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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Netanyahu making additional concessions to Obama and Mitchell?

Writing in Foreign Policy, former AIPAC director Steven Rosen says that Prime Minister Netanyahu is making concessions to President Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell beneath the radar (Hat Tip: Shmuel Rosner).
I think Benjamin Netanyahu has gone through a personal evolution a little like my own. He continues to be profoundly skeptical that signing a piece of paper can put an end to this conflict. He is a fierce advocate of defensible borders and military strength as the true guarantors of Israel's security. Nevertheless, he has come back to a second term as prime minister with a deeper appreciation of the reality that his relations with the United States, Europe, and moderate Arab neighbors depend on the perception that he can be a partner in the search for diplomatic progress with the Palestinians. And he certainly knows that many harbor doubts about him.

That is why Bibi agreed to do something unprecedented, something that six previous Israeli prime ministers since the1993 Oslo Accords (Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu himself in his previous term) refused to do. Very much against the will of his party and coalition, Netanyahu consented to putting a freeze on "natural growth"of settlements. He has drastically curtailed the volume of construction starts,even in the "consensus" settlement blocs that he believes wereconceded to Ariel Sharon by George W. Bush.

Now, below the radar, Netanyahu is making a series of additional concessions to Barack Obama and his Mideast peace envoy, George Mitchell. Their current priority is negotiating "terms of reference"to permit the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (TORs in negotiators' vernacular). Dismissed by some as mere "talking about talking," TORs are in fact vital elements to create the parameters for serious negotiations.For example, then-Secretary of State James Baker shuttled around the region for eight months to negotiate the TORs that made the 1991 Madrid conference possible. All that was done just to phrase a letter of invitation that all sides could accept. The result was far from trivial; it was a framework that opened the way to all the direct negotiations that followed over the ensuing two decades.

Mitchell's challenge today is to define such a framework that can bridge differences between Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas. Defying skeptics who say you can bridge a river but not an ocean, Mitchell keeps going at it, and his perseverance is paying off. While no one was watching, Netanyahu has in fact agreed to language that Mitchell can accept. With the Israeli agreement in his pocket, Mitchell is now working to bring Abbas around, according to sources close to the discussions.

The issues are not small. Abbas wants to enshrine the 1967 boundary as sacrosanct, even though that line was merely a military demarcation after the war that ended in 1949 and had never been recognized by the Palestinians or anyone else as a legal border. Reflecting the Israeli consensus, Netanyahu insists that future agreed frontiers have to meet Israel's security imperatives and reflect post-1967 demographic realities, whether or not they diverge from the former armistice line. But Netanyahu has accepted a solution based on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's formulation: "an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements."

Abbas wants Israeli territorial concessions in Jerusalem as a precondition for negotiations. Netanyahu has accepted that the Palestinians will bring their claims for Jerusalem to the table, but he is not going to make this or any other concession just to bring Abbas to negotiate. Mitchell's TORs will include implementation of all existing agreements between the parties, as well as the 2003 "Roadmap" for a two-state solution. These already define Jerusalem as a subject for discussion.

Abbas wants an absolute two-year deadline for the achievement of a permanent agreement. Netanyahu is accepting target dates for agreements, but he does not believe achievement can be guaranteed. Mitchell has the language he needs for the TORs regarding target dates.

Abbas wants language that obliges Israel to repatriate and compensate descendants of Palestinians who lost their homes in the upheavals before 1949. Netanyahu has agreed to participate in multilateral solutions for this "refugee" problem, provided these solutions do not include an obligation that will dilute Israel's own Jewish majority. Mitchell will point out that a solution to the refugee question is already incorporated in the documents to which the TORs will refer.

Abbas wants the 2002 Saudi-initiated Arab Peace Initiative to be the basis of negotiations. Netanyahu has agreed to have it listed among the references, though it is not among the signed agreements whose specific terms are binding. In any case, the Roadmap already contains a positive reference to the Saudi peace plan, and the Roadmap will be a major source document for the TORs.

The Palestinians eschew the concept of interim agreements because they fear that any temporary arrangements will become final. Israel believes that interim steps are a necessity for building confidence between the two parties. The Roadmap's Phase II already contains "the option of creating an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders and attributes of sovereignty," and the Oslo Accords are replete with interim steps. This will not be an obstacle to agreed TORs.

Mitchell has not announced the agreement with Netanyahu because delicate negotiations with Abbas still lie ahead. He did say on Nov. 25,"We have been in discussions with both Israelis and Palestinians for sometime regarding terms of reference for negotiations. We have closed many gaps between them. And while admittedly important differences remain, we've made very substantial progress."

Now, a month later, the work on the Israeli side is done. Netanyahu has put the ball in the Palestinian court.
It's likely that Netanyahu is trying to call the 'Palestinians' bluff, as Barak and Sharon tried to do before him. There are two problems with this scenario. First, when Mitchell goes back to the 'Palestinians' and they demand more than what Netanyahu has already conceded, Mitchell is likely to come back to Netanyahu and press for more. Then what happens? Does Netanyahu risk being branded as the intransigent one as he was in 1998-99?

Second, anything Abu Mazen agrees to is irrelevant, because he has no power to carry it out. Hamas controls Gaza, and American assertions notwithstanding, Hamas would control Judea and Samaria as well were it not for the fact that the IDF and the revenants are still in those areas.

Third, suppose Abu Mazen said yes, and they get to the table and Abu Mazen discovers what he already knows: That Netanayhu is likely to offer far less than what Abu Mazen turned down from Olmert and what Arafat turned down from Barak. Then what happens? Who is likely to be blamed when the 'talks' break down? What could go wrong?


At 6:10 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The Palestinians do not want peace with Israel. Having to compromise involves paying a heavy price in their domestic politics. The truth is that no amount of unilateral Israeli concessions will bring them back to the table. It didn't happen this year and its not going to happen for a long time to come.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

If Bibi is calling a bluff, can't he call it with less? i.e. a 3 month freeze?


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