Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Reader Asks: Why Won't Israel Define Its Borders In Advance of Negotiations

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By Barry Rubin
A reader asks: "You wrote, `But if Israel defined it's final boundaries before negotiations, the Palestinian Authority [says it] would return to the talks. Israel won't do that, of course.' Why is that `of course'"?

I first joked that it was because the article was getting to be too long. In other words, I didn't have the space to discuss it. But let me explain that point now.

First, beginning with the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement, it has been clearly mutually agreed that the issue of boundaries would be settled in negotiations. Negotiations are supposed to be a give and take process: Israel would give more on boundaries if it got more on other issues. In addition, if Israelis knew they'd be getting a real, secure, and lasting peace they would be willing to offer more.

But there's also a particular negotiating trick that the Palestinian leaders have used repeatedly. Israel offers a concession saying, "If we do this, what will you give in return?" The Palestinians then say: Aha! You have offered to do this. We will give nothing in return but all future negotiations must start on the basis of you conceding this point.

That might sound ridiculous but we've seen it over and over again, tolerated by Western mediators who if this is a reasonable diplomatic posture.

Remember, too, the Palestinians didn't say: Israel should put forward a negotiating position on borders. Thus, as we have seen, if Israel were to call for even minor border modifications, the Palestinians would walk out but at the same time will insist that Israel can never demand in future more than it offered in the past.

The PA has demanded the pre-1967 borders with no alterations. When at the Camp David talks of 2000 Israel put forward an offer--only as a starting point for negotiations--claiming about three percent of the West Bank in exchange for giving the Palestinians all of Gaza, 97 percent of the West Bank, and most of east Jerusalem, the Palestinians walked out and began a violent revolt.

We have been through this many times before. The Syrians have done the same thing. The most famous example was when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said at one point to Syria, through the U.S. government, OK, what if we were to accept the pre-1967 border and give a little more, what would we get in exchange?

The Syrians responded: We reject your offer but all negotiations in future must start from the point of that concession, and now we will ask for more concessions.

Instead, Israel will adhere to the formula articulated by Rabin: The extent of withdrawal will depend on the extent of what Israel is offered in exchange.

To summarize, here's a case study in Palestinian negotiating tactics:

Make a demand that might seem reasonable to outside observers.

If you get a concession, take it without giving anything in return. Reject it as an agreement but demand that it be the starting point for future negotiations.

If Israel puts forward a position that doesn't give you more than you had before, reject it and walk out of the talks. Then try to get the United States and Europe to pressure Israel into more unilateral concessions.

The situation gets so ridiculous that Tom Friedman can write a column demanding that Israel give a chance to the PA's current leadership and test its intentions. Hasn't that been going on for ten years now?

After all, why does Israel need to give another construction freeze when it just finished giving one for nine months and the PA leadership failed the test?

No doubt, if Israel gave another freeze and received nothing in exchange from the PA, or the PA even refused to talk altogether, U.S. government officials and various journalists would once again act as if this experience never happened and demand Israel make even more unilateral concessions to "test" the PA's good intentions. We've seen this happen repeatedly and, thank you very much, already know that the PA isn't eager for peace and is unwilling to compromise.

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,

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