For the first time in many months Israelis and Palestinians sat face to face across a table to discuss how to revive the rather stagnant peace process. The third of three planned meetings was held in Amman this past weekend. A fourth meeting will likely be held next week.
To be sure, it is a refreshing development that the two sides actually spoke to each other. But the refreshment may not be sufficiently reviving, as the parties cannot agree whether the Quartet (the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Russia) deadline for resuming direct talks is Jan. 26, March 26, or even whether there is a deadline at all.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. President Barack Obama that his government will give the Palestinians a formal statement of its views on final borders in March. Netanyahu also told the president that he believes bona fide negotiations can be concluded within one year.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, on the other hand, echoing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ words, said direct talks between the two sides cannot proceed as long as Israel continues construction in the West Bank and does not recognize the pre-1967 Mideast war frontier as the baseline for the borders of a future Palestinian state.
The two Palestinian preconditions are as transparently pretextual as they are insurmountable. Abbas, Erekat and the entire Palestinian world know that Israel cannot and will not ever accept the preconditions. Setting aside the disingenuousness of the construction demand – raised for the first time as an echo of a regrettable statement by a newly elected Obama – Israel cannot agree in advance of negotiations to starting from the pre-June 1967 borders.
The reasons are many. But the most profound is that doing so means surrendering to the PA – before negotiations – all of the Jewish neighbourhoods of greater Jerusalem, including the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
How could Israel do that?
The question of Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Jewish return to history some 63 years ago. The division of Jerusalem was an artificial residue of the armistice in 1949 and the expulsion of the Jews from the Old City was an aberration of Jewish history. Jews had always lived in Jerusalem.
That is not to say that arrangements regarding Jerusalem and the Temple Mount cannot be made as a result of honest, sincere negotiations that take into account historical and present sensibilities of both peoples.
But to ask Israel to surrender – ahead of peace talks – what it retrieved and restored from wanton, derisive, contemptuous destruction, is absurd. To demand that it do so as a condition of even restarting peace talks is nothing more than a ruse on the rest of the world. The Palestinian leaders should talk straight.