Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the Obama White House this week gives us an opportunity to watch history unfold. Or unravel. It’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s like that old Palmach song said, Rabotai, ha-historia hozeret (“Folks, history repeats itself”).
On the eve of the summit, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is beating up on President Obama for failing to reaffirm George W. Bush’s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon. Bush had written that it was “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The president was endorsing Israel’s goal of keeping the major West Bank settlement blocs as part of the outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In reality, Bush wasn’t saying anything the Palestinians themselves hadn’t said. Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas said as much just the other day in an on-the-record interview with Israeli reporters. As the Jerusalem Post put it in its version of the interview, “Abbas said that in principle, the Palestinians have agreed to alterations in the 1967 border, as long as it was done on a one-to-one ratio.” Incidentally, Abbas has embraced that position as far back as his 1995 talks with Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin.
Bush’s letter endorsed the idea of redrawing the border as a likely outcome of negotiations. The assumption was that the Palestinians could be expected to give Israel that reasonably desired outcome — as part of an agreement in which Israel gives the Palestinians an equally reasonably desired outcome.
So what’s JINSA’s beef?
In broad terms, JINSA is taking up a line that’s being touted by various voices on the Israeli right as the back-and-forth heats up: that Israel should receive its key demand on settlements before the actual negotiations begin. That way Israel can sit down and start negotiating from there. In other words, give me what I want in advance, and then we can sit down and discuss who’s willing to give up what.
In effect, the Israeli right doesn’t want Israel to have negotiate its relations with its neighbors on its own. It wants America to impose a solution. Of course JINSA wouldn’t put it that way.
What JINSA is asking is for Obama to adopt Bush’s previous commitment as though it were settled American policy, rather than a suggested outcome of talks between two other parties (neither of which is America). It wants Obama’s Washington to stand by the positions of an earlier administration.
What’s hilarious is that this is exactly what Abbas is asking of Netanyahu: stand by the positions adopted by the Israeli government before you were elected. The Olmert-Livni government had come very close to a comprehensive peace agreement with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority back in 2008, including a plan for sharing Jerusalem. Olmert agreed that the borders would be close to the 1967 lines with a territory swap to let Israel keep the main settlement blocs (what Bush called acknowledging “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers”). It was in writing. Olmert and Abbas exchanged proposed maps.
Contrary to the myth concocted on the right, those Olmert-Abbas negotiations didn’t collapse, nor did the Palestinians walk away. The talks were suspended at the end of October 2008, when it became clear that Tzipi Livni wasn’t going to be able to negotiate a new Kadima-led coalition following Olmert’s August resignation announcement, and that Israel was going to elections that Bibi might win.
The Palestinians openly worried at the time that the election hiatus would end up undoing the progress that had been made and setting a peace agreement back further. The same thing had happened in January 2001, when the negotiations at Taba between the Ehud Barak government and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — the continuation, it’s often forgotten, of the interrupted Camp David talks of the previous summer — came close to an agreement, only to come unglued when Barak lost his coalition, went to elections and lost.
And sure enough, that’s what happened to the Olmert-Abbas talks in 2008. Bibi won. Obama put out his settlement-freeze demand, which forced Abbas up a tree — after all, how could he demand less from Israel than Washington was calling for? Since then the Palestinians have made talks conditional on a settlement freeze. As Bibi’s people complained, settlement-building had never stopped the Palestinians from negotiating with previous governments. Why is this government different from previous governments? Well, for starters, as Abbas said in the interview cited above, previous governments hadn’t come to office and promptly repudiated everything that had gone before and insisted on starting over from zero.
That’s exactly what Bibi means when he says he wants to start negotiations without preconditions — that he doesn’t want to have to stand by the positions adopted by his predecessor. He’s been quite open about it. No sharing Jerusalem. No withdrawal from the Jordan Valley. Start from zero, as though Israel and the P.A. hadn’t repeatedly reached a consensus on basic terms.
Ironic: Bibi’s people want the Obama administration to stand by the positions taken by its predecessor, but Bibi doesn’t want to stand by the positions his own predecessor had taken.
Remember when Israel used to worry that it might negotiate a deal with an Arab government and then find that government replaced by a new regime that repudiated the deal?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).