Commentary: Calling all bluffs in Middle East peace negotiations

The Miami HeraldOctober 5, 2010 

An observer making a genuine effort to understand the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations might end up pulling out his hair in frustration.

On the surface, nothing makes sense. Just a few weeks after starting, the talks look like they might collapse. The ultimate goal is an agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state, something Palestinians insist they desperately want. And yet, it is the Palestinian side that threatens to walk out. Israelis beg them to stay, as if negotiations were a big favor to Israel. It is Israel, after all, that would have to give up land, remove its citizens and risk its security to achieve peace.

Israeli behavior, however, also has something of a schizophrenic appearance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't let a day go by without reiterating his sincere commitment to peace and his determination to reach "a historic framework agreement within one year." And yet, Netanyahu has allowed a moratorium on settlement construction to expire, which will permit building to start once again on the West Bank. This, despite repeated threats by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to stop negotiations if construction resumes.

Many Palestinians think Netanyahu is lying about wanting to reach an agreement and is only putting on a show for America. At the same time, many Israelis believe Palestinians have no real intention of seeing the talks through.

They say Palestinians want an excuse to blame Israel for the talks' failure and would rather pursue alternative strategies. Those alternatives include, for the most extremist, the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state not just in the West Bank and Gaza but in all of Israel. (Official Palestinian television routinely promotes this idea.) The other possible strategy is making the international community -- including Washington -- pressure Israel to compromise without Palestinian concessions. That approach helped bring the just-expired settlement moratorium.

Clearly, both sides are under intense political pressure from within.

Much of the current crisis stems from President Obama's early blunder. As Michael Singh wrote in Foreign Policy, "It was Washington's -- not the Palestinians' -- early preoccupation with settlements that metastasized into a precondition delaying peace talks."

It is deeply frustrating to see Israeli settlers eyeing their shovels again. But it is rather curious that Palestinians waited until the 10th month of a 10-month Israeli settlement moratorium to start talking. This construction freeze, whose end they bitterly denounce, is the same one they dismissed as a Netanyahu ploy for many months. Ironically, this particular problem is much more easily solved than it might appear, assuming there really is good will on both sides.

This impasse has a reasonable and fair solution: The overwhelming majority of settlers and their construction projects are restricted to a few large blocs that both sides know will -- if and when an agreement is reached -- remain within Israel, with equal amounts of land turned over to Palestinians in compensation. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad acknowledged that, saying any construction that starts now will have no impact on the final agreement. This compromise would restrict construction to settlement blocs long ago recognized by both sides as not part of a future Palestine. It would also limit Israelis to "vertical" construction, meaning not a millimeter of new land would be used for construction.

The agreement would push the fragile talks forward and deny an early victory to those who reject a negotiated solution.

Unfortunately, Mahmoud Abbas has engaged in histrionics that increasingly box him into an inflexible position. At every turn he theatrically cries out that he is about to walk out, giving fodder to those who doubt his intentions and hardening Palestinian views. Almost all U.S. senators, 87 of them, signed a letter to Obama noting that, "Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started."

Netanyahu is confounding critics with strong signs that he is serious about peace. He asked settlers and politicians to "show restraint and responsibility." The Israeli opposition, which once rejected Netanyahu for not moving toward peace, now talks of supporting him.

Many of Netanyahu's Israeli critics are starting to believe he really wants to make history. That does not mean he will drive an easy bargain, such as ordering a full freeze in exchange for zero Palestinian concessions.

The two sides, filled with mistrust for each other, have the opportunity to call each other's bluff by continuing to negotiate. In the meantime, it's best to stop sending signals to a thoroughly confused public. The less said the better.

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