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Crisis Point in Israeli-Palestinian Talks

Interviewee: Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 28, 2010

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The ten-month moratorium on new construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank ended September 26 with no extension announced, creating a crisis in the recently renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, says CFR's Robert Danin. Resolution of the crisis depends in part on whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can rally political support for a moratorium he pledged as a one-time deal, says Danin. It also depends, he says, on whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Barack Obama, who both wanted an extension on the moratorium, can maintain credibility in the face of Israel's refusal and whether suitable cover can be found for continuing negotiations. While Danin says there's talk about the United States providing assurances to both Israelis and Palestinians that would give them confidence to move forward, "it could be that what the United States would be willing to offer would be insufficient." If that happens, he says, "both sides will point fingers at one another; many people will question the handling of this effort by the United States. I don't see anyone winning should this process break down."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he'll hold off ending the talks until he's had a chance to consult with the Arab League in a few days. Are we at a point where this is just a pause in the negotiations that will resume again soon, or is this another crisis point in which direct peace talks for a two-state solution may be put off indefinitely?

We're at a major test of the viability of the talks. Whether or not the talks are going to proceed will be based on whether or not this crisis can be overcome. As you said, Abbas agreed to go to an Arab League follow-up committee on October 4. What he has essentially done is bought some time to find a way out of this cul-de-sac in which everyone now is stuck. If they can't find a way out of it, then the talks will likely collapse.

During the previous Israeli government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was negotiating privately with Abbas over the future for a two-state solution. There was no discussion then of a freeze in settlements. Was it the Obama administration that introduced this question of demanding a permanent settlements freeze?

No, I wouldn't put it that way. The issue of settlement freeze is a requirement in stage one of the Road Map, so this is something that the international community has been calling upon Israel to do since the road map was released in 2003 by the United States, the United Nations, Russia, and the European Community. Indeed, the call for a halt of settlement activity predates that. It's not that this came out of nowhere or that it wasn't already there.

The failure of the Obama administration to deliver on its call for a settlement moratorium further undermines Palestinian confidence that the administration is going to actually be in a position to deliver.

What changed were two things: The Palestinians made it very clear at the beginning of this administration that they would not continue to turn a blind eye to this issue, that this was a sine qua non for negotiations, because their argument has been that you can't be negotiating while changing facts on the ground at the same time. And this is a view that the administration adopted quite strongly. So that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his first visit to Washington in May 2009, he was hit very hard on the issue of settlements by the administration. So what's new is the intensity and the degree of political capital that has been expended on this issue. And now we're in a situation where the issue of an interim step, or the issue of creating conditions for negotiations to continue, is getting in the way of negotiations continuing.

The Israeli government is dominated by right-wing parties, many of which are not interested in negotiating anything with the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu was not in favor of the two-state solution until recently. He declared a ten-month moratorium on the settlements. Can he survive politically trying to push through a new freeze?

He has two fundamental political problems right now in trying to go for an extension of the moratorium. One is that when he announced on November 25 that there would be a settlement moratorium, he said that this would be a one-time move. He said that the reason for doing it was to help get the parties into negotiation. So he faces the problem of how he can try to continue the moratorium [while] having to go back to the Israeli people and explain why he is now going back on what he pledged ten months ago.

The second is that he took this issue to the Israeli Security Cabinet, which is comprised of fifteen people. He would need to get a simple majority, which is eight, to get an extension through. It's not clear that he has the votes for it. Those are the politics he faces.

Let's look at it from Abbas's point of view. Why can't he just continue the negotiations in the hope that American pressure on the Israelis will bring about terms for a settlement that would be, in the long run, very advantageous to the Palestinians. This is obviously something the United States must be saying to him privately.

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The negotiations are not extremely popular domestically. It's not that Palestinians don't want a negotiating process. It's that they fear open-ended negotiations without a clear timeline, without clear terms of reference, will leave them in a position where they're allowing Israel to continue to do whatever it wants. Without [a timeline], Abbas's mandate to move forward is limited. He has domestic pressure, especially within the ruling Fatah party, that looks upon the negotiations with skepticism. At the same time, however, they recognize that managing a relationship with the United States is critical. The failure of the Obama administration to deliver on its call for a settlement moratorium further undermines Palestinian confidence that the administration is going to actually be in a position to deliver. In their minds, President Obama stood up last week at the United Nations and called on Israel to extend the moratorium. So if Israel turns around and says, "We're not going to do it," and then the United States says, "Well, OK, that's fine," then they lose confidence in the United States as a guarantor of their interests.

