The hoopla surrounding the meeting in Washington this week of Israeli and Palestinian representatives appears to be much about little.
As we’ve noted in recent weeks, wide gaps exist between the parties on even what there is to negotiate. So rather than the significant breakthrough touted by Secretary of State John Kerry, the decision to resume some manner of negotiations seems to be more a case of both sides being unwilling to play the role of the skunk at the garden party.
One can certainly understand the unwillingness of Israel and the Palestinians to dismiss Mr. Kerry’s efforts out of hand. After all, a U.S. secretary of state has enormous power and influence and few are anxious to tangle with him on his signature issue. Even so, the run-up to this most preliminary of meetings has revealed some alarming truths.
For starters, there is a great disparity between what was expected from Israel and from the Palestinians. That Israel is to release 104 Palestinian prisoners as a “confidence building measure” without any discernible concession from the Palestinian side is quite extraordinary.
It is impossible to identify anything of substance in the public record that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has conceded other than his having agreed to sit down to a pre-negotiation meeting. But Israel’s commitment to release prisoners – a longstanding Palestinian demand – is a significant event.
Peace agreements typically provide for repatriation of prisoners after a deal is struck, not before, and even then only after the implementation of the agreement has begun. And it should be noted that prisoners who are released at the end of hostilities usually pose little risk of recidivism. This does not hold true in the case of the Palestinians, however, even if the prisoners are released piecemeal as negotiations progress.
Hardly encouraging were statements made by Mr. Abbas in Cairo on Monday that seem to be a window into his thinking.
Concerning the West Bank, Mr. Abbas said that no Israeli settlers or border forces could remain in a future Palestinian state. He went on to say that Palestinians consider all Jewish settlement building on land Israel seized in 1967 to be illegal.
“In a final resolution,” he said, “we would not see the presence of a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.”
(Israel has always insisted that it must retain a military presence on the border with Jordan to prevent the movement of weapons.)
It will be recalled that Israel has long insisted that there be no preconditions to a return to negotiations. The Palestinians, however, insisted on three main conditions: release of Palestinian prisoners jailed prior to the Oslo agreement; a total freeze on settlement building; and Israeli acceptance of the 1967 lines as the baseline for the borders of a future Palestinian state.
Israel has already announced a prisoner release. Mr. Abbas said on Monday that he will continue to insist on a total settlement freeze. Asked whether Prime Minister Netanyahu had agreed in advance of negotiations to a cessation of settlement building, Mr. Abbas responded by saying, “There was a request, ‘We’ll only build here, what do you think?’ If I agreed, I would legitimize all the rest [of the settlements]. I said no. I said out loud and in writing that to us settlements in their entirety are illegitimate.” Asked whether Secretary Kerry will try to pressure Israel to adopt a de facto freeze, Mr. Abbas smiled and said, “I don’t know.”
Senior aides to Mr. Abbas said that in the next few days Mr. Kerry will issue a statement endorsing the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations and then seek to pressure Israel to support this approach.
If true, this would represent a complete capitulation on the part of Israel and the United States, both having heretofore taken the position that there be no preconditions to the resumption of talks. But before supporters of Israel descend into possibly premature despair, it needs to be pointed out that these remarks are coming from Palestinian officials and spokesmen who, if they’ve accomplished nothing else in the public arena, have raised prevarication and outright lying to an art form.