Israelis and Palestinians Moving Towards Direct Talks
Trilateral political pressures are high between Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. over whether and how to move from indirect to direct talks for an agreement on final status issues. In keeping with the view that all politics is local, each side is seeking to strengthen its position with its own domestic political constituencies. Israel has long said it wants to move to direct talks. The U.S. is pressuring the Palestinians to agree. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas insists he first needs assurances concerning borders and security. It now seems likely that there will be an agreement to move to direct talks this month. An agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to start direct talks will make it hard politically for Prime Minister Netanyahu not to extend the ban on new construction permits in West Bank settlements that expires September 26.
Abbas continues to insist that he must have firm assurances from Israel or the United States that an agreement will be based on the 1967 borders. He fears that indefinite talks without results could allow Israel, with its dominant economic, military and political strength, to continue years of inroads into the Palestinian territories and soon preclude the goal of a Palestinian state. He is also under strong domestic Palestinian political pressure to show he can deliver solid political achievements after years of negotiation and cooperation with Israel and the United States.
The Arab league is also trying to play a supportive role for Abbas. At a recent meeting in Cairo, they gave him a mandate to either continue indirect talks or to move to direct talks with the Israelis.
The Obama Administration of course is not able to make written guarantees on borders, since borders along with other final status issues, are to be negotiated between the two parties. It would be premature for the U.S. to make “bridging proposals” until talks have proceeded much further than they have (and until after the U.S. elections in November). The U.S. has said, however, it believes an agreement on borders should be based on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps. An agreement by the Palestinians soon, under U.S. pressure, to enter into direct talks without preconditions, as demanded by the Israelis, would probably be helpful to the Administration in November elections.
In his meeting with Obama July 6, Prime Netanyahu said he was willing to take political risks for peace, although so far no proposal from Israel on borders and security has been forthcoming. Netanyahu must look to his conservative political constituencies in gauging the speed and terms upon which he negotiates. However, if he can show a political “win” by bringing Palestinians to direct talks without agreeing overtly to preconditions on borders, he might be in a better position in fact to make a proposal on borders. In any case should direct talks be underway in September, he could point to strong international political pressure to continue to show restraint on new construction permits in the West Bank and East Jerusalem past September 26.
There are reports that there are to be trilateral talks soon between U.S., Palestinian and Israeli deputy negotiators to work out details of the political choreography of starting direct talks
Meanwhile, perils to negotiations seem to follow each other rapidly. The latest danger comes from escalating tensions on Israel’s border with Lebanon. One source of tension may be new types of military rockets in southern Lebanon under the control of Hezbollah that threaten to change the military balance. There is also tension between Hezbollah and the Government of Lebanon that might escalate into violence which could involve Israel. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer has recently written that these tensions may lead to a third Lebanon war with Israel.
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