Negotiations on a permanent peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians began in Washington Monday night with little fanfare as the Israeli, Palestinian and American delegations met for an Iftar dinner.
The lack of festivities was due mainly to the low expectations by both sides, and not only the leaders. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian public are treating this round of talks with a combination of disdain and apathy — as if everything taking place at the State Department or the Mayflower Hotel relates to some virtual reality that has nothing to do with the real one on the ground.
US President Barack Obama sent his blessings ahead of the occasion, saying he had seen the two sides’ desire for peace with his own eyes during his visit to the region earlier this year. Yet it appears that both teams were dragged by Kerry to Washington against their will.
Abbas believes Netanyahu is unwilling to make peace, while Netanyahu believes Abbas is unable to
The lack of genuine desire, mainly on the Palestinian side, but also on the Israeli side, exists for two central reasons. Firstly, there is a complete lack of trust between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Despite having met in the past, more than once, it appears that the two hold each other in little regard and do not believe in each other’s ability or desire to deliver the goods.
Simply put, Abbas believes Netanyahu is unwilling to make peace, while Netanyahu believes Abbas is unable to. Both are sending out pessimistic vibes, giving those around them the feeling that nothing much will come of all this. This can be seen in their decision to send representatives to Washington instead of holding a high-level summit.
First to issue a combative statement (at almost exactly the same time the talks began in Washington) was Abbas, who was quick to make clear, following his meeting with interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour, that the Palestinians see all Israeli settlements built after 1967 as illegal. According to Abbas, “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli — civilian or soldier — on our lands.” This despite the fact that in the past he has already agreed to the notion of land swaps in exchange for settlement blocs. Conversely, Netanyahu has stressed in recent days that he would not allow for any scenario that would see settlements demolished.
What a great way to build a positive atmosphere as talks get started.
The second cause for lack of motivation is closely linked to the first. The odds of a peace agreement coming out of the current round of talks seem smaller than winning the lottery. Clearly Abbas will not accept anything less than what former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered him in September 2008, i.e., 93.7% of the West Bank, relinquishing control of the Jordan Valley, an international authority to administer Jerusalem’s holy sites (and of course giving up on Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods) and a symbolic return of refugees to Israel. Netanyahu has made clear that he will not sign off on such an agreement, which, it should be noted, was rejected by the Palestinians anyway. Back then the PA asked for 98% of the West Bank, sovereignty over the Temple Mount and the return of tens of thousands of Palestinians to their ancestral homes. Netanyahu, or any other Israeli prime minister for that matter, will be unable to pass anything even similar to that in the Knesset.
So why in spite of everything are the sides sitting down for talks? Mainly because the Americans are pushing and neither side wants to be blamed for torpedoing peace. Renewing talks will also reduce international pressure on Israel over the settlements (at least that’s what Jerusalem would like to believe).
For his part Abbas will get the prisoner release that will boost his popularity, despite criticism that he entered negotiations without demanding a settlement freeze. The negotiations will also likely have a calming effect on the West Bank. Fatah activists will likely display less enthusiasm to clash with IDF troops while talks are taking place.
On the other hand, it is important to remember that the anticipated failure of the talks may lead to renewed tensions and possibly another round of violence.