Editorial: Direct Talks

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to resume direct negotiations with Israel, after 18 months of saying no, is a welcome development, however belated. Direct talks are the only viable path to achieving peace.

But Abbas must do more than come to the table and assume that Israel will give in to his demands—or that the United States will pressure Israel for him.

For starters, Abbas must drop his threats to withdraw at the first sign of difficulty or to impose more conditions for continuing the negotiations. The Obama administration should make clear when the talks begin that the United States expects the parties to continue speaking to each other without threats or walkouts.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck the right note while announcing the restart of direct talks. “These negotiations should take place without preconditions,” she said, “and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success, which will bring a better future to all of the people of the region.”

So far, though, Abbas’ behavior is discouraging. Even before the talks began, he was demanding that Israel extend its 10-month West Bank construction moratorium to include eastern Jerusalem. If Israel doesn’t do that, Abbas said, the PA will pull out of the talks.

His demand is unreasonable. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pause in settlement construction that began last November was an unreciprocated goodwill gesture and was not required by any prior Israeli-Palestinian understandings. In fact, Israel and the PA have previously agreed that settlements as well as Jerusalem are final-status issues to be resolved in negotiations.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric has been much more positive than his Palestinian counterpart’s. “Reaching an agreement is a difficult challenge but is possible,” Netanyahu said shortly after accepting the U.S. invitation to come to Washington. “We are coming to the talks with a genuine desire to reach a peace agreement between the two peoples that will protect Israel’s national security interests.”

Since coming into office last year, Netanyahu has demonstrated his commitment to reaching a peace deal with Abbas. In a major speech in June 2009, he announced that he accepted, and was prepared to negotiate, a two-state solution to the conflict: a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel.

Abbas rejected Netanyahu’s overture as a non-starter. Yet even though Abbas refused to talk to Netanyahu for the past year and a half, the Israeli government has removed hundreds of West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks, improving the freedom of movement for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

It’s a good thing that Abbas changed his mind. But the burden is not just on him. If this latest round of negotiations is to be successful, Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, need to do a lot more. If Riyadh is as committed to the creation of a Palestinian state as it says it is, it should provide the PA with much more financial support.

Right now that’s not happening. Reuters recently reported that Saudi Arabia’s donations to the PA dropped 87 percent during Jan.–Aug. 2010, compared to the same period last year. The United Arab Emirates has yet to pledge aid this year after giving $173.9 million in 2009.

If for some reason the oil-rich Arab states cannot find the money for the PA, the least they can do to support negotiations is to isolate Hamas, end anti-Israel incitement in their media and prepare their own people to accept peaceful relations with a Jewish state in the Middle East. Israelis need to know that the Arab world is fully ready to accept the Jewish state as the negotiations proceed. That shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

As for the issues to be resolved between Netanyahu and Abbas—borders, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and security—they are difficult and will require sustained effort, compromise and creativity. There is no guarantee of success.

But Abbas knows, or at least he should know, that for more than six decades, Israel has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to compromise and make sacrifices in pursuit of peace, by altering borders, relinquishing territory, giving up natural resources and uprooting entire communities.

In the weeks ahead, the parties must dedicate themselves to direct bilateral negotiations in order to settle all of the issues that have divided them for so long. No outside party can successfully impose an agreement. After all, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who have to live with each other; outside powers can always pack up and go home.

President Obama deserves praise for saying as much. In a letter to Alan Solow earlier this year, he wrote, “I am deeply committed to fulfilling the important role the United States must play for peace to be realized, but I also recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside; it must be negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard choices and compromises that take on history.”

The best thing the United States can do is maintain its position as a trusted ally of Israel. Only with strong U.S. diplomatic support and security assurances will Israeli leaders be able to consider making tough compromises for peace. BACK TO TOP