Why They Aren't at the 'Damn Table'

Two Sides Are Way Too Far Apart for Meaningful Talks

Wide Gap: Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too far apart to make meaningful progress in peace negotiations. Both sides know talks now would be a waste of time, or worse.
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Wide Gap: Israeli and Palestinian leaders are too far apart to make meaningful progress in peace negotiations. Both sides know talks now would be a waste of time, or worse.

By Yossi Alpher

Published January 09, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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The past 18 years of failed attempts to guide Israelis and Palestinians to a two-state solution have produced memorable clichés and even curses on the part of frustrated third-party officials. One of my favorites is, “The outlines of an agreement are known to all,” which I usually attribute to Tony Blair, though there are other contenders. Another is, “Sign, you dog,” — Hosni Mubarak, through clenched teeth, trying to get Yasser Arafat to sign the second Oslo agreement. And there is Yitzhak Rabin’s “There are no sacred deadlines.”

In early December, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta entered the cliché pantheon when, at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., he told the parties to the conflict, “Just get to the damn table.” Politicians and analysts argued over Panetta’s target: Was he addressing only the Palestinians, only the Israelis, or both? They missed the real point: Like Blair’s comment about the outlines being known to all, Panetta’s premise is just plain wrong.

The Israelis and Palestinians did, in fact, get to the table — in Amman, Jordan, on January 3. But nothing of substance happened. Nor will it, even if they meet again. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are so far apart on the outlines of an agreement that the Oslo process has become pointless. And another failed negotiation could be worse than no negotiation at all.

The difference between the two leaders and Panetta is that the first two know just how hopeless the gaps are, while Panetta, the Obama administration and indeed the entire international community represented in the “Quartet” (the U.S., E.U., U.N. and Russia) seemingly still labor under the illusion that if only Netanyahu and Abbas could sit down together under the Oslo umbrella of final status talks, an agreement would somehow fall into place.

In fact, Oslo has exhausted its usefulness because, as we have learned over the course of nearly two decades, it embodies two fatal flaws. The first is that it seeks to sit the state of Israel down at the negotiating table with a non-state liberation organization, the PLO, which represents not just a finite parcel of land aspiring to statehood — the West Bank and Gaza — but also a huge refugee diaspora that wants more.

The second, related flaw in the Oslo accords is that they lay out a menu of final status issues that mixes post-1967 topics like borders, settlements and security with very different pre-1967 “narrative” topics like holy places and the “right of return” of the 1948 refugees. Oslo, in effect, insists that a final-status agreement reach closure on all of them: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” — yet another memorable cliché.

Eighteen years of negotiations, including two serious attempts at the summit level to reach agreement on all final status issues (Camp David 2000 and the Olmert-Abbas talks of 2008), have failed. The pre-1967 narrative issues have proven far more intractable than the post-1967 issues. We know that the territorial swaps will fall somewhere between 2% and 6% of the West Bank. We know what will happen to the settlers living beyond the new border. We know the Palestinian state will agree to forgo any offensive military capability. But we have no idea how to agree on who “owns” the Temple Mount when Abbas has proclaimed that there never was a temple there. And we have no formula for resolving the right of return issue when the Palestinians insist on wording that enables them to teach future generations that Israel was “born in sin” in 1948.

So getting “to the damned table” under the Oslo formula doesn’t work. We need a new formula, one that tackles the doable — the 1967 issues — first, and postpones the tougher narrative issues for a later stage, when Israelis and Palestinians face off as two neighboring states.

The current U.S. and Quartet approach correctly demands that the parties discuss territory and security first. But, as with Oslo, it neglects to delink those issues from agreement on holy places and the right of return. That linkage is apparently what Netanyahu also wants: Only an Israeli leader who actually considers the West Bank an asset rather than a strategic burden would continue to hold a territorial and security agreement hostage to the narrative issues.

One additional flaw in Panetta’s exasperated approach is that he represents an administration resigned to doing nothing about an Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the 2012 election year. Without the Obama administration at the table, dedicated to delivering an agreement, there is even less chance Israelis and Palestinians will agree on anything.

So don’t expect any serious action at the “damn table” in the months ahead. We don’t know what this year will produce in the Middle East. But assuming it is not total catastrophe, the best thing we can do in the year 2012 is think, beyond clichés, about a new and different peace paradigm that the next administration should embrace.

Yossi Alpher coedits bitterlemons.net. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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