Perhaps the most promising thing that can be said about anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is that we don’t know much about them.
After hosting talks about talks in Washington this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said formal discussions would begin within two weeks. No terms of reference were announced, so it’s not clear whether the two sides will begin where previous negotiations left off, from scratch or somewhere in between.
This is a plus. When commentators, politicians and partisans of every stripe weigh in on every reported turn in a complicated interaction, negotiators can become fearful of deviating from fixed positions. That’s one reason talks tend to fare better outside the glare of publicity.
Kerry has been astute to ask the Israelis and Palestinians to let him be the sole spokesman for this initiative, and he’s been wise to remain tight-lipped about what prior understandings may have been reached to get the two sides to the table. (Of course, if there are no such terms of reference, he’d have a hard time explaining what he has been doing for the six months he has focused on setting up the talks.) If the Israelis or Palestinians begin to leak what is happening inside the discussions, it will be a sign they are less interested in progress than they are in posturing.
The other known feature of the talks that sets them apart from previous rounds is that a relatively short time has been set for them to produce a deal: nine months. That’s ambitious. On-and-off negotiations over at least 17 years have failed to produce the conflict-ending agreement Kerry seeks. Nevertheless, it’s doable.
It’s trite but true: The parameters of a deal are understood on both sides. A demilitarized Palestinian state would be created in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Palestine would recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Israel would annex a small percentage of West Bank land in order to absorb Jewish settlements close to Israel. Palestine would be compensated with land from inside Israel. A limited number of Palestinian refugees would be allowed to resettle in Israel; the rest would be compensated. Israel would get an early-warning system against invasion from the east -- perhaps a U.S. presence -- in the Jordan Valley. Jerusalem would be shared.
Negotiators from previous sessions and peace advocates working on their own have produced detailed frameworks for each of these issues. Nine months is long enough to develop a human being; it’s long enough for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to come to terms if they want to do so. If they do not, no time is long enough. Consequently, the U.S. should make nine months the limit for its engagement. If the parties lack the will to make an agreement, U.S. diplomatic resources and credibility are better spent elsewhere.
That Kerry was unable to get Israel to agree to freeze the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is unfortunate. For the Palestinians, this feels like negotiating over the division of a pie while the other side is gobbling up slices. So it will be worth watching where, in particular, Israel builds during the talks. If it expands only those settlements everyone expects to be annexed to Israel in a final agreement, a deal may still be possible. If it builds outside those areas, there will be legitimate doubt about Israel’s commitment to the peace process.
Speaking of that phrase: Kerry and the principals may want to rebrand their talks to avoid the widely discredited term “peace process.” For many Israelis and Palestinians, the phrase is now synonymous with an endless procedure that produces nothing. For that matter, the word “peace” has lost its sheen.
It was sweet that Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni took the hand of her Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, in their Washington appearance yesterday. But at this stage, their compatriots are, in the main, fed up with one another. Israelis disdain Palestinians for passing up previous peace offers and for the continued support, among many, for Hamas, the violent Islamist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction. Palestinians resent Israelis for the continued occupation, which inflicts daily misery on their lives.
Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, for the most part, aren’t looking for a coming-together. They want a divorce, with a fair division of assets. Instead of a peace process, how about a coexistence consultation?
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