DRAGGING OUT TALKS
Israel Stalls, Drags Out Peace Talks
Daoud Kuttab for Al-Monitor , Palestine Pulse , Wednesday, September 4, 2013
Information leaked to Al-Monitor from the hush-hush Palestinian-Israeli peace talks reveal that negotiators are stuck on where they should begin. Palestinians want the talks to begin where they left off the last time substantive talks took place, during Ehud Olmert’s premiership. At those talks, Palestinian and Israeli leaders apparently made headway on some of the most difficult issues, including borders and Jerusalem. The Benjamin Netanyahu government, however, appears to reject such an idea and wants instead to start from scratch. In the eyes of the Israelis, since all issues are open for discussion, the current government is not bound by any previous commitments or understandings.
Israel’s attempts to negate all previous understandings place the entire peace talks in jeopardy and bring back to the fore the Palestinians’ insistence that the talks be based on an agreed framework. The Palestinians want the talks to be based on the framework presented by US President Barack Obama in his 2012 speech to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. Obama’s framework is that the negotiations be based on a two-state solution along the June 1967 borders with some land swaps. The Israelis rejected this request, so the talks began without a framework, which has resulted in the negotiations being stuck at ground zero.
The difficulties over where to begin also bring into question the issue of the time allotted for the current talks. It is known that whenever there are negotiations, parties to a conflict typically hold their starting positions as long as they can. The most important and genuine concessions are made, literally, at the last moment, hence the expression a “five minutes before midnight agreement.”
This brings into question the wisdom of the long, nine-month period set aside for the current talks. Not only is nine months the target for completion of the talks, it has also become a condition tying down the negotiators. When the Palestinian delegation failed to obtain an Israeli settlement freeze or acceptance of the 1967 borders as the framework for the talks, the Palestinians settled on securing the release of prisoners as part of the process, to strengthen President Mahmoud Abbas’ reputation among Palestinians.
The 104 Palestinians imprisoned before the 1993 Oslo Accords were supposed to have been released in 1999. At the time, Israel, the Palestinians and the Americans had reached the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, which included the release of these same prisoners. The Palestinians’ argument then, as it is now, was that it makes no sense for Israel to pardon leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), allowing them freedom in Palestine, while continuing to imprison the foot soldiers who acted on their orders. Israel, nonetheless, used the second intifada in 2000 as justification to renege on this deal.
Israel then decided to use them as bargaining chips aimed at forcing the Palestinian delegation to continue peace talks. It has released a quarter of these prisoners while holding on to the rest, offering to release them at three future dates timed to correspond with the nine-month peace process. As a result of Israel’s insistence, they have been assured an obedient and ever-present Palestinian delegation for the entire nine months. Of course, the negotiation period also requires that the PLO refrain from asking United Nations agencies to recognize Palestine. In addition, the talks put a damper on worldwide grassroots efforts aimed at ostracizing Israel for its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands.
It is ironic that an occupation that took six days to accomplish, and in 2000 had led to talks to be resolved within a week or two at Camp David, needs a nine-month negotiation period to bring to an end. The problem facing negotiators now is not where to begin the talks, but finding the purpose for this time frame when one party, Israel, has no incentive or interest in making any hard decisions until the very last days of the nine months, if at all. In the meantime, Israeli negotiators will go through the motions, killing time without much real interest in finding a solution for the 46-year occupation and the 65-year refugee problem.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab