The talks between Netanyahu’s negotiator, Shlomo Molcho, and chief PA negotiator, Saeb Erekat, began on January 3rd in Amman with widespread support from the diplomatic community.
ABBAS HAS WALKED AWAY BEFORE
They are the first direct contacts between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators since the failure of President Obama’s initiative in September, 2010, to restart direct negotiations at the highest level between Netanyahu and Abbas. It was Abbas who broke them off, as he did in late 2008, after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had put a very generous territorial proposal on the table. It called for Israel to make a 1-1 land exchange of territory from within Israel’s pre-1967 borders in return for retaining sovereignty over the larger West Bank blocs of Jewish communities.
Abbas never made a counter-offer to Olmert’s proposal, and refused US pleas to sign any document indicating that Israel and the PA had reached agreement on the basic guidelines for a peace agreement that would establish a Palestinian state. Abbas suspended the talks in the expectation of getting an even more generous offer from Tzipi Livni, whom he expected to become prime minister following the 2009 Israeli elections.
Abbas’ initial reaction to the election victory of Likud and the Israeli right, and Binyomin Netanyahu becoming prime minister, was to refuse to return to the negotiating table. He demanded that Netanyahu accept the last offer made by Olmert in 2008, which Abbas rejected at the time, as a starting point for the renewed negotiations.
OBAMA CAME TO ABBAS’ RESCUE
This was a difficult position for Palestinian supporters to defend because it violated the basic ground rules in such negotiations, that no part of any offer is binding until the entire agreement has been finalized. Obama’s public demand that Israel accept a construction freeze came to Abbas’ rescue, providing him with a much better excuse for avoiding a return to serious peace negotiations.
Abbas used the same excuse to wiggle out of the negotiations that Obama tried to start in September 2010, after a voluntary 10-month construction freeze which Netanyahu unilaterally imposed in late 2009 expired.
WHY ABBAS WANTS TO KEEP THE STATUS QUO
Meanwhile, Abbas continued to search for ways to keep avoiding a return to the negotiating table. He would much prefer to maintain the status quo in the West Bank, which has been working to his advantage since Abbas and Hamas split in 2007, when Hamas seized control of Gaza from him.
That split solidified the support of the US and the West behind Abbas and the PA. It led to a quiet but effective cooperation between Israeli and PA security forces in the West Bank which finally restored law and order to the area. It also paved the way for the rapid economic growth which has dramatically improved the quality of life for West Bank Arabs, especially when compared to the economic stagnation and oppression in Gaza under Hamas.
However, Abbas’ has been ruling by fiat since 2007 and his government lacks legitimacy. He also lacks the grass roots Palestinian support needed to make any meaningful concessions to Israel.
Abbas never wanted to participate in the Amman negotiations. He had hoped to avoid ever returning to negotiations with Israel. Instead, he latched onto a statement by President Obama before the UN General Assembly in September, 2010, that a Palestinian state be accepted as a member of the UN by September, 2011.
WHY ABBAS’ UN BID FAILED
This gave Abbas the idea of seeking unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood from the UN without an agreement with Israel. Abbas sought to substitute a one-sided anti-Israel UN vote for a signed peace agreement, and believed that the international community would then impose his territorial demands upon Israel.
However, the plan had three fundamental flaws. First, it became obvious, even to the PA’s European supporters, that it was meant to give diplomatic cover to Abbas’ stubborn refusal to return to the negotiating table. Second, after some initial wavering, the Obama administration publicly committed to vetoing the PA application for UN membership whenever it would come to a vote in the Security Council. That meant that even if the General Assembly were to approve the application, the Palestinians could not receive full UN membership and recognition. Finally, the PA was unable to meet the minimum requirements for recognition as a state, because it was not in full control of the territory that it claimed. Hamas controlled Gaza and even the PA’s control over the West Bank was still being shared with the Israeli army. As a result, the PA’s UN membership application never even came up for a vote in the Security Council.
QUARTET PLAN WAS A CONSOLATION PRIZE
The renewed peace talks in Amman were then suggested by the Quartet as a kind of consolation prize for the PA and its supporters, as the only viable alternative route to Palestinian statehood.
However, the Quartet rejected the PA’s demands for preconditions from Israel, and instead adopted Netanyahu’s position, restarting the talks without preconditions to reach an agreement that would resolve all the issues between Israel and the Palestinians.
