Israel Report

December 2001         

Negotiations Under Fire

Dr. Aaron Lerner - December 31, 2001
Peace Now has launched a new program to promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, even as Israel remains under Arab terrorist assault. Undoubtedly, the organization will come up with some more of the warm and fuzzy joint declarations for which they are so well-known. Why are their declarations always so “fuzzy”? Because when you want to claim that peace with some wonderful potential partners, with whom you happen to be “dialoguing”, is just around the corner, the last thing you want to do is find out is those “peace partners” believe things that even Peace Now cannot stomach. Therefore, the new dialogue initiative will probably produce a declaration opposing and condemning terrorism, while carefully avoiding any definition of the term. You see, the Palestinian definition of terrorism is completely different that what Israelis think of as terrorism.

The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) released a poll conducted among Palestinian respondents regarding their attitudes towards terrorism. The pollsters mentioned some specific bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, within the 1967 Green Line, and asked if the respondents regarded those attacks as acts of terrorism. 80% to 95% of the Palestinians replied that the attack cited was not an act of terrorism, depending on the incident.

Therefore, when a Palestinian says that he opposes terrorism, it is a meaningless statement. Odds are good that, in his book, killing Israelis isn´t terrorism.

While the above poll question did not get much attention in the media, most Israeli reports on the poll focused on the finding that a majority of 60% of Arab respondents supported the comprehensive and immediate cease-fire declared by PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Yet, what does it mean when the Palestinians say they support the cease-fire? After all, the same poll found that 76% of the respondents opposed the (few) arrests being carried out by Palestinian security services – arrests that are part and parcel of the declared cease-fire.

Furthermore, last week the official Fatah website featured an editorial that declared that "the Intifada . . . should accompany any future negotiations, to enhance the position of the Palestinian negotiators and to guarantee a better performance on their part." In a word: the Fatah editorial calls for negotiations while they maintain fire, rather than cease fire.

The greatest support that the Fatah can find for their position is the behavior of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. He is currently engaged in negotiating the terms for the establishment of a Palestinian state with Abu ‘Ala and other Palestinian officials. Israel Television Channel One reported that Foreign Minister Peres told his colleagues that he is working with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on his plan the same way that he worked with the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin on the Oslo Agreement. In fact, he noted, he faced similar resistance from both prime ministers to his plans. Peres said that Sharon has already accepted most of his program, which would have the declaration of a Palestinian state completed in a matter of weeks. The new state would be comprised of the areas currently under Palestinian control (Areas A and B). The plan would leave unresolved the issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem. Peres warned that if, in the end, Sharon declined to support the plan, he would support a Labor withdrawal from the government.

The "loophole" for these activities is that Peres is not actually negotiating the various foregoing issues. Instead, he is "discussing" with the Palestinians what Israel would have to promise to agree to, in future negotiations, in order to justify the Palestinian Authority carrying out the various measures that would make it possible for Israel to renew negotiations ("bring about an end to the terror, violence and incitement in order to allow progress to be made in the diplomatic process").

The beauty of this approach is that since negotiations technically are not taking place, Prime Minister Sharon avoids the need for any discussion of Israel´s positions in the Cabinet. On the other hand, if the Peres talks reach an agreement and the Palestinians carry out various measures and the official talks resume, Prime Minister Sharon can explain that, while Israel did not sign a deal in the informal Peres-PA talks, it is now locked into them, because the PA acted in good faith based on Israeli assurances that Israel would make various proposals once the talks resumed.

An additional "bonus" to the plan is that it avoids the obligation to bring the deal to a national referendum. A national referendum is only required for territorial concessions that involve areas under Israeli sovereignty. Under the Peres plan, the Palestinians first declare a state in Areas A and B, thus avoiding a national referendum. Let´s be clear: a sovereign state in Area A and B is NOT a minor development. No matter what diplomatic restrictions Peres and Sharon may think they can impose on this small "intermediate state", Yasser Arafat, that very day, can sign defense pacts and treaties with Arab states and invite a flood of weapons, armed forces and anything else in. Practically, as well, there would be no way to stop him. Gaza is not landlocked and the almost paper thin separation between Jericho and the Jordanian border certainly invites movement.

Will National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu leave the coalition at this time? Not necessarily. If they are confident that the talks won´t go anywhere, then they may stay put, enjoying the benefits of cabinet posts. They can spend the time engaged in going back and forth with Sharon on the issue of diplomatic talks - knowing full well that Sharon insists, relying on the "loophole", that such talks are not in fact taking place.

There is a risk in assuming that the talks will not produce results and that, in any event, there will be more than enough time to act if it turns out that a preliminary deal was successfully struck between the PLO and Peres. It is also dangerous to take comfort in the assumption that Arafat will never honor the cease-fire requirements. In fact, such assumptions may be grossly overestimating both the time available and the final standards that will be applied to measure Palestinian compliance.

A look at the track record of the Sharon Administration vis-a-vis compliance requirements clearly shows that Sharon has no problem shaving them down to fit his needs. The Peres-Arafat Gaza meeting took place, for example, in the middle of a firefight, even though, just days before, Sharon insisted on absolute quiet for a period of time before such a meeting could take place. It is also foolhardy to count on Arafat refusing the deal. Right now, the Palestinians are ridiculing the proposal, but Arafat, who in the past has cited the Israeli model for inspiration, could readily argue that if the State of Israel could exist for over half a century without properly defined borders, then certainly the fledgling Palestinian state can start on the same footing - emphasizing that he has yet to concede even a millimeter of “holy Palestine” to the Zionists or the right of return.

The actual formal negotiations before the declaration of the Palestinian state under the Peres plan, after Arafat gives it his green light, could very well be limited to a photo-opportunity ceremony. This is because the Peres plan leaves open all the major issues for future negotiations, facilitating a swift declaration of statehood.

However, at least until the budget is passed in the Knesset, Prime Minister Sharon is going to do his best to zigzag enough to keep everyone in place. Too long of a delay in passing the state budget could be devastating both for the economy and for Sharon´s political standing. Undoubtedly, Sharon will somehow find a way to get the budget passed in the Knesset, perhaps as he did in the government budget vote, pretty close to the original deadline.

The question is if somehow, in the course of Sharon´s zigzagging, it would be possible to extricate from him a commitment, something with teeth, that would delay completion of the Peres talks. This is a difficult task, because Sharon also wants to maintain Labor´s support in the budget vote. It will require considerable pressure. The kind of pressure Sharon might feel if he looked over his shoulder and saw Binyamin Netanyahu attacking Peres’ diplomatic negotiations under fire to crowds of approving Likud voters.

Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director of IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis) and broadcasts a regular commentary on Arutz Sheva - Israel National Radio, on Thursday nights at 10:00 PM. A recorded version of the IMRA commentary is available on IsraelNationalNews.com.

©2001 - Arutz Sheva


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