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Commentary: Palestinians, Israelis ever so slowly being pushed by U.S. into direct talks

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM– Israel and Palestine may be inching, crawling, or sidestepping toward direct, face to face negotiations. 

We have heard this before. It is a long and contorted road even to the beginning of talks. Neither side appears to be enthusiastic. They are being pushed by the pathetically naive, led by the champion of brazen optimism who is trying to outdo his predecessor by choosing peace in the Holy Land over democracy in Iraq as an icon of foreign policy. European leaders can do no less than add their voices to that of a president with the status to define what is politically correct. Those in power hope that a miracle will occur quickly enough for them to claim credit.

What is shaping up is a call to negotiations from a quartet that includes representatives of Europe, Russia, the US and the UN with parameters favorable to the Palestinians. It is said to include the 1967 boundaries as the basis of negotiations, and a continuing freeze on Israeli construction over that line. Israel has already rejected those conditions, but may be willing to accept an invitation from the United States that is less unfriendly.

One can guess about the prospects of discussions that neither side wants, and which begin with each claiming to be operating according to different invitations. For Palestinians, the 1967 lines represent their major hope of rescuing something from an area shrinking and cut up with the settlements of Jews they do not want living among them.

Also important to the Palestinians is a continuation of a freeze in the building of settlements. They are also talking about a freeze in what they call Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but one can reach a high level of skepticism about any chance of achieving that detail. A continuation of the freeze over 1967 boundaries outside of Jerusalem will be difficult enough, given the intensity of the opposition in the polity that counts for more than the Palestinian and perhaps more even than that in Washington.

Recent news is that settlers and their friends have approvals for 5,000 housing units ready to be unfrozen in September, and will not tolerate a continuation of a freeze that has failed to show any tangible results with respect to its contribution to peace.

One can only wonder at the importance of 1967 or any other date in a conflict between peoples that was already apparent to the authors of the Books of Joshua and Judges, whenever it was that they began to tell their stories.

“The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.” (Judges 3:5)
Today there are considerable personal interactions, cooperation in the workplace and the universities, more mutual tolerance in Jewish than Arab neighborhoods, along with few romances or conversions in the directions of Islam or Judaism.
The boundaries of Jerusalem have changed several times since the British arrived in 1917, and many times before then. The walls around the Old City reflect the lines defined by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 1530s. They are only one of several walled arrangements meant to protect a city whose shape changed going back at least to the time of David.

Conceptions of “Palestine” are fuzzier. The bombast of activists represent their efforts to find some basis for a national claim in what can fairly be described as a backwater of empires thinly populated by diverse and quarreling families.

No doubt that all national claims–including those of the Jews–rest on contentious narratives more often spiritual than factual in nature. The Bible, Talmud, numerous other writings, and the success of modern Israel represent the Jews’ claims to legitimacy. It will take some time to see if the Palestinians can achieve the status of other Arab countries. The records achieved by Gaza and the West Bank indicate that the phrase “Arab democracy” will remain an oxymoron even if the Palestinians do accomplish something.

We should expect maneuvering rather than anticipate anything like a breakthrough. Part of the playbook we can write already. There will be some further hemming and hawing by the principals, with each adhering to its own rules of the game. Palestinians will emphasize those 1967 boundaries and maybe a settlement freeze; Israelis will insist that they are beginning negotiations without preconditions. If things go well, overseas sponsors may invite the principals to a party on the White House lawn, or some other ceremonial venue where they declare a breakthrough and their commitment to helping the parties reach an agreed solution within a short period of time.

The principals will put on their  frozen smiles and express mutual commitments to settling disputes peacefully, or maybe their stern faces and commitments to what those loyal to each side will see as a reaffirmation of well known principles.

Given Muslim sensitivities, the refreshments will feature fruit juice rather than wine.

Beyond these details, my predictive capacity weakens. After a brief flurry of daily bulletins, it is likely that the weather will provide more interesting news. Americans will concern themselves with who will win and lose by how much thanks to the president’s health reform, as well as the World Series and the endless parade of college sports. For Europeans there will be a new season of football.
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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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