With Hosni Mubarak, who had hosted previous Israeli-Palestinian meetings, overthrown from power, King Abdullah of Jordan, the only other Arab state with a peace treaty with Israel, decided to take the initiative by hosting the initial round of discussions set out by the Quartet timetable whose goal was for the resumed peace negotiations to reach an agreement by the end of this year.
WHEN ARE THE 3 MONTHS UP?
The Quartet, in making its proposal in October, had set an initial three month deadline for completing the first phase of the process, which called for both sides to submit their proposals on borders and security. The Quartet had expected the first phase of talks to begin immediately. But in fact, the first meeting between Molcho and Erekat took more than 3 months to arrange. As a result, Israel and the Palestinians have something else to argue about, when the 3-month period for initial talks should end; last week, 3-months after the Quartet submitted their proposal, or the beginning of April, 3 months after the talks actually began.
The Palestinians gave the Israelis a document with their position at the first meeting. Israel verbally outlined its positions in the two most recent negotiating sessions held last week.
“The Israeli side presented guiding principles under which Israel views the territorial question,” an Israeli official said. “We didn’t present maps. At the fifth meeting last Motzoei Shabbos, Israel presented its security concept regarding the West Bank.”
In addition, Molcho had submitted a 21-point working paper at the first meeting on January 3rd, as a proposed blueprint for future negotiations.
“The Palestinians have asked for clarifications about issues we raised, and we’ve asked the Palestinians for clarifications about what they’ve raised,” the Israeli official said. “It would be a pity if these preliminary talks were prematurely ended.”
ABBAS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
However, Abbas is still looking for a way to avoid continuing the negotiations for fear of revealing to the world that he has no real domestic support, and therefore lacks the political capital needed to make any significant concessions to reach an agreement with Israel. That is why Abbas’ current conditions for continuing the negotiations with Israel in Amman are so rigid and extreme.
Reportedly, Israel’s territorial proposal at the Amman talks would grant the new Palestinian state control over about 90% of West Bank territory, while Israel would retain control of East Yerushalayim and the larger settlements in the West Bank. The PA flatly rejected it as a basis for going forward with the negotiations, demanding instead a total Israeli capitulation to its territorial demands, and leaving very little more to actually negotiate.
THE PA’S PR SMOKESCREEN
To camouflage this fact, PA spokesmen llke Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the executive committee of the PLO, have tried to accuse Israel of failing to submit specific proposals for any of the core issues in dispute.
“There has been no progress whatsoever,” Ashrawi said. “There are no talks any more. We don’t want to be complicit in this game of deception.
“We see this as a public relations exercise, an attempt to create the impression that they want to talk while grabbing more land and destroying the substance of the talks. They just want talks for their own sake. This could go on forever while they go on building settlements and annexing Jerusalem and finally laying to rest the two-state solution.”
Abbas said in a published statement, “By not presenting a clear vision on the issues of borders and security, as the Quartet demanded, Israel foiled the exploratory talks in Amman.” Abbas claimed that he remains committed to serious negotiations with Israel that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but insists on control of essentially the entire West Bank, and establishing East Yerushalayim as its capital. In the talks with Olmert which ended in 2008, Abbas said that he was willing to swap the larger settlements for some pre-67 Israeli land, but while Olmert had proposed to swap for 6.5 percent of the West Bank, Abbas would agree to swapping no more than 1.9 percent of the West Bank.
NETANYAHU OFFERS TO GO TO RAMALLAH
Netanyahu told the Cabinet Sunday that while the Amman talks had gotten off to a rocky start, he was still hopeful the talks would continue. “The signs are not very good, but I hope they will come to their senses and we’ll continue the talks so we can reach real negotiations.”
He added in the first five Amman meetings, the Palestinians “refused to even discuss” Israeli security needs, which was also part of the initial agenda set by the Quartet, in addition to borders.
Another Israeli official said that Abbas was creating “an artificial crisis. The idea that we were going to have a breakthrough in less than a month is not a realistic expectation, and I don’t think anyone expected it. We remain ready for substantial discussions of all issues.”
In an interview with Arab journalists Monday, Netanyahu offered to go to Ramallah to meet with Abbas and restart the peace negotiations in accordance with the desires of the international community.
“Advancing negotiations is the only way towards peace,” he said. “I want to talk with the Palestinians in order to open channels at all levels. This is in the Palestinians’ and the Arabs’ interest.
“Israel can help develop the region economically, and wants to see a prosperous future for all countries in the region. I feel disappointed because peace treaties have not led to an economic boom for all. Economy is the outcome of relationships, and economic peace isn’t an alternative to political peace, but it helps.”
