In a confused start to talks, reasons to take heart

Secrecy once negotiations start is an absolute precondition for the kind of flexibility required to achieve anything

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, center left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, July 19, 2013 in the West Bank city of Ramallah (photo credit: AP/Mandel Ngan, Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, center left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday, July 19, 2013 in the West Bank city of Ramallah (photo credit: AP/Mandel Ngan, Pool)

In May, shortly after the formation of the new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled the 400 or so meters that separate the Prime Minister’s Office from the Foreign Ministry for a chat with Israel’s top diplomats about how he saw the foreign policy priorities of his new term.

One of the key points he raised in that meeting, participants recall, was his fear that failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians would result in a binational state and mark the end of Jewish self-determination.

It was a memorable statement because it was a fear usually heard only on the left. It is the left that usually harps on the dangers of retaining sovereignty over millions of people Israel does not enfranchise, while the right usually emphasizes the more immediate dangers of a Hamas-style takeover in the West Bank that would likely follow an IDF withdrawal.

On Saturday night, moments after the end of the Sabbath, Netanyahu delivered both arguments, the left’s and the right’s, in his first public statement since Secretary of State John Kerry announced the renewal of peace talks Friday.

“I approach the renewal of the diplomatic process with two central goals in mind: preventing the creation of a binational state between the Jordan and the sea that would threaten the future of the Jewish state, and preventing the establishment of another terror state under Iranian sponsorship on the borders of Israel, which would be equally dangerous for us,” the statement read.

The statement was carefully calibrated to appeal to all audiences. American interlocutors will be pleased to hear the Israeli prime minister acknowledge the binational danger – a term American diplomats have come to believe has the power to frighten Israeli leaders into compromise. Israeli hawks and peace skeptics, a diverse but nevertheless growing demographic, believe that Netanyahu’s two goals are mutually exclusive: No independent Palestinian state in the West Bank could possibly avoid disintegrating into a Gaza-style “terror state.” If Netanyahu is serious about the second goal, he cannot be serious about the first, they say.

It’s clear that Netanyahu is working hard to avoid putting all his political eggs in one peacemaking basket. He seeks Palestinian self-determination without sacrificing Israeli security. But what happens if he cannot have it all, if it is impossible to sufficiently guarantee both at the same time? On which end of that equation will the compromises be made?

In short, how committed is he to the new talks?

(It goes without saying that similar questions must be asked of the Palestinian side as well.)

One way to gauge the government’s seriousness might be to examine the agreements that led to the start of negotiations. Unfortunately, reports conflict over what brought the two sides to the table.

According to those conflicting reports, whose confusion is shared even within the ranks of Israeli officialdom, the Palestinians either gave up their demand for a state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, or Netanyahu abandoned his refusal to let those lines serve as the starting-point for negotiations. And Israel either agreed to a second, “quiet” settlement freeze, or it didn’t.

The confusion is significant, as it encapsulates nicely the political minefields each side much tread merely to be seen to be speaking to the other side. Netanyahu cannot appear to accept the Palestinian preconditions, and Abbas cannot appear to relinquish them.

More to the point, whichever claims turn out to be true will tell us a lot about the prospects and direction of the talks.

If Israel agreed to the 1967 lines as a starting point, then Netanyahu has broken cleanly from his Likud moorings and is negotiating a peace agreement that could precipitate a dramatic upheaval in Israeli politics.

“It’s hard to be the head of the Likud and be the one who founds a Palestinian state, but it’s completely impossible to do it along the ‘67 lines,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin. “You can’t be Ehud Barak or Ehud Olmert and be head of the Likud. That would be the opposite of what the Likud was offering voters in the election. I’m sure a huge majority in the Likud, including MKs, cabinet ministers and members of the Central Committee, oppose starting negotiations at the 67 lines.”

There is some confusion on the 1967 issue. It does not refer only to borders, but also to the size of the future Palestinian state. To negotiate based on the 1967 lines means, for Israelis, to agree to a Palestinian state the size of the West Bank, and then seek minor land swaps that would bring many Jewish communities over the Green Line inside the Israeli border. To negotiate without that basis means that the Palestinians would accept the major settlement blocs as Israeli territory, and that the final area of the Palestinian state would inevitably be smaller than the pre-1967 West Bank. In maps drawn up in late 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ahead of a possible unilateral West Bank pullout, that Palestinian West Bank was about 14 percent smaller than the West Bank defined by the Green Line.

A similar confusion exists about whether Netanyahu offered the Americans a “quiet” settlement freeze. Israel claims it did not, and its claim is almost certainly true, if only because the government lacks the legal authority to implement an unannounced freeze. A full freeze would require a cabinet decision publicized as a military decree by OC Central Command.

The government may, however, have agreed to a significant slow-down in construction projects where the government is a stakeholder, such as projects in major urban centers like eastern Jerusalem, Maaleh Adumim, Ariel, Beitar Illit and others. In smaller towns and villages, the government can freeze the planning process that approves new zoning plans, but that freeze would not be felt immediately. So while Israel may have agreed to a slowdown, it could not have offered both a comprehensive freeze and a “quiet” one, for the simple reason that it doesn’t have any discreet means to prevent private citizens already in possession of plots in properly zoned areas from continuing to build.

Paradoxically, the confusion surrounding the conditions of the start of talks, while frustrating for pundits, may be a good sign for the negotiations. Each side is leaking what information it must to allow it to come to the table. In a conflict that suffers from many groups that still hope to see it through to a more decisive conclusion, secrecy is an absolute precondition for the kind of flexibility required to achieve anything.

Negotiations are set to take place in Washington in the coming months between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat. Netanyahu’s negotiations point-man, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, will also be at the table. The location is a hopeful sign, as is the lack of fanfare and pompous preliminary ceremonies or summits. The negotiations will get underway without the attention-drawing presence of the top leaders, without the scrutiny of local media and without the pressures of local zealots and skeptics.

For all the media attention, the achievement to date is nothing more than the sides agreeing to talk, an activity they have already spent the better part of two decades engaging in without success. If Kerry can avoid the mistake of turning his modest success into a diplomatic circus, there may be a chance for a real breakthrough. The hard part, it is worth remembering, is still ahead.

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