The Devil is in the details
One of the most widespread misconceptions about Israeli-Palestinian talks is that “everyone knows what a deal looks like;” all that is needed is for the parties to finally sit down and sign it. As The New York Times put it in an editorial last month, “the issue is less how peace would look than whether leaders … have the political courage to make decisions and move forward. The broad outlines of a deal … have been apparent since President Clinton’s 2000 push.” Haaretz similarly declared, in a front-page headline last Thursday, that “dramatic agreements on core issues” were achieved at the Taba talks in 2001.
The assumption behind such assessments is that the details are unimportant and easily resolved. Yet in this case, it turns out that the details are the core issues – and the disputes over these “details” reveal that in fact, nothing has been agreed at all.
The Haaretz report, for instance, quoted several “dramatic” points of agreement from a summary of the Taba talks prepared by negotiator Gilad Sher after they collapsed. The parties agreed to “adjustments” of the 1967 border “to meet Israel’s demographic needs,” a division of Jerusalem to make it the capital of both states, and a “balanced solution” for the refugees, with the Palestinians “prepared to show sensitivity” on this issue. That indeed looks likes progress – until you examine the details of the Sher document.
It turns out that while the Palestinians agreed to territorial exchanges in principle, they refused to concede any specific territory that Israel wanted. They objected to Israel keeping the settlement blocs – one of Israel’s main reasons for wanting territorial exchanges – and generally insisted that any swaps total no more than 2.3 percent of the West Bank, well short of the 6 to 8 percent needed for the blocs. They refused to let Israel keep Latrun, which dominates the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway – a crucial issue for Israel, since gunfire from Latrun can and, pre-1967, often did shut down the entire highway. And they insisted that the “safe passage” connecting Gaza and the West Bank be under Palestinian sovereignty, thereby effectively severing Israel in two (Israel proposed Israeli sovereignty but Palestinian control). In short, there was no agreement on any actual border-related issue; there was merely a lofty declaration of principles.
THE SAME was true of Jerusalem: There was a lofty declaration about dividing the city, but no agreement on how to do so. Israel wanted territorial contiguity among the city’s Jewish neighborhoods, which would turn Palestinian neighborhoods into enclaves; the Palestinians wanted Palestinian territorial contiguity and Jewish enclaves. Nor was agreement reached on how to secure this patchwork nightmare. In the Old City, both sides claimed the Armenian Quarter (though they agreed on the other quarters). Finally, there was no agreement on the Temple Mount: Israel wanted either “ambiguous” or shared sovereignty and some form of joint administration; the Palestinians insisted that the mount be entirely theirs, with Israel having no rights whatsoever in Judaism’s holiest site.
As for the refugees, it turns out that Palestinian “sensitivity” did not include forfeiting “the right of return,” a clear Israeli red line; they demanded recognition of the “right” of all refugees and their descendants to relocate to Israel. Nor did their “sensitivity” encompass the question of responsibility: While Israel agreed to accept partial responsibility for the refugee problem, the Palestinians insisted that it accept sole responsibility – a clear distortion of the historical facts, since there would have been no refugee crisis had five Arab armies, backed by Palestinian irregulars, not attacked the nascent state of Israel in 1948. In short, there was no agreement at all on this issue.
Nor was there any agreement on perhaps the most essential issue of all: Palestinian recognition of the Jewish people’s right to a state in this land, parallel to Israel’s recognition of the Palestinians’ right to statehood. The Palestinians adamantly refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish nation-state. This refusal is not mere rhetoric; it implies that instead of living in peace with the Jewish state, the Palestinians intend to continue seeking its eradication via other means: inciting and financing activity against Israel’s Jewish identity by Israeli Arabs, delegitimizing it in international forums, and so forth.
NEEDLESS TO say, these Palestinian positions have changed not one iota since 2001. Prior to last month’s Annapolis conference, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated that land swaps must not exceed 2.3 percent of the West Bank. He also reiterated the Palestinians’ refusal to acknowledge any Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. And even at Annapolis itself – that alleged dawn of a bright new era of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation – he did not make do with general statements about solving the refugee problem; he insisted in his speech that any solution be based on UN Resolution 194, which Palestinians interpret as recognizing the “right of return.”
As for the Jewish state issue, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made Abbas’s position crystal clear at a Hadash Party convention on December 7. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] told me that the moment Israel demands that we recognize two states for two peoples, I should get up and leave the talks,” he said. “And that is what I did.”
In short, not only is there no agreement on what a deal looks like, there is no agreement even on the fundamental premise that must underlie any deal – namely, the establishment of two states for two peoples.
Given all this, an uninformed observer might be puzzled by the persistence of the myth that “everyone knows what a deal looks like.” Yet anyone familiar with the conflict knows that on this issue, the wish is all too often father to the thought: Because the international community and the Israeli Left both want so desperately to believe that a deal is achievable, they prefer to overlook all evidence to the contrary.
Unfortunately, however, this is a recipe for ensuring that the conflict never ends – because until these real problems are resolved, there will be no deal. And resolving any problem starts with recognizing its existence.