Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Flash: U.S. Government Briefing: What Will Happen in Israel-PA Direct Talks

Note: This article appears on Pajamas Media. I have added here a couple of relevant links as well.

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By Barry Rubin

Prior to the start of the new round of Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) direct negotiations, a high-ranking administration official briefed the media today on what to expect. Having read the transcript prior to its official release, I will summarize here the most interesting points.

The basic structure of the talks is as follows: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas plan to meet every two weeks, starting on September 2. There will be more frequent meetings at a lower level on various issues. The United States will watch closely but the talks will be bilateral and the U.S. side will make no formal proposals.

In the words of the briefing:

“It does not mean that the United States will simply stand aside and not participate actively. We will operate in a manner that is reasonable and sensible in the circumstances which exist, but the guiding principle will be an active and sustained United States presence.” The word “presence” is an alternative to the word “involvement,” signaling a role as observer at this point.

Is the idea of solving this in a year realistic? The U.S. official insists it is a “window of opportunity” (heard that one before?), citing statements by both Netanyahu and Abbas (neither of whom believes this for a moment) to that effect. If they don’t make peace now, he added, they will face “”far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future.”

It is noteworthy that making a deal is always deemed never to pose any greater problems in the future. To set as the two choices: continuation of a long, bloody conflict or its solution bringing about total peace and happiness obviously signals which is the preferred option. In this case, both leaders would love to make a deal, right?

Of course, this is not the real world. Netanyahu has to worry not so much about domestic reaction (a real but overstated factor) but about making such concessions that Israel would be in a worse, more dangerous situation, faced round two, escalated Arab demands, and a lack of Western support no matter how much he listened to Western advice. Netanyahu has to deal also with the details of borders, most notably pertaining to east Jerusalem, and retaining a limited number of settlements near the frontier.

Abbas has an even worse problem. First, he himself doesn’t want to give up certain demands, including the “right” of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to live in Israel, which would consequently (as Abbas and Netanyahu both know) would not remain Israel for more than a few months.

Second, Abbas lacks the political power to offer any solution that would conceivably be acceptable to any Israeli leader since his colleagues almost unanimously oppose such an outcome.

Third, he has not prepared his own people for such a compromise deal. On the contrary, he and the PA have been telling them daily for 16 years that Israel is illegitimate and by waiting they will get everything.

Fourth, he has no control over Hamas which will do everything possible to destroy any such agreement and overthrow the PA.

Fifth, he cannot depend on real Arab support, even if the dying Egyptian president and weak Jordanian king are present.

Sixth, he can depend on the violent opposition of Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Muslim Brotherhoods, and huge portions of the Arab world’s population.

Seventh, he and his colleagues reject almost all the Israeli conditions: that a treaty end the conflict forever, that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, that the Palestinian state have limits on its military and cannot invite in foreign troops, and that all Palestinian refugees be resettled in Palestine. He might be able to agree to minor border changes but even that is in question.

Finally, he has an alternative strategy: ensure the talks fail, blame Israel, and seek Western support for a unilateral declaration of independence without making any compromises or concessions to Israel.

Virtually none of these eight points is ever addressed by the U.S. government or the mass media. Well, the briefing did mention one: claiming that a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of the Arabs in the six most moderate countries are “still in principle open to the two-state solution.”

This argument, by the way, is expressed with the most appalling distortions of the facts. For example, the briefer bragged that 39 percent said that a two-state solution would happen through negotiations as if this was some amazing fact. Of course that’s what they say (it’s amazing more don’t say it) because they certainly don’t think this would be the outcome of any war they won!

The briefer also said that the majority of those polled believe that if there is no two-state solution there will be conflict in the coming years. What this leaves out is: they probably believe that a two-state solution would also bring conflict and that they believe that if Israel doesn’t meet every Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim demand there can be no two-state (temporary) solution.

Moreover, the briefer left out the fact that the poll showed an astonishingly high level of support or revolutionary Islamist leaders (including Iran’s regime) and groups in the most moderate states. Here's my analysis of the same poll.

But why go on? The ultimate argument, which really underlies all the others, is: Would you rather have us do nothing? Shouldn’t we try?

Sure, I respond. You must, however, act with a realistic and honest assessment of the situation and with the proper preparations. To stage negotiations, for example:

--Without ever pressuring the PA to stop the very incitement and radicalism that ensures there is no popular base for peace is to guarantee failure.

--To show you are ready to accept a Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip and protect it from being overthrown is to ensure there is no basis for peace.

--To fail to show strong backing for moderates—including the Lebanese independence forces—while coddling extremists is to ensure there is no strategic basis for peace.

Many more points can be added here. No, this is not the best that the United States of America could do. Yes, the talks will fail. Certainly, much of the media will pretend otherwise.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports, at

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