Let the talks begin…

As the Roman emperors used,to say before their gladiators fought it out in the Coliseum: “Let the games begin”…

Today, indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks are now underway.

Yesterday (Saturday), the two most important Palestinian decision-making bodies — the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee + the Fatah Central Committee — rubber-stamped the decision that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) had already made (though he coyly suggested he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it on his own) to re-agree to start American-led talks to bring Israeli and Palestinian neogtiators back to the table for the first time since the end of 2008 (when then Israeli-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had announced his resignation as he faced indictment on charges related to bribery and/or other possible malfeasance and then, really, just after Israel launched its unprecedented military operation, Cast Lead, in Gaza on 27 December 2008).

Abu Mazen got the Arab League Foreign Ministers to stamp and sign the decision on 1 May.

Despite some suspense in Israel about this, it was all a foregone conclusion.

There was no way this was not going to happen, despite completely-predictable objections from Hamas, and even predictions in the Palestinian media that opposition from the much smaller “left-wing” Palestinian “factions” such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and others in the PLO.

There were also some dissident voices from the Fatah ranks as well.

There is also plenty of scorn and derision on the Palestinian “street” — combined with a desperate wish that there would, nonetheless, soon be a magical solution that would somehow remove all the current tension, stress, difficulties and danger.

The Oslo process that Palestinians believed would lead to an independent Palestinian State began in September 1993.

On Saturday, both PLO Executive Secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo and Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat announced that the new talks were about to begin. Abed Rabbo predicted that Mitchell would be “shuttling” between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

On Sunday, Erekat said it again, as Haaretz reported ” ‘I can officially declare today that the proximity talks have begun’, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said, after a meeting between U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas…”

Actually, only four days ago, Haaretz reported at the time, “Senior officials in Jerusalem on Tuesday said they were dissatisfied that the Palestinians had not yet announced their agreement to begin proximity talks … A senior official in Jerusalem said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team had made all necessary preparations to jump-start the peace process, and they are ready to open the proximity talks at a meeting scheduled for today with special U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell. ‘We hope we will be able to start the proximity talks soon, and that the Palestinians will not use delay and avoidance tactics’, the government source said. ‘Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned for a whole year against wasting time, and has repeatedly called on the Palestinian Authority leadership to renew the peace process without delay’, the official said”. This article was posted here.

Today, according to Haaretz. “Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Saturday after a meeting in Ramallah between Abbas and Mitchell that the discussions would be held over the four months allotted to address final-status issues such as borders and security arrangements. “The issues of Jerusalem and the settlements are part of the 1967 borders, so they will be discussed and negotiated,” Erekat said. Erekat said that during their meeting, Abbas gave Mitchell a letter outlining the Palestinian Authority’s position on proximity talks and the issues it wants to discuss. Abbas would head the Palestinian negotiating team himself, Erekat said, adding that the Palestinians view the talks as aimed at ‘The end of the occupation and creation of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel along the 1967 borders’. The talks appear to represent a U.S.-brokered compromise that meets both the Palestinian demand to address the issue of borders, and Israel’s condition to discuss security arrangements. Both Palestinian and Israeli negotiators recognize that the two issues are intimately linked, and that any proposal or statement on either matter is likely to significantly influence any resolution on the other”. This is posted here.

This Haaretz article, co-authored by Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury, added that “Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that the U.S. administration expects Israel to do its part in facilitating U.S. efforts to advance the stalled peace process. ‘An essential condition for improving relations with the U.S. is taking steps that prove Israel is seriously committed to making decisions on the Palestinian issue once they reach the negotiating table’, Barak said at a conference at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. ‘That will be judged by deeds, not by how much we smile at the White House. A comprehensive peace plan is needed, one that Israel stands behind. I’m not sure that that is possible with the current government’, Barak said”.

This suggests that Barak is either taking seriously what he has reportedly been asked by U.S. Administration officials to do — either (1, which is the less likely option) leave the current coalition government that Prime Minister Netanyahu put together after elections in February 2009, which is the largest and most right-wing in Israel”s history, or (2) work actively to support the inclusion of Kadima and perhaps other “left-wing” (meaning more or less against continuing the occupation) parties, possibly even some Israeli-Arab/Palestinian parties, to compensate for the loss of some of the religious-nationalist parties if serious decisions are to be made in the negotiations.

Several commentators in the Israeli press write regularly, however, that Netanyahu will continue to avoid taking any hard decisions. If this is to be the case, it would mean no bold decisions, no “peace of the brave”, and a continuation of the status quo with complete Israeli dominance over the occupied West Bank and (more often by remote control) in Gaza.

Palestinians are still suggesting a four-month “window” for these talks — with the meter running as of today.

[Other Palestinian media sources are suggesting that Mitchell will be the one to officially announce the start of these talks, within the next 48 hours.]

