Thanks in part to a continuing media frenzy over whether Israel is going to attack Iran, the usual preoccupation of the Middle East — the “peace process” — has been all but forgotten. Cynics may argue that that is exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been aiming for: Whatever his intentions on Iran, he has managed to change the subject, especially in his conversation with the Obama administration, from settlements and Palestinian statehood to centrifuges and bunker-busters.
But Israeli officials are telling a different story. Netanyahu, they contend, made a serious run at negotiating terms for statehood with the Palestinians last month — only to run into the same brick wall encountered by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, in 2008. Once again, the Israelis claim, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas proved unwilling to engage on a serious proposal.
This Israeli account first surfaced earlier this week following a briefing given by senior officials in Jerusalem to Israeli journalists. Israeli officials confirmed the accuracy of a subsequent report in the newspaper Haaretz by reporter Barak Ravid. Haaretz is a left-leaning paper often at odds with Netanyahu’s government. But Ravid concluded that the right-wing prime minister’s proposal was comparable to that offered by his domestic rival, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, during the negotiations sponsored by the Bush administration in 2007-8
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met five times in January in Amman, Jordan. That the discussions took place at all was something of a breakthrough; for most of the last three years, Abbas has taken the position that there can be no peace negotiations unless Israel first freezes all Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jordan’s King Abdullah rightfully got credit for persuading Abbas to loosen his stance and dispatch chief negotiator Saeb Erekat for what were characterized as preliminary discussions.
By the Israeli account, both sides presented substantive proposals at the meetings. Erekat tabled Palestinian positions on the borders and security of a future Palestinian state — the first topics on a proposed agenda drawn up by the “Quartet” of would-be Mideast peace brokers, composed of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. By the Israeli account, the terms were similar to those set out in the earlier negotiations. The Palestinians offered to allow Israel to annex 1.9 percent of the West Bank in exchange for land elsewhere, and proposed that an international force guarantee security along the border between the Palestinian state and Jordan.
Netanyahu’s response was broader and less detailed, but still substantive. His negotiator, Isaac Molho, presented a 21-point document at the first meeting on January 3 on issues Israel wished to discuss, ranging from security and borders to alleged incitement of violence in the Palestinian media. At the fifth and last meeting on January 25th, Molho set out Netanyahu’s proposal on borders for a Palestinian state. It called for annexation of the large blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and an Israeli military presence in the Jordan valley for an unspecified period of time.
This plan was significant in part because it did not suggest Israeli annexation of the Jordan valley, which Netanyahu’s Likud party has demanded in the past. Molho did not say how much of the West Bank Israel would give up — and he asked Erekat whether the Palestinians would be prepared to allow some Jewish settlements to remain inside a Palestinian state.
But Ravid concluded: “Though Netanyahu does not admit it, the meaning behind the principles Molho presented is a withdrawal that will cause Israel to give up 90 percent” of the territory.
Israeli officials insist that the prime minister was serious about trying to negotiate a deal, and wanted to work quickly. While the talks went on, Israeli officials held separate discussions with Quartet broker Tony Blair about confidence-building concessions to Abbas, including a prisoner release, the expansion of Palestinian police authority in the West Bank and economic projects.
But Abbas chose not to engage. By the Israeli account, Erekat asked a series of questions at the final meeting, including whether Israel accepted the 1967 border lines of the West Bank as a starting point for land swaps and what percentage of the territory it proposed to annex. Molho promised to return with answers at the next meeting.
But there were no more meetings. The following day the Palestinians, claiming that a Quartet deadline had expired, said they would not return to the talks unless Israel adopted a settlement freeze and agreed to the 1967 border principle. Soon afterward Abbas met with Khaled Meshal, the leader of the Hamas movement, to renew a contrary initiative — a Palestinian unity government, which Israel says it will not talk to.
Could real progress have been made in negotiations had Abbas agreed to take up the Netanyahu proposal? Probably not. Given the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and President Obama’s preoccupation with his reelection, this is not a propitious moment for a diplomatic breakthrough.Yet Abbas passed up what could have been an opportunity to press Netanyahu for his bottom lines on the terms for statehood — and force a debate in Israel. Not for the first time, the Palestinian leader punted.