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Analysis

Inside the Black Box of Israeli-Palestinian talks, by Brig. Gen. (res) Michael Herzog

Tuesday, April 22, 2014. We are one week from the end of the nine-month period set for negotiations. Israeli, Palestinian, and American negotiating teams meet at a Jerusalem hotel in a last-ditch effort to salvage the talks. After long, sleepless weeks of tough negotiations, all are visibly exhausted, yet appear to appreciate the urgency of the moment as the sun sets over Jerusalem and on one more attempt to resolve the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For weeks the parties have struggled to produce a formula to extend negotiations and buy much-needed time. Such a bargain would include the release of Palestinian prisoners, as well as the curtailment of settlement activity by Israel, and no further push by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to advance Palestinian statehood outside bilateral negotiations. It was an uphill struggle.

But today feels somewhat different. To break the logjam, Israel suggests transferring to the PA the responsibility for planning and zoning in Palestinian-populated parts of Area C in the West Bank that are adjacent to Palestinian cities.1 The new proposal seems to capture the Palestinian negotiator’s attention. “We may be in business,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat signals, careful as always to remain non-committal. As we are about to adjourn, he asks to meet tomorrow to continue our discussions. The clock is ticking. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (whom we all refer to by his familiar moniker, Abu Mazen) has already called for a formal leadership meeting in Ramallah that coming Saturday to decide the fate of negotiations. Yet, for the first time in weeks, we feel a sense of cautious optimism—a feeling shared by our American counterparts.

The events of the next day would shatter these nascent hopes. Gathering at the Prime Minister’s office to prepare for the crucial meeting with our counterparts, we (and separately, our American colleagues) are surprised to watch the signing ceremony of a reconciliation deal between Abu Mazen’s Fatah movement and the Islamist Hamas in Gaza. On the Israeli side, there is a volley of questions. Abu Mazen is well aware of Israeli and U.S. sensitivities regarding Hamas—which is strongly opposed to peace and the recognition of Israel, and designated by the U.S. government and the European Union as a terror organization—so why did he not at least alert us to the imminent deal? Why would he sign it the day after he seemed to promise a meeting with us and just a few days ahead of the nine-month deadline? Is he no longer interested in extending negotiations?

One thing is clear: We are witnessing the collapse of yet another gallant effort at Israeli-Palestinian peace-making. But was failure foreordained? Was our task a quixotic charge at windmills all along?

Read the full article at American InterestBrig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog is a Visiting Fellow with BICOM and an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has participated in nearly all of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians since 1993.


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