U.S. Briefs Media on Structure, Motivation for Israel-PA Direct Talks

The basic structure of the Israel-PA direct negotiations 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 lower levels 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, the official added, they will face ”far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future.” What's noteworthy about this statement? Making a deal is always deemed never to pose any greater problems in the future. The two choices are presented as: (a) continuation of a long, bloody conflict, or (b) its solution, bringing about total peace and happiness. In such a 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 more dangerous situation, with escalated Arab demands and a lack of Western support no matter how much he had 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 even worse problems:

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, 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.