Israel and Palestinians Stay on Collision Course

By James Gundun – Washington D.C.

Prospects of the White House learning from its first, aborted round of indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians quickly dropped in the days following a second launch.

One attempt at proxy negotiations hadn’t just failed, but crashed spectacularly across the international community and media. A brief, exaggerated scuffle between America and Israel ensued, gleefully observed by the Palestinians regardless of its authenticity. Justifiable Schadenfreude recycled into further Israeli resentment.

Thus the situation rested on unstable ground going into round two.

That the parties returned to indirect negotiations before long isn’t surprising; all harbored doubts of the first round and expected another to follow. Better to appear interested in the peace process regardless of the level of disagreement. No side can afford to look completely inanimate. Who moves least is singled out – be it Israel, the Palestinians, America, major Arab states, or the UN – though not always to the same degree.

More surprising, yet easily comprehensible in light of previous delusions, was America and Israel’s automatic push for direct negotiations. On May 10th, days after a second attempt at indirect talks “officially” began, President Barack Obama urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "to move from proximity talks to direct negotiations as soon as possible in order to reach an agreement on permanent status issues."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wasted no time in back-handing indirect negotiations: "Israel’s position was, and still is, that the talks should be managed with no pre-conditions, and that they should lead to direct negotiations soon."

He kept up the barrage too, saying the other day, “We want to move as speedily as possible to direct talks because the kind of problem that we have with the Palestinians can be resolved in peace and can be arranged only if we sit down together.”

Netanyahu was due in Washington on Tuesday to meet privately with Obama and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, before canceling trip due to international condemnation of Israel’s boarding of the “Freedom Flotilla” headed for Gaza. This is especially unfortunate because they could have worked on their patience together.

Probably not.

Now, everyone who still believes in a two-state solution wants final-status negotiations to begin as soon as possible. Obama and Netanyahu are correct, only through direct talks can a final agreement be forged. They’re speaking literally though and would skip to direct negotiations right now if they could. But Israel and America, in the Palestinians’ eyes, want to hold direct talks on unfavorable ground.

It’s hard to argue otherwise when the status quo remains in Israel’s favor, leaving little motivation to negotiate during proxy talks. If direct negotiations stall or take longer than expected, a realistic possibility, then the Palestinians lose out while Israel continues claiming land and strangling Gaza.

Of course Israel (and thus America) also wants direct negotiations because the status quo won’t always remain in its possession. Yet instead of a vehicle to organize an unstable peace process and create the environment for direct negotiations to succeed, indirect negotiations are being treated as an inconvenience. Such a negotiating position – direct talks without a total settlement freeze – won’t bring the Palestinians to the table.

Forget the rush to direct talks. Israel and the Palestinians may not be indirectly negotiating yet.

US envoy George Mitchell has left two meetings without any result, besides propaganda between Israel and the Palestinians. Both sides have been accused of stating their demands more than what’s being negotiated, revealed after each side claimed to discuss different issues. Even more, at least some PLO representative believe the proxy talks “have not started officially,"

Apparently we’re still watching pre-rounds of the preliminary. A third round is scheduled for June 2nd – if Abbas doesn’t wave it off in light of the flotilla attack.

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, PLO representative Maen Rashid Areikat informs The Cable that proximity talks "have not started officially… The Palestinians are saying all issues are on the table, the Israelis are saying let’s see how things will progress. We both have a different perception of what these proximity talks should yield or produce.”

Specifically, Areikat faults the Obama administration’s focus on a border agreement for assuming the other final status issues will fall into place. The Palestinians want an agreement that directly addresses all issues, rather than a step-by-step process. Immediately we can see why Israel and Obama’s position is quicker than what the Palestinian’s have in mind. And as Jerusalem looms large, overlooked refugees might end up rivaling the struggle over the Holy City.

"Israel cannot escape its responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem," Areikat said. "What we are saying is that Israel has to acknowledge that principle and then we and the Israelis will agree on the implementation and the mechanisms for implementing that… Don’t expect us to give up a very fundamental right… this is part of the overall package."

“The discussions so far have focused on the agenda and procedures for the proximity talks, not the substance,” writes Foreign Policy writer Josh Rogin, “And there’s no agreement of what the substance of the proximity talks should be.”

At least one exists though: both have flipped on stall-mode. The Palestinians, Areikat admits, are naturally cautious of Israel and feel no rush to remove US mediators, who he praises. And Israel, contrary to its rush for direct talks, is hedging its bet with another high-stakes gamble to weaken Obama.

Areikat believes Israel’s secondary strategy is to stall past the US mid-term election, which it expects to weaken Obama.

This theory meshes with Netanyahu “ incitement index’’ to dictate Israel’s negotiating response. One cannot help but anticipate intentional incitement to blame a breakdown on the Palestinians, as the index is tailored for this sequence. The raid on the "Freedom flotilla" lends evidence.

Bickering is already abundant with each side baiting the other into violating Obama’s indirect talks. Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath unveiled a plan during Mitchell’s visit to “completely isolate Israel and punish it” in the EU and UN. Israeli officials reacted with “astonishment,” saying they would bring it up in talks with Mitchell and that it demonstrated, “parts of the Palestinian leadership are stuck in a conflict mindset and are incapable of moving toward peace and reconciliation.”

Never-mind Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman’s frequent objection to a two-state solution or Israel’s refusal to extend its temporary settlement freeze past September. Forget opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s loudly-voiced doubts of Netanyahu.

And now the “Freedom” incident.

"To be honest with you, I don’t see signals or indications on the Israeli side to point they are really going to enter these talks with the objective of trying to end the conflict with the Palestinians,” Areikat said unsurprisingly.

While Israel wishes to proceed directly to final-status negotiations without a permanent settlement freeze in the West Bank or Jerusalem, Obama simply wants the conflict buried instead of resolved. Media billionaire Mort Zuckerman’s boosts Israel with pride, but speaks truth through Israel’s belief that, “the Obama administration just wants a deal signed, without much concern about what happens later.”

Preferably before his 2012 re-election.

This artificial demand for haste and the resulting attitude is responsible for many of Obama’s errors in handling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. False expectations ultimately depress the odds of success by applying excessive pressure. A month has passed since the initial phase of round two and the collision is still on course. He needs to slow down and convince Netanyahu to breathe.

They want to speed up the peace process, but that will simply crash it.

With Israel aiming past November and the Palestinians planning to advocate unilateral statehood at the UN in September, Obama is headed towards even rougher seas without any progress to show. Both sides are content with waiting, each feeling the other will cave first. The pressure will only build and increase the chances of confrontation in the UN, one that will put America in a new bind.

Right now Obama is closer to a third swing at indirect negotiations than direct negotiations, which remain a distant possibility. He would be wise to avoid looking ahead and tripping in the moment. The White House must stay focused on indirect talks, make them move, and find enough common ground by September to avoid a major shock to the system.

Which requires Obama to forget his two year time-frame, a dream that was never coming true before 2012.

In an ideal world America would “hold Israel accountable” for the flotilla raid, as the White House promised, and set the tone for indirect negotiations. This promise has failed before though and a soft US response hints towards that outcome. 14 members of the UN Security Council, including Britain, France, Russia, China called for Gaza’s blockade to be lifted. America did not.

A more realistic would slowly guide the parties to direct negotiations, targeting the end of a potential second term for signing on a blueprint for two states. Future presidents will have to finish the construction. The Israeli-Palestine conflict can only be resolved by accounting for their interests, a process larger than any US political cycle.

– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. Contact him in The Trench, a realist foreign policy blog, at He contributed this article to

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