Netanyahu also said that he wants to counter the “misconceptions about Israel. Many Arabs do not know that the Arabs living in Israel serve in the government, in the parliament, and enjoy complete rights.
“The impression that Israel does not want peace is incorrect. We know the value of peace.”
PA COMING UNDER PRESSURE
It is difficult for the Palestinians to defend walking away again from the negotiating table because Israel refuses to capitulate in advance to the PA’s negotiating demands. Abbas is coming under intense pressure to continue with the Amman talks from the US and other Western nations which have been financing the PA’s operations with their contributions.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, met with Abbas in Amman, Jordan, last week in an effort to prod him to continue the discussions.
“I don’t think there’s an impasse,” she later told reporters. “President Abbas is thinking carefully about how to move forward.”
Abbas said that he was considering his next steps and that a decision will be made at a meeting with Arab League foreign ministers on February 4.
Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, said that no further talks would be held this week, “to allow us to assess where we are and how to move to the next stage.”
Quartet envoy Tony Blair is continuing talks with Netanyahu to find incentives to keep the Amman talks going, such as the release of more Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons.
WAITING FOR OBAMA’S RE-ELECTION
Many observers believe that Abbas and the Palestinians are stalling in expectation of the re-election of Obama to a second term as president in November. At that point, freed of the need to cater to pro-Israel campaign donors and voters, the Palestinians expect Obama to once again start applying intense pressure on the Israeli government for concessions to their demands.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his supporters are also well aware of that possible post-November scenario, which is prompting them to consider calling early Israeli parliamentary elections for this summer, to take advantage of Netanyahu’s current popularity, and further strengthen his governing coalition, to better enable him to withstand renewed White House pressure.
Netanyahu’s overall approval rating in the most recent Israeli polls is around 50 percent. They also show that his conservative Likud party would likely surpass Kadima to become the largest faction in the Knesset seats if elections were held now.
ELECTION PROCESS ALREADY STARTED
Netanyahu has already called for Likud to hold a primary to select those who will be on the party’s candidate list for the next Knesset election. In the Israeli proportional representation election system, citizens can only vote for a party, not for individual candidates. Once all the votes are counted, Knesset seats are distributed proportionately to each party, with seats assigned to the party’s candidates in the order in which their names appear on the list.
Likud’s main rival, Kadima, has also called for a party primary in anticipation of the next Knesset election, which would normally not be held before 2013.
Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit explained that, “once Netanyahu called for a primary, we all had to follow,” in order to be prepared for a possible early election.
Sheetrit noted that even though Netanyahu currently holds high public approval ratings, things could easily change by the summer.
“Every prime minister who makes early elections almost always loses,” Sheetrit said. “The political situation in Israel is so dynamic. Things can turn upside down between the time you call an election and the time that the citizens vote.”
INTERESTING TIMING FOR A WEST BANK ANNOUNCEMENT
The possibility of early elections, and the subsequent need for Netanyahu to shore up his support in among his right wing core voters, could explain the timing of an unusual government announcement Sunday.
Approximately 70 West Bank communities, including more than 50 small settlements on the far side of the security fence, appeared on a list of 557 “national priority” areas deemed eligible for the government housing and development grants which were approved by the Israeli Cabinet.
In response to complaints by Peace Now and other leftist groups about the appearance of so many settlements on the incentive list, a government official said that additional approvals would be needed before any of the West Bank settlements would actually receive the incentives.
Many of the 57 communities on the far side of the fence areas suffered a sharp slowdown in new housing construction over the past decade, due both to security concerns and pressure from the US government. As a result, many of them have a backlog of fully government approved building permits that were never utilized. As a result of their eligibility for the new government grants, these pre-approved sites will now become much more attractive to developers, stimulating the construction of new homes in these communities.
Jordan Valley Council head David Lahiani was also pleased that his communities were on the list, and said that he is already planning to use the incentives to help build 150 new homes. Lahiani added that even though new construction in the Jordan Valley has been very controversial politically, Netanyahu appreciates its strategic importance to Israel, and as a result, his government has been very supportive of its growth.
However, a contrary unconfirmed report, first published by Maariv, said that Netanyahu has agreed to cede the Jordan Valley settlements as well as all West Bank communities outside the main settlement blocks, in return for a Palestinian agreement to the peace agreement principles he laid out in his 2009 Bar Ilan University speech. The report said that the deal was first discussed during the talks between Erekat and Molcho, and that the agreement would be announced after Netanyahu’s next meeting with Obama in Washington.
The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.