Peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which are due to begin tomorrow in Washington, won’t succeed in finding a permanent solution to the conflict.
Such talks, sponsored by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, aren’t just another attempt whose failure would have no consequences. If the negotiations fail, it will lead to more frustration and deeper skepticism that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved. The security arrangement between the two sides, which is guaranteeing the current state of calm, will be dealt a blow and there will be a danger of violent outbursts.
If there were even the slightest chance of the talks succeeding, I would say it was worth making one more attempt. However, in this situation, there is almost no such chance, whereas the grave implications of failure are both clear and painful. I call upon the U.S. administration to hurry up and change the goal of the talks. They should deal with what the parties are prepared to implement, and not with what they are forced to do as a result of American pressure: open negotiations on a partial and temporary agreement.
I say this with no small amount of pain. For decades, I have been calling for a permanent-status agreement, and I was opposed to interim solutions.
When I commenced the Oslo process, I believed it would be possible to go much further than a document of principles before an interim agreement. When I tried to persuade then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to push for negotiations on a permanent- status agreement, he was firmly opposed. According to Rabin, failure of such an approach could mean that no attempt would be made to reach an additional accord, not even an interim one.
He was wrong, and we have found ourselves going along the track proposed in the Camp David Agreements of 1978: autonomous Palestinian government for five years, only at the end of which the negotiations on permanent status would begin.
A month after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in 1993, I made an agreement with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to open secret negotiations on permanent-status issues with Mahmoud Abbas.
The understandings between us, which were never signed and were supposed to have been submitted to Arafat and Rabin, were discussed for two years, and they formed a fairly detailed outline for a full agreement.
After the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000, and after Ariel Sharon came to power in Israel in 2001, we -- PLO Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo and myself -- led several dozen Israelis and Palestinians into the most detailed attempt of all times to draft an Israeli-Palestinian permanent-status agreement: the Geneva Initiative.
About a year ago, we published some 500 pages of appendices, which would appear to resolve all of the disputes between Israel and the Palestinians. But the two sides would never agree to sign such an agreement today.
There are two possibilities. One is to wait until new leaders replace the present ones, although that would entail a loss of time and opportunities and be a gamble on the unknown. Nobody knows whether the next set of leaders will be any more interested in a peace agreement than the present ones.
The second is to change the goal of the talks, and to try and hold pragmatic talks on a temporary agreement, as per the second stage (a Palestinian state with temporary borders) of the “road map,” or the third withdrawal in the West Bank that Israel still owes the Palestinians, according to the interim agreement of 1995.
This is no simple matter. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would find it difficult to persuade his voters to uproot settlements and withdraw from most of the West Bank without any mention of the finality of the dispute, or of other advantages that would arise from a permanent peace agreement.
The Palestinians would be afraid that any temporary agreement would become a permanent one because the world would delude itself into believing that this regional conflict had been resolved, even though issues such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem wouldn’t be included in such an agreement.
The way to overcome the opposition is to guarantee that upon the signing of the interim agreement, a presidential declaration would be made, defining the detailed principles for a permanent-status agreement, as a clear American position, while the Arab countries would be asked to partially implement the 2002 Arab peace initiative toward Israel, and to send commercial representatives to Israel, or to show other indications of normal relations, even if they aren’t full diplomatic ones.
Netanyahu wasn’t voted in by the right wing to divide East Jerusalem or to resolve, even symbolically, the problem of Palestinian refugees. The distance between his positions and the minimum claims of the pragmatic Palestinian camp can’t be bridged. Even when he talks about a willingness to accept the two-state solution, and even when he makes promises to surprise, he reverts to a long list of positions that don’t allow him to reach a historic compromise.
Abbas can’t implement a peace agreement with Israel because as long as Hamas retains control of Gaza, Gaza won’t be part of the solution, and there can’t be any “safe passage” between the West Bank and Gaza. In addition, it won’t be possible to work out land swaps between Israel and the West Bank because the area designated for them is the region surrounding the Gaza Strip, and no Israeli government would agree to hand over land adjacent to Gaza while it is still under Hamas control.
This situation means we need to pursue a different line of thought, which will lead us, at this stage, to a solution that isn’t ideal, but which is far better than the continuation of the current situation: a partial agreement.
(Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister, is the president of Beilink -- Business Foreign Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Yossi Beilin at Beilin@beilink.com