The Palestinian Authority is Running Out of Excuses
This past week, the Israeli daily Ma’ariv ran a front-page story about the Israeli-Palestinian talks saying that Israel was no longer going to seek sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and would settle for “security arrangements” instead. The story was denied by the Prime Minister’s Office, which said it was based on distorted leaks from the negotiations. The Palestinians confirmed that Israel insisted on a military presence along the Jordan River for decades in the future. But they did not say that the issue of Israeli sovereignty had even come up. Upon hearing about Israel’s security needs, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reportedly said that the presence of the Israeli military in the Jordan Valley is out of the question.
For the last two years, Israeli negotiators have insisted that permanent-status talks must begin with the subject of security, before dealing with the issue of borders and sovereignty. This approach did have a certain logic: If the Palestinians could accept the idea of extra-territorial deployments of the IDF in parts of the West Bank, then theoretically, Israel could be more flexible about its own territorial demands at the negotiating table. But before even considering whether it was going to concede sovereignty in future negotiations over territory where strategic roads, early-warning stations, or deployment areas are located, Israel would first have to know that it would still have access to those areas for its security needs.
It must be said that if Israel were willing to separate its security needs from its claims to sovereignty in the West Bank in the future, it would be undertaking certain risks. As negotiations advance, third parties might suggest that to make progress, the IDF presence in a Palestinian state should be replaced with international forces. These deployments have been in most cases highly unreliable: Take the case of UNIFIL, which has not prevented the outbreak of wars in southern Lebanon and is presently doing nothing about the flow of Hezbollah arms south of the Litani River – in violation of U.N. Resolution 1701. Another problem with placing IDF units inside a Palestinian state is that their presence would be easy to erode over the course of time. They would become a lightning rod in the Palestinian political system, which would seek their removal – perhaps with the backing of outside powers, seeking to build up their own base of support in the Arab world.
Right now all of this analysis is completely theoretical since Erekat and his negotiating team have refused to test Israel’s flexibility. In fact, when Israel’s head negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, brought an Israeli brigadier general to the talks in Jordan, Erekat would not even allow the Israeli officer into the room. If the Palestinians refuse to enter into a discussion about Israeli security arrangements and demand that not a single Israeli remains within a Palestinian state in a final settlement, then Israeli negotiators in the future will have no choice but to insist on Israel seeking sovereignty wherever it has vital security interests in the West Bank.
Another issue raised almost automatically by Palestinian negotiators whenever negotiations with Israel stall is settlements. But recent disclosures have raised serious questions about whether the settlement issue is a real Palestinian concern or merely an excuse for avoiding concrete negotiations. For example, Erekat was interviewed in Arabic on Radio al-Shams on Nov. 3, 2011. At one point, he began talking about the settlements, but he stated that according to photographic evidence he had received from Europe, the built-up area of all the Israeli settlements together in the West Bank, along with the Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, comprise 1.1 percent of the territory. He then admitted: “The exact percentage of the built-up area is insignificant.” Mahmoud Abbas also used the 1.1% figure in a conversation with Professor Bernard Avishai that was published in The New York Times on Feb. 13, 2011.
If all the built-up area of the settlements is 1.1% of the West Bank, then how much additional territory would be involved if Abbas acquiesced to natural growth of the Jewish population? Maybe, 0.0002%? Whatever the precise number, it is an infinitesimal amount of land. Was this worth stopping negotiations with Israel? Moreover, the Palestinians had negotiated with past Israeli governments that also built in the territories. After all, there was no settlement freeze in the original 1993 Oslo Accords or in the subsequent implementation agreements that were reached throughout the rest of the decade.
In a meeting held at Chatham House in London on Oct. 17, 2011, former U.S. special envoy Senator George Mitchell raised his own doubts about the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze. He remarked that he personally negotiated a 10-month halt in new housing construction in the West Bank. He then admitted that the Palestinians had complained about the settlement freeze he achieved saying that “it was worse than useless.” For nine months, he said, they refused to negotiate and then in the tenth, they suddenly stated that the freeze they had rejected needed to be renewed: “What was worse than useless a few months before became indispensable.”
The Palestinians’ refusal to engage in a discussion over Israeli security needs and their public obsession with settlements (despite the data in their possession) indicates that they simply do not want to negotiate with Israel. Other strategic decisions they have taken reinforce that conclusion: Abbas’ reconciliation agreement with Hamas and his decision to seek admission to the U.N. last September was taken to avert negotiations rather than to set the stage for advancing them. For the negotiations in Jordan to have any chance, the Palestinians will have to engage their Israeli counterparts seriously and consider new ideas rather than just recite new excuses for abandoning talks.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.