When the renewed direct talks started a few weeks ago, at the time there was a one-year time limit, right?

That was put as an aspiration; I wouldn't call it a time limit. But the president stood up and said that the goal was to reach an agreement within a year.

Is this becoming a new crisis in Israeli-American relations? Back in 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was unable to get a second disengagement agreement with the Egyptians, because the Israeli cabinet turned down the terms. This led President Ford to have "a reassessment of relations" with Israel. But the Israelis agreed to a deal several months later.

If you start to settle some issues piecemeal, you do potentially build confidence, but the downside is you isolate some of the most difficult issues until the end, and actually make those issues more difficult to resolve because there's no cover.

Are we in a bilateral crisis? The answer is no, or not yet. Clearly, both sides are trying to avoid that, and I think there has been intensive diplomacy taking place throughout the weekend and it continues now. Now it's overtime. Abbas has, in essence, given until next Monday for this process to continue. The Israeli cabinet did not meet September 26 because of the Jewish holiday Sukkot. So the issue has not fully come to a head. The moratorium has expired, but the Palestinians have not withdrawn from the talks. There hasn't been a breakdown yet of the process.

Could the United States get Egypt and Jordan to tell Abbas to keep talking? What are the chances of getting much support in the Arab League?

It's possible, depending on what those other Arabs believe is attainable and what kind of assurance they're hearing from the United States about how this is going to all be handled. In the months ahead, if the negotiations continue, with Israel having defied the president's call for the extension on the moratorium, then clearly that tilts the table a little bit in the Palestinian's direction, even if the administration says, "Hey, we're not going to blame anyone." Clearly, the administration is not going to be very happy and is going to feel a need to help compensate politically for this. And this, depending on what it is they offer to do, may be sufficient to provide the cover for Abbas to continue negotiating. I think he would like to continue negotiating. A breakdown of negotiations doesn't leave him in a very good place. On the other hand, he needs some cover. He's put himself in a position where he has said he can't negotiate without the moratorium.

What would Abbas really like from the United States to save the talks? Would he like a detailed peace plan that the United States would endorse? How specific does the United States have to be to please Abbas?

In the short term, one thing I think is needed is a formula for Israel to declare an extension of the settlement moratorium. I happen to think a timeline before the moratorium is problematic, because it just kicks the ball down the field and we'll be facing this problem, potentially, in a few months. There's one idea out there where you buy a few months and negotiate the issue of the borders first. If you can negotiate the issue of the borders for a Palestinian state, then you resolve the settlement issue because you can draw a line on the map and there can be building on those settlements on the Israeli side of the map--if they're agreed to by the Palestinians who will remain in Israel.

But this is an extremely ambitious approach. It starts to break down the integrity of the entire agreement--it undoes the notion that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. If you start to settle some issues piecemeal, you do potentially build confidence, but the downside is you isolate some of the most difficult issues until the end, and actually make those issues more difficult to resolve because there's no cover. For example, if the Palestinians get their borders drawn early on, and yet the issue of the Palestinian refugees is deferred, then it may be more difficult to actually resolve that issue, because the Palestinians will already know what they're getting in terms of the contours of their state, and the question is, "Why compromise on the refugee issue?"

I thought the toughest issue was Jerusalem.

Both Jerusalem and refugees are going to turn out to be the most difficult issues.

So we're in a period now of sort of waiting. It's a time when the diplomats earn their living, right?

I don't want to use the term "sudden death overtime"--but we're in overtime right now. There may be a solution at hand that will allow the talks to continue. There's talk about the merit of the United States trying to provide assurances to the parties that will give them the confidence to take the steps needed to keep the talks alive. But it could be that what the United States would be willing to offer would be insufficient, at which point, if Abbas pulls out of the talks, we're at a very difficult place, and those on the Palestinian side who reject negotiations will be strengthened. Both sides will point fingers at one another; many people will question the handling of this effort by the United States. I don't see anyone winning should this process break down.

 

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