Do Palestinian Long Faces Signal Breakthrough or Stalemate?

Saeb Erekat Looks Very Unhappy as Tzipi Livni Beams

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 01, 2013, issue of August 09, 2013.
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It’s dangerous to read too much into body language on the television screen. Still, it was hard not to notice the contrast in demeanor between Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat as they addressed the press conference after their first round of peace talks June 30 at the State Department.

Livni seemed ebullient, almost bouncy during her four-minute remarks. Erekat spoke barely a minute, looking funereal. Livni strove for poetry, ending with the words: “History is not made by cynics. It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream. And let us be these people.” Erekat’s words were more terse, particularly his signature line: “Palestinians have suffered enough.”

Now, any number of factors could have been involved. Maybe Erekat still had jet lag. Maybe Livni was happy to be back in the headlines after the near-death of her political career.

More likely, though, a bit of history was unfolding on their faces. These new talks catch the two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, at very different stages in their respective histories. They’re reacting quite differently to the renewed negotiations and the prospect, however slight, of ending their long conflict. You might call it two emotional states for two peoples.

Diplomats speak of the painful compromises required of both sides to achieve peace, but the truth is, the pain won’t be distributed equally. Most Israelis have little emotional attachment to the territories they’ll have to vacate to make way for a Palestinian state. The reluctance expressed in their voting choices in recent years has more to do with mistrust of the Palestinians than spiritual connection to the soil.

True, the actual process of withdrawal will be traumatic, given the intense feelings of those who actually do feel attached — including the hundreds of thousands who live there. For most Israelis, though, it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. Current polls show 55% of Israelis would support any peace agreement the government negotiates.

The same can’t be said for Palestinians. They’ve traveled a long, bitter road to reach this moment. When Israel was created in 1948 through the partition of the land Palestinians called their own, they overwhelmingly rejected it. It was only 40 years later, in 1988, that the Palestine Liberation Organization voted to accept the United Nations partition plan, and another five years after that, in 1993, that they accepted the even narrower borders of the 1949 armistice lines. Since then they’ve insisted, in repeated rounds of negotiating and fighting, that that’s as far as they’ll go. The 1949 lines, better known as the pre-1967 borders, leave them with 22% of the original territory. They feel they’ve compromised enough.

In July 2000, Ehud Barak offered a bit more than 90% of that 22%. Yasser Arafat walked out, and an intifada erupted (although, less well known, talks continued after the walkout, ending only when Barak’s government fell). In 2008, Ehud Olmert offered what he called the equivalent of nearly 100% — the Palestinians argue the point — but other issues remained unresolved. Primary among them: the status of the Israeli West Bank city of Ariel, the disputed E-1 zone east of Jerusalem and the precise number of refugees to be repatriated to Israel in a symbolic “right of return.”


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