Direct Talks, a Tragic Road to Nowhere

No two-way situation can be fruitful if one party has everything to gain while the other party gains almost zero. If nothing else, it is unsustainable because the unfortunate side will eventually grow frustrated enough to call it quits. It would seem that the Palestinians should know this by now after so many years of failed negotiations. However, this week, President Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO’s Executive Committee, gave their approval to enter direct talks with Israel on September 2.

The question of the hour is why? The most obvious reason is pressure. President Abbas’ West Bank government has been under excruciating US pressure for months to transition from proximity talks and enter direct talks with Israel. At one point even Abbas admitted that, "Never in my life have I experienced such pressure." And while the United States has repeatedly denied it, media reports have speculated more than once that the US would "punish" the Palestinians by holding back funds for not agreeing to direct talks.

Besides, ever since the doomed Oslo Accords were signed back in 1993, the Palestinian leadership (barring Hamas in Gaza) has found itself bound hand and foot to this semblance of government, which, according to international terms, is required to abide by its standards of diplomacy. This means that time and again, the Palestinians have found themselves going back and forth between negotiating sessions that have all, more or less, reaped zero results.

If anything, this time may be worse. Not only are the Palestinians still split politically and geographically between the West Bank and Gaza (not to mention east Jerusalem) but their so-called negotiating partner, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly a peacemaker. For months he has insisted that Israel would not enter direct negotiations with preconditions imposed by the Palestinians. Still, he did not hesitate to enforce his own, which by the way were more or less embraced by the US and the Quartet Committee, the "mediating parties." If any Palestinian state were to come into being, Netanyahu said, it would be demilitarized; the Israeli army would maintain a presence along the Jordan Valley’s eastern border of the aforementioned Palestinian state; Jerusalem would remain united under Israeli rule (despite international objections to Israel’s unilateral annexation of the eastern sector of the city in 1967); the Palestinians would have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; and of course, any agreement is contingent upon Israel’s security considerations, which as we all know, can mean anything.

The Palestinians’ "preconditions" Netanyahu so vehemently rejected were basically what the international community was already calling for –” that is, a continued freeze in settlement activity and a solution based on the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. Back in March, President Abbas was encouraged by a statement released by the Quartet committee that called for these things. That was to change, however, as the pressure mounted on Abbas to accept a return to direct talks without these demands. Both statements by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the subsequent Quartet statement on August 21 conveniently left out any mention of the settlement freeze, which is scheduled to end on September 26. No doubt, this had to do with Netanyahu’s objection to any extension of the freeze, which he says would damage his standing with his own people and coalition government. As for using the 1967 borders as perimeters for any negotiated solution, Netanyahu also will not have it, even though the Quartet and the United Nations before them have designated these borders as the delineating line for occupied Palestinian territory.

All said and done, Netanyahu has everything to gain from this. He is eager to say he wants peace, an end to the conflict and a solution with his Palestinian neighbors without offering any real concessions. He certainly responded to the call quickly enough, unlike Abbas who voiced his reservations from the start, saying continued settlement construction would derail any future talks. Netanyahu knows he has nothing to lose. His conditions have already prejudiced the outcome of any talks and have closed the door to a number of key issues that are crucial to the Palestinians. To the outside, however, he is a willing partner who has nonetheless, knowingly and cunningly set the entire scenario up for failure. A fringe benefit to all of this is making the Palestinians look bad on the side. Besides, anyone who looks closely enough can see that the Israeli premier has put forth nothing new. His predecessors have said it all before so he knows that these old/new Israeli proposals will never be acceptable to the Palestinians and will therefore lead to the ultimate breakdown of talks. This is not to mention the almost guaranteed continuation of settlement expansion in the West Bank and east Jerusalem (which was never completely frozen in the first place) – just one more nail in the negotiations’ coffin.

But as long as the US has Israel’s back, there is not much the Palestinians can hope for. If somehow the leadership finds the courage to "just say no" and take the consequences of its decision, perhaps there can be a shift in the way the conflict is approached. However, this does not seem to be the situation, at least right now. The Palestinians will go to Washington and they will sit for these direct talks knowing all too well that it is a tragic road to nowhere. While they are sitting at the table, Israel’s occupying forces on the ground will continue to expand the illegal colonies on Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian homes and complete the separation wall in and around the West Bank. If such oppression continues unabated, we all know that no amount of talks could ever bring forth positive results.