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.
it seems, the Palestinians (as usual) must take all the
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,
"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
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.
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
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
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
the conflict between the two parties that continues to the present day.
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.