By Andrew Wilson
The exploratory talks in Amman that continue into next week offer promise that full-fledged negotiations between Israel and Palestine may resume, but only if the two parties can progress during the crucial month of February. For that to happen, given the likelihood of recriminations and the possibility that one side or the other may make a short-sighted mistake, both sides need to focus on the goal of finalizing a comprehensive peace agreement. The magnitude of the divide between the two calls for patience and persistence.
The Amman talks have been carried out in the context of the dispute between the two sides over Israeli construction in the settlements, which the Palestinians insist must cease as a precondition for direct negotiations. To finesse this impasse, the negotiators in Amman have focused on procedural issues. Most pressing among them has been the question of the date when Israel will offer to the Palestinians its plan on borders and security.
Last October both sides agreed, or tentatively agreed, to the plan proposed by the Quartet (the US, the EU, Russia and the UN). Its timetable calls for three months of preliminary discussions during which both sides would present their plans on borders, followed by nine months of face-to-face negotiations that would result in a comprehensive peace agreement. Initially the Quartet set a deadline of January 26 for completing the preliminary phase. The Palestinian Authority, which already proffered its proposal on borders and security on November 14, is insistent that Israel present its proposal by this deadline. However, Israel has indicated that it interprets the Quartet’s timetable as requiring that it present its offer on borders and security three months after the beginning of the Amman talks, which would fall on April 3.
The Palestinians' frustrations with what they view as Israeli delaying tactics are understandable. Nevertheless, the government of Israel assures that it intends to deliver. On Saturday, Israeli officials indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to have a summit meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in March, at which time he would present Israel’s proposal. They also indicated that they want to hold ongoing exploratory dialogues through February and March. In these discussions, Israel is expected to present ideas and viewpoints to lay the groundwork for its formal proposal at the summit.
The Palestinians should hold Israel to its word. Patience should win out over any reference to terminating negotiations, such as chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat's remarks on Friday that if Israel does not offer its plan by the January 26 deadline, the PA would resume its diplomatic effort for recognition at the UN.
Currently, the Palestinians have indications of strong support from the international community, particularly Europe. (See my previous article) As long as the Palestinians continue to negotiate, pressure on Israel is likely to grow more every time they delay. If Israel does not honor its own April 3 deadline, it may have to deal with the anger of the EU as well as widespread condemnations coming from across the international community. Conversely, if the Palestinians act rashly in going back to the UN, the “dead cat” of failure will be left on their doorstep.
Israel is cognizant of the American position, expressed by President Obama after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Tuesday; that talks towards a peace agreement should continue “in a serious fashion.” Likewise, on Wednesday Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed Germany’s support for continued talks while cautioning Abbas to not be too hasty to drop contact with Israel. Even in the Netherlands, one of Israel’s strongest European allies, Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Wednesday encouraged Netanyahu to reconsider a settlement freeze. These sentiments should temper any petulant outbursts from Netanyahu, who twice over the past week charged that the Palestinians have no interest in restarting negotiations.
The Palestinians need to be patient, understanding that much will be required of Netanyahu and his administration if Israel is to meet its self-imposed deadline. First, the proposal that Israel offers to the PA needs to be one that can reasonably be viewed as a basis for negotiations. Yet it will be politically difficult for any Israeli government to meet the Palestinians even half way to what they want: a border based on the 1967 line with only small adjustments for settlement blocs and for East Jerusalem as the capital for an independent Palestine. Second, the Israelis know that to begin the direct bilateral negotiations, they will have to offer the Palestinians some sort of settlement freeze, despite the opposition of the politically powerful settler movement.
Furthermore, the government of Israel is capable of delivering. To date, the strongest obstacle to a serious Israeli offer, as well as to a settlement freeze, has been the settler movement. The settler movement has been one of the pillars of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Yet recent events in the unpredictable world of Israeli politics have reduced its political clout to the point that Netanyahu is now able to offer the Palestinians a settlement freeze and still maintain his political base.
Here are some of the events that have weakened the Israeli right, giving Netanyahu an opening to negotiate with the Palestine Authority with relative impunity:
1) The settler movement’s “price tag” attacks on the Israeli military has branded some of them as law-breakers and extremists, and weakened the whole movement politically.
2) Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a vocal opponent of peace with the Palestinians and Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, is facing a possible indictment on corruption charges. Hearings this week could lead to a final decision within weeks on whether to hand down an indictment, according to the Justice Ministry.
3) Widely publicized reports of discrimination against women by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the so-called Haredim, have caused an eruption of pent-up anger against growing religious extremism in Israeli public life. The Shas party, which represents many of these Haredi groups, is another of Netanyahu’s coalition partners; it stands to lose influence.
4) There is a growing split on the right. Lieberman’s party, Israel Beiteinu, consisting of mainly secular Russian Jews, has taken strong offense at the Haredim, leading Lieberman to consider excluding Shas from the government.
5) These events across the political spectrum may precipitate early elections. Netanyahu may have to hold elections before the constitutionally required date in 2013.
With weakness on the right and hints of elections in the air, Netanyahu will have a freer hand to act against the wishes of the settler movement. He even has maneuvering room to reconstitute his ruling coalition by replacing some of his current allies with parties from the center and center-left. All this should give him the political opening he needs, should he choose to follow through, on his promise to meet the expectations of his Palestinian counterparts.
The ball is in Netanyahu's court. On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron, referring to settlement expansion, warned both sides that “time is running out for a two-state solution unless we can push forward now.” For Israel to deliver on its promise to present an acceptable proposal in April, it needs to continue the process and build momentum during February and March.
Israel needs to present, both to the Palestinians and to its domestic constituencies, on how it can offer border concessions and still maintain its security. It will need to put forth ideas and options about how it can offer a border and yet give adequate consideration to the needs of settlers. Plans need to be made about ways to minimize settler dislocation, reduce the disruption to their lives, and provide support to those who remain on the Palestinian side of the border.
During February, the Palestinians can help keep Israel on track by holding regular dialogues to receive Israel’s presentations and offer ones of their own in response. Above all, they should avoid any move that disparages the negotiation process, for that will only re-energize the Israeli right at a time when it needs to step back.
February should be a month for building trust, for seeking common ground, and for finding points of consensus, so that come April, Israel will be ready, willing, and confident to negotiate a lasting peace. It should not be seen as a month of disappointment because of missed deadlines and aimless talks.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
(Photo courtesy of @mjb)