Correction: Later, Haaretz reported, “The U.S. State Department announced on Sunday that the first round of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been completed, saying that both Israel and the Palestinians had taken steps to create an atmosphere conducive to successful talks.  State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a statement that U.S. special envoy George Mitchell has left the Middle East after concluding talks characterized as ‘serious and wide-ranging’.  Crowley said Israel had pledged not to build in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of East Jerusalem for two years and that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed that he would work against incitement of any sort.  Mitchell told the parties that progress is important so they can move to direct negotiations resulting in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The State Department statement also said that both Israel and the Palestinians would be held ‘accountable’ for actions that ‘undermine trust’ during the course of the proximity talks.  Mitchell will return to the region next week to continue the talks.  Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the American announcement later Sunday, confirming that the housing project intended for the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood would not be built in the coming two years. The sources added that even when the Ramat Shlomo crisis first erupted, when the housing project was announced just as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, Israel told the U.S. administration that the project was only in very initial stages and construction would not begin for at least two years.  ‘Prime Minister Netanyahu even announced this publicly after Biden’s visit’, the sources said.  ‘Furthermore, the prime minister emphasized from the beginning that the planning and construction in Jerusalem will continue as always, just as it was during every one of Israel’s last 43 administrations, and there has never been any Israeli pledge on this matter’.  The sources also said that the Israel promised the U.S. administration to discuss all the core issues during the course of the proximity talks, and to take confidence building steps as gestures toward the Palestinians. On the other hand, sources said, the U.S. has promised Israel that the core issues, especially the most sensitive ones like the fate of Jerusalem, would be resolved only after proximity talks progress to direct talks…”  This can be read in full here.

At his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem today, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said:” One, these talks are developing and are taking place without preconditions, as we requested and as we insisted upon during the past year. The second thing is that the proximity talks must quickly lead to direct talks. Peace cannot be made from a distance or by remote control, especially given that we and the Palestinians are neighbors. Over time, it is inconceivable that we will make decisions and agreements on critical issues such as security and our national interests, and theirs as well, without sitting together in the same room. Therefore, as soon as possible, the proximity talks will need to lead to direct talks in which we will continue the effort to reach the peace and security that will enable us to live alongside the Palestinians for generations”.

The Economist reported in late April (with thanks to Angry Arab) that “The Palestinian leader also acknowledged for the first time in public [in a rare interview on Israeli television on April 26th, the Economist said] that he had concluded all the security aspects of a peace deal in private talks with Israel’s previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, just before he left office. The pair had agreed, among other things, that a NATO force under American command would monitor and secure the eastern borders of a Palestinian state [i.e., the Jordan Valley border with Jordan] to prevent the infiltration of Palestinian fighters opposed to a deal. He also said he would accept land swaps with Israel along the 1967 border. Asked to confirm that two of the largest Jewish settlement blocks—Maale Adumim, due east of Jerusalem, and Ariel, which pokes a long finger into the West Bank farther north—would not be annexed to the Jewish state in such swaps, Mr Abbas declined to be drawn on geographical details. He said he had exchanged maps with Mr Olmert, though without reaching a precise agreement on a new border”. [Other Palestinian sources close to the negotiations insist that while maps were shown, they were not “exchanged”…] This Economist article is posted here.

Whose idea was it, anyway, that the talks would be (or had to be) “indirect”? (Or “proximity”?)

The Americans?

Haaretz, in the same article mentioned just above, also reported that “The Obama administration has informed Abbas that it will not unveil mediation proposals or a Middle East peace plan before the start of direct, substantive talks between the two sides on final-status issues, a high-level Israeli official said”.

If true, this would be one more concession to the Israeli side, which does not want anything imposed other than what it does…

Israeli journalists write that the indirect or proximity format is “to help Abbas climb down from his tree” …

Abu Mazen — and many other Palestinian officials — said that they would not reenter talks with Israel unless and until settlement building was “frozen” in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. (Abu Mazen did state that the Israeli government did not have to say this explicitly or publicly, they just had to stop doing it…)

Somehow, Palestinian officials are still arguing that they mean it. Haaretz reported earlier that “On Friday, Abbas told Mitchell during a Ramallah meeting that Israel must make the choice between peace and settlements. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat added that the Palestinians wanted to give the
negotiations a chance, but that success was mainly up to Israel, whose actions could doom the peace process. ‘If the price that we will pay for saying yes to Mitchell will be more settlements and more dictations, that’s a big question mark about the possibility of continuing’, Erekat said. ‘Now the Israeli government has a choice, either peace or settlements, and it can’t have both’.” This Haaretz article can be read in full here.

These “indirect” or “proximity” talks were supposed to have started in March, but the arrangement fell apart when there was suddenly a series of announcements concerning Israeli settlement-building during the visit of U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, which American officials described as a huge insult.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said during a recent visit to the U.S. that there would be a temporary slowdown but no stop in settlement activities in Jerusalem, where a major push has been underway for months. And Israel’s current Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas has also avoided any commitment to any kind of settlement freeze.

Both Israel and the Palestinians are now supposed to be committed to avoiding “provocations” — which means Israeli settlement activities (at least, large-scale) + Palestinian “incitement” (which does exist, though not at the Presidential level in the Palestinian Authority — and which is hardly one-sided).

These talks will probably soon become direct — barring any major catastrophes.

UPDATE: Haaretz has just updated its story here to report that “Erekat told Voice of Palestine radio in response: ‘If he [Netanyahu] announces a complete halt to settlement building, there will be direct talks’.” [How is he going to climb down from that?]

UPDATE TWO: Haaretz is now saying that “Senior U.S. officials have told their Palestinian counterparts that Washington believes direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians must begin as soon as possible” …

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