On September 2, direct talks between Palestinian Authority President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will begin. The talks will be hosted by the Obama Administration in Washington D.C. These talks are characterized as “direct” because the two parties will actually be across the negotiating table. Prior talks have been “indirect” because they involved a kind of “shuttle diplomacy” on the part of U.S. special representative George Mitchell who carried positions and concerns back and forth between the parties. Agreeing to “direct talks” has entailed a negotiation process in itself, indicative of the great difficulty in establishing a meaningful process to resolve the sixty-two year old conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demonstrated an optimistic view by her public statements, saying the negotiations should/could lead to a final settlement in one year. Such optimism, as cautious as it was, of course is part of her role since the Obama Administration is both the guiding force and the host for the talks. The reality of the situation portrays a much darker prospect. Cynics, whom abound among the relevant parties and the U.S., have suggested that domestic politics in the U.S. are the driving force behind the talks. In all probability, there is such a component. President Obama, whose job approval hovers around 45% desperately needs a political success and while foreign policy is secondary to American voters concerns over the economy, if significant progress was achieved on the issue of the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that would help.
There are fundamental issues on both sides as well as significant political issues with the domestic constituencies of both parties. Netanyahu has previously rejected pre-conditions to talks but then he cited two of his own: the Palestinian Authority (PA) must accept the legitimacy of Israel as a permanent “Jewish state” and any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. These conditions reflect Israel’s basic concern, which is national security, both physical and cultural. An agreement on the nature of Israel as a “Jewish state” in effect concedes the long standing demand for a right of return for over a million Palestinians and their descendents who fled or were forced out of the territory that became Israel in 1948. While this demand has been long standing and argued for passionately by Palestinian officials, it never has had any chance of being part of a final agreement since the demographic reality is that higher birthrates among Palestinians would over a relatively short time turn the Jewish state into an Arab state with a Jewish minority. Thus, Israel will never negotiate itself out of existence. The demilitarization of Palestine is also a basic requirement since the tiny state of Israel cannot tolerate a armed potential enemy on its border.
PA President Abbas, stated early in 2009 that he would not attend direct talks “without” acceptance of preconditions. These included recognition of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders and a freeze of settlement building in the West Bank. Netanyahu agreed on the goal of a Palestinian state, although his enthusiasm for it is much in question. Actual borders remain to be defined but the freeze on settlement building has been temporarily resolved.
Other fundamental issues for the PA include the status of Jerusalem which is now the Israeli capital but whose eastern sector with it’s Muslim holy places is desired by the PA for its own capital once statehood is achieved. Israel wants no divided capital and has been building housing in the eastern sector on a large scale for Jewish residents for several years. Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which also would become part of the envisioned Palestinian state is another major impediment to a successful outcome. Such settlement construction is currently under a self-imposed moratorium which expires in September and the PA has said if construction resumes, the new round of talks will be ended.
Previous negotiations have been centered around “interim agreements”, that is temporary structures that depend on more detailed future agreements to become permanent. PA President Abbas has said he wants final settlement negotiations in the current round and will not accept further “interim agreements”. The 2003 “Road Map” was such an interim agreement, and while it was important as a general statement of acceptance of the goal of a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it left to subsequent negotiations the difficult issues which will have to be addressed in the current Washington talks if progress is to be achieved.
The Road Map agreement outlined three “phases”. Phase I would end terrorism and violence. Much progress has been made in reducing terrorist attacks from the West Bank, an outcome contributed to by the Israeli security wall which separates much of the West Bank from Israel proper. Under Phase I, Palestinian institutions would be built and this has been the case. PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has undertaken an effort to build the institutions of government “from the ground up”, rather than waiting for a Palestinian state to be declared and creating institutions from “above”. Phase II saw the creation of an interim Palestinian state, and a Permanent Status Agreement. Phase III envisioned the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What all this indicates is that there is basic agreement on the broad conditions for a two state solution and a future end to the conflict. Both sides know the non-negotiable issues of the other but are reluctant to make early concessions preferring to use them as negotiating points with which to extract other concessions. But two major impediments to successful negotiations remain and are largely outside the power of the two parties to control. One is the approval of domestic constituencies. This is more a problem for Netanyahu than the Fatah government of the PA with respect to the West Bank. Any agreement to remove Israeli settlements from the West Bank will inevitably run into strong opposition from conservative religious groups and their supporters who make up much of the population of these settlements . Removal of settlements in Gaza in the past resulted in violent physical confrontations between residents and the Israeli army. One possible solution to this problem that has been suggested has been “land swaps” in which the PA would be given land equal in size and quality to the settlements which would remain. Obviously that procedure presents enormous issues and would be difficult to negotiate. But the major impediment to a final settlement is that fact that the Palestinian territories are divided into two non-contiguous parts, Gaza and the West Bank. While the West Bank is under the control of the Palestinian Authority which is currently in the hands of the Fatah party, Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which is both a political party and an armed militia which is committed to armed struggle with Israel and which refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist. Hamas, which receives by one report, $500 million a year from Iran, is listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the EU. The PA does not speak or negotiate for Hamas which has already condemned the proposed Washington D.C. negotiations. It cannot guarantee Hamas’ conformity with any aspects of a final settlement especially those related to Israeli security and an end to violence. The multi-year rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and the subsequent 2008-09 invasion of Gaza by Israel are stark reminders of the seeming intractability of this issue.
Can the PA sign any agreement on behalf of the Palestinian people without the participation of Hamas? If so would such an agreement have any meaning and would Netanyahu accept any agreement without some requirement that Hamas and the status of Gaza be included? Almost certainly not. Can a “two state solution” be envisioned that does not include Gaza, which would then be relegated to some kind of international dependency? While this is a theoretical possibility, it seems highly impractical given the fact that Gaza would then remain an island of poverty, hostility and a continuing source of Iranian sponsored terrorism. Thus while the Washington D.C. negotiations are vital to future arrangements, they are not likely to produce the short term optimistic result that Secretary Clinton hopes for and President Obama may have to find his job approval boost elsewhere.