There actually may be a meeting taking place soon between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Appearing Thursday on Channel 2’s Uvda program with Ilana Dayan, President Abbas made a direct appeal to renew the peace process and expressed his willingness to meet with Netanyahu at any time. Abbas stated, “He is my partner.” Netanyahu responded that he would clear his schedule to hold the meeting with Abbas.
Talking is definitely better than not talking. Almost no conflict has ever been ended by not talking. But Israelis and Palestinians spent more than 20 years talking, and the conflict still goes on. Talking in this part of the world is nothing new, or even newsworthy. The question is, can something positive come out of renewed talks between these two leaders? The assessment is not very optimistic, but it is worth trying once more, even with very low expectations.
There certainly should be enough knowledge and experience on both sides to take some key lessons from the past in order to not repeat the same mistakes. One of the lessons is to keep expectations low. There is absolutely no trust between these two leaders, or between the two peoples for that matter. In fact there is a trust deficit – meaning that each side expects from the outset that the other side has no good intentions and will not implement anything that is agreed to. So if there is anything agreed to there must be a trusted third party who will monitor the implementation by both sides and assist in the implementation process if necessary. I call this the third-party implementation assistance mechanism.
I assume that in their first meeting Netanyahu will demand Abbas take concrete steps against incitement in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas emphasized in his interview with Dayan how much effort he and his security forces were taking against terrorism, and his clear position against all Palestinian violence against Israelis. I also assume Abbas will demand a whole list of items, including concluding the fourth round of prisoner releases that was associated with the Kerry process. He will also demand a full settlement freeze and probably – an issue already talked about between the parties – a return to full Palestinian security control in area “A” – the Palestinian cities.
This issue has already been discussed between Israeli and Palestinian security officials and, as reported in the news, Israel proposed a trial in Ramallah and Jericho before expanding this arrangement. The Palestinians demanded a return to the pre-second intifada arrangement where Israeli forces didn’t enter any parts of area “A.” Since then, Israeli security forces have free access and go where they want, when they want, and arrest whoever they want.
The idea here is that the Palestinians would take action on Israeli intelligence and requests to arrest suspected terrorists. The Palestinians would carry out the arrests and interrogations instead of Israeli forces. Israel could always go in and arrest people if the Palestinian security fail to act.
The basic problem is the lack of trust between the sides.
The Palestinians don’t believe the Israeli intel and believe that many Palestinians are arrested by Israel without any real evidence against them. They speak of Palestinians who under physical pressure in Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) interrogations give up names of people who are not involved in terrorism to end the interrogation.
Israel points out that since the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 not one Palestinian has been convicted of terrorism in a Palestinian court of law. Obviously, if there is any agreement between Netanyahu and Abbas in this direction, there are many pitfalls that could bring it crashing down very quickly.
One possible way of mitigating the risks and assisting the implementation of even small agreements is by using the good offices of the US Security Coordinator. The US secretary of state established the Office of the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC) in 2005 to meet US commitments under the Middle East Road Map for Peace. The USSC is a joint, international and interagency team, with the core of the organization made up of Department of Defense service members assigned to the State Department. Lieutenant General Frederick S. Rudesheim leads the USSC and reports directly to the secretary of state.
I am not saying that the US should get back into the room – I am definitely against the US playing the role of mediator. I think Netanyahu and Abbas need to be in the room alone, with no third-party mediator. They should also probably leave their advisers and assistants out of the room as well. It is essential that they face each other, eye-to-eye, and begin to figure out how they can develop a personal relationship that will enable a real, direct confrontation with the inescapable reality that Israel and Palestine must genuinely recognize each other’s national and political rights. They must begin to come to terms with the issues that remain in conflict and continue to cost both sides dearly. There must be a fundamental change in the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, because both peoples are here to stay and neither has a choice – especially because they both want to fulfil their dream for a territorial expression of their own national identity on this land.
They need to meet. They need to keep expectations low. They need to make small agreements that they can implement. They need assistance to bridge the trust deficit. They need to commit to continue to talk, despite the difficulties. They should schedule their second meeting during the first one. They need to focus on building a relationship between themselves. They need to limit exposure of the content of the meetings to the media. They need to each look at themselves in the mirror and pledge that they will not allow this process to derail and to lead to a surge in violence. They need to know and to make sure that the results of their talking will have a direct and speedy positive effect on the lives of their peoples. They need to be serious about this and not use it only as a photo-op. These two men, like or it not, are the leaders today. They bear direct responsibility. This is a moment of opportunity. Let’s hope they don’t blow it.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.