Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has drawn a lot of heat in the last few weeks, on himself and the administration, for his December 2 comment that Israel needs to “just get to the damn table” with the Palestinians. After all, his critics note, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been declaring since 2009 that he’s ready to resume negotiations without preconditions, and the Palestinians have been refusing. How did it become Israel’s fault that the talks have been frozen for two and a half years?
Panetta’s remarks sounded so off-base that a lot of open-minded people are beginning to think the Obama-doesn’t-heart-Israel crowd had it right. The American Jewish Committee’s Ed Rettig tried to turn it around by arguing that Panetta was actually telling both sides to return to the table. Watching the video itself, that’s not so clear. First Ken Pollack asks Panetta what Israel should do, and Panetta says “Just get to the damn table.” A moment later he says the two sides need to work it out but they can’t unless they get to the damn table. Either way, it’s been trumpeted all over the world for two weeks now as directed at Israel, and if it’s a misinterpretation, I haven’t heard Panetta trying to correct it. (If you know better, weigh in.)
On the other hand, Panetta’s line sounds a little less odd when you consider who else is demanding that Israel return to the negotiating table. Yuval Diskin, who stepped down as Shin Bet director last June, said exactly that in a talk to students in southern Israel on October 26. Gabi Ashkenazi, who stepped down as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said it June 20 in a talk in Toronto. Both Ashkenazi and Diskin were in their jobs, holding two of the three highest positions in Israeli security, when Netanyahu began calling for talks and Abbas first began refusing. They were involved in all the briefings—in fact, they were the ones who were supplying Netanyahu with his intelligence. Why would they say that he’s the one who needs to get back to the table?
The answer, dear readers, is that when Netanyahu asked Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations “without preconditions,” what he meant was without all the progress toward agreement that had been made in nearly two years of negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, for nearly two years. The talks were cut off a few months earlier, as both Olmert and his then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni have stated publicly, not because Abbas refused to continue but because Olmert was about to lose his job. When Netanyahu came in and insisted on starting all over again from zero, the Palestinians replied that there was no point. Dismissing all the progress that had been made (remember that talks had been going on sporadically, inching forward each time, since 1993) was seen as a signal that Israel’s new leadership wasn’t going to make an offer the Palestinians could accept. Remember: Abbas had negotiated with Olmert and both sides were optimistic that they could reach a mutually acceptable agreement with just a little more time. It wasn’t Israel that Abbas refused to negotiate with. It was with Bibi.
To be fair, Netanyahu and his chief, um, diplomat, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, had taken the position coming into office that they would respect all previous signed agreements, but wouldn’t be bound by unsigned understandings. That included the Olmert-Abbas partial understandings. That’s when the Obama administration looked for a signed agreement and found the Road Map, which President George W. Bush presented in outline form in April 2002 and Israel formally accepted in May 2003, after extensive negotiations. The final text committed Israel to a full, immediate freeze on all settlement construction, “including natural growth.” The Palestinians were committed to “sustained, targeted and effective operations” to stop terrorism. Since the plan was “performance based,” the Palestinians’ failure to act effectively against terrorism freed Israel of its obligation to stop building.
Since 2007, however, Israel has been satisfied with the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to fight terror effectively, as Israeli officials have repeatedly acknowledged. Therefore, asking Israel to fulfill its signed pledge of a settlement freeze seemed a reasonable stretch, and the Palestinians reluctantly took it as sop to resume talks on Bibi’s terms. After lengthy bargaining, Bibi agreed — to a partial freeze, not including Jerusalem, not including projects underway and only for 10 months. It took Obama nine of those 10 months to get the Palestinians to accept that as a freeze. Talks finally resumed in September 2010 and ended a month later when the freeze ended. The administration tried to get Israel to renew the freeze, even for a month, but Israel said no. Nobody had noticed that when Bibi first proposed a 10 month freeze (Why not a year? Why not seven months, or eight?) it was timed to lapse just before the 2010 midterm elections, when Obama would be in no position to press for more.
So when Diskin and Ashkenazi say Israel should return to the table, what they mean is not a corner table at Sardi’s but the table Israel and the Palestinians have been sitting at on and off for close to 20 years. Bibi doesn’t want that table. And that stance, as Bibi’s former security chief Diskin told the students, is why Israel is finding itself isolated.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).