Israeli government officials are experts at finding excuses to avoid negotiating with Palestinians. Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Ya'alon, pulled out an old one the other day: "There is no partner on the Palestinian side, we just give, and we get nothing."
Others have now come up with a new one: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in his recent speech, “Let us begin peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions”; but the Palestinians, backed by the Obama administration, are demanding a halt to settlement expansion as a precondition to talks.
Either way, it seems, the Palestinians (as usual) must take all the blame.
But now, in a rare moment of unguarded honesty, Israel’s second ranking leader, Ehud Barak -- Defense Minister, former Prime Minister, former head of the military -- has let the truth slip out. According to Israel’s premier newspaper, Ha’aretz, Barak told reporters: “In negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel is the ‘only one that can give, the Palestinians are the underdog and the talks are asymmetrical.’ But in regional talks, Barak said, it becomes clear that Israel is the isolated party.”
Israel has to look like the isolated underdog to keep up the myth that it is the innocent, virtuous, aggrieved party. That has always been a fundamental principle of Israeli strategy: Someone else must take all the blame for the conflict that keeps Israelis as well as their neighbors insecure. The only difference now is that a top Israeli leader has admitted it in public.
Barak knows perfectly well that the other excuses for avoiding direct negotiations with the Palestinians are bogus.
Take the “no partner” ploy. For many years the Israelis had a universally-accepted Palestinian partner, Yasser Arafat. Arafat could not embrace Barak’s so-called “generous offer” at Camp David in 2000 because it was actually an offer to create a state of Palestine that was bound to fail. The New York Times recently called it, quite rightly, an “archipelago” of small clumps of land separated by Israeli settlements, security roads, and check points. The Israelis continue to offer only variants on the same impossible plan.
When Arafat turned down the offer, knowing that his people would never tolerate it, the Israelis launched a calculated plan to make him “irrelevant” and then proclaim that they had “no partner for peace.” Unfortunately, the plan worked all too well.
After Arafat’s death and the electoral victory of Hamas, the Israelis’ great fear was that the two major Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, would create a unified government, whose head would obviously be a partner for peace. So they torpedoed every effort in that direction, exacerbating (with U.S. help) the conflict between the two parties that continues to the present day.
Palestinian unity efforts continue, too. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has just ordered the release of all Hamas prisoners held by his security forces, in a goodwill gesture aimed at speeding the formation of a single Palestinian government. We can expect some kind of high-profile Israeli violence to break up that effort any day now, to make sure there is “no partner for peace.”
The other Israeli argument against negotiations -- the claim of Palestinian preconditions -- is equally bogus. It was Netanyahu who recited, in his major address, a litany of conditions the Palestinians would have to accept in any settlement, many of them so painful that he can be quite sure they’re impossible for his foe to swallow: no capital in Jerusalem, no right of return (not even a symbolic one), no withdrawal from or even freeze on settlements, and a state at some vague future date with no army, no control of their air space, no right to sign treaties unless Israel approves them.
As Barak rightly pointed out, Israel is in a position to demand such preconditions because it has all the power. It is “the only one that can give,” and that leaves it in a position to dictate the outcome of negotiations from the beginning. Against all that, the Palestinian negotiators have to come up with some way to shift the power balance a tiny bit in their direction. Otherwise, they will sit down at the negotiating table powerless. And then, why should they bother to talk at all?
So against all of Israel’s preconditions they’ve come up with this one, relatively minor precondition of their own: freezing expansion of the settlements immediately, which means only that Israel should begin complying with international law. Full compliance with Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention would mean removing all the quarter-million or so Jewish settlers from the occupied territories, as Tony Judt recently pointed out. However, as Judt noted, Netanyahu has made it painfully clear that the settlements will stay: “His government has no intention of recognizing international law or opinion with respect to Israel’s land-grab in “Judea and Samaria.”
That makes it all the more important for the Israelis to find some way to avoid direct talks with the Palestinians while keeping up their image as the innocent underdogs. Hence, as Barak said quite plainly, they will resist two-way talks with the Palestinians and demand a regional peace conference -- which can be dragged on for years, with the settlement issue lost amid the vast complexities of regional matters, while the settlements themselves continue to grow quite unnaturally. Thank you, Mr. Defense Minister, for that rare moment of honesty.