keep things quiet while we work on Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan--that isn't so bad. The danger would come if they believe their own propaganda and think that papering over real conflicts and pressing Israel is going to produce meaningful peace, enhance regional security, and serve their strategic interests.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.

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