Inch by painful inch Israel and the Palestinian Authority are being edged towards their inevitable face-to-face encounter.
Rather like the arranged wedding ceremony that is common in the non-Western world, the bridegroom stands waiting while his bashful bride, heavily veiled, is led slowly – and perhaps reluctantly – towards him. In this case Israel is the expectant bridegroom, for as Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, said last week: "The government of Israel has been calling for the immediate start of direct peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for more than a year now." It is PA President Mahmoud Abbas who has been holding back from committing himself, even though he has been given clear authority to go ahead by the Arab League following their meeting on 29 July.
According to a report today, Saturday, in the Arabic newspaper A-Sharq al-Awsat, Abbas is expected to agree to the resumption of direct talks with Israel within as little as two days – that is, by next Monday, 16 August. But the Palestinian news agency Ma'an on Friday announced that Abbas is waiting for an anticipated statement from the Quartet to be released early next week before he will announce any decision on talks.
This seems a classic "chicken and egg" situation. For it was on Thursday (12 August) that Reuters news agency announced they had seen a letter from the EU's High Representative Catherine Ashton – addressed, it appears, to EU Foreign Ministers – in which she said that the statement from the EU that Abbas is awaiting would be issued early next week – if both parties agreed to proceed to direct talks and negotiations to be launched in August.
Well, who is waiting for whom – Ashton for Abbas, or Abbas for Ashton? Time will no doubt tell, but Ashton's letter said "Abbas is very close" to accepting direct talks. "In principle, President Abbas should be in a position to give a definitive answer by Sunday or early next week," it added. But in the same letter Ashton said that major world powers are working on a Quartet statement to set the basis for the direct peace talks, and that the "Quartet initiative should help President Abbas rally enough support, both at home and abroad, to engage in direct talks."
Reuters also reported Mahmoud Abbas as indicating that he would be prepared to go to direct talks, provided they were based on the 19 March statement by the Quartet, issued after their meeting in Moscow. This, the news agency took to mean, was that his precondition for doing so was that the future Palestinian sovereign state should be established within the pre-1967 borders. But the Quartet's statement is far from explicit about this.
The Quartet's Moscow statement was issued before the so-called "proximity talks" had yet got under way, and its first aim was to induce the parties to agree to these arms-length negotiations in the first place. The statement continues: "The Quartet believes these negotiations should lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties within 24 months, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors."
That is the only reference to 1967 in the document.
The Quartet proceeded to discuss the other major issues outstanding between the two sides, and makes a specific reference to the Roadmap: "The Quartet reiterates its call on Israel and the Palestinians to act on the basis of international law and on their previous agreements and obligations — in particular adherence to the Roadmap, irrespective of reciprocity."
But the Roadmap, accepted by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in June 2009, is not specific in its proposals. The principles of the plan were first outlined by US President George W. Bush in a speech on 24 June 2002, in which he called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace: "The Roadmap represents a starting point toward achieving the vision of two states, a secure State of Israel and a viable, peaceful, democratic Palestine. It is the framework for progress towards lasting peace and security in the Middle East."
It envisaged achievement of this objective in three distinct phases, to which it allocated absurdly unrealistic timescales.
Phase I, which was to be achieved by May 2003, required an end to Palestinian violence; Palestinian political reform; Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian cities, a freeze on settlement expansion, and Palestinian elections.
Phase II, for implementation within a further six months, called for an international conference to support Palestinian economic recovery and launch a process, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders; revival of multilateral engagement on issues including regional water resources, environment, economic development, refugees, and arms control issues; and other Arab states restoring pre-intifada links to Israel (trade offices, etc.).
Phase III required, about a year or 18 months later, a second international conference; the achievement of a permanent status agreement and an end of the conflict; agreement on final borders, clarification of the highly controversial question of the fate of Jerusalem, refugees and settlements – and other Arab states to agree to peace deals with Israel.
It is not the objectives, all worthy in themselves, which can be seen in hindsight to have been wildly optimistic, but the timetable for their achievement. In effect, little by little, and by circuitous, tortuous, meandering routes, most have actually been, or are in process of being, accomplished - with the possible exception of the international conferences, now replaced by direct talks.
A major obstacle, of course, is the end-result of those Palestinian elections in January 2006. Even though the extreme Islamist group, Hamas, trounced the rival Fatah party, they were not content to share power, but immediately inaugurated a struggle for ascendancy. In June 2007, in a bloody coup, they ousted Fatah from the Gaza strip altogether, and seized control. For the next twelve months Hamas pursued its struggle against Israel by firing hundreds of rockets indiscriminately into towns adjoining the border, until the six-month truce brokered by Egypt broke down and Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead. But Hamas and Fatah remain at daggers drawn, and this internecine struggle in itself represents a formidable obstacle to a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
As for the major precondition that Abbas is reportedly insisting on before coming to the table, it is pretty obviously window-dressing rather than a stumbling block. Abbas has his street-cred among the broader Palestinian –not to say Arab – public to worry about. He has to be seen to be standing up to both Israel and the USA in the first instance. For the reality of the situation is that the pre-Six Day War boundaries are pretty well accepted on all sides as the basis for the new sovereign Palestine; the bargaining will come over the land swaps and adjustments that, once again, both sides have accepted as an essential element in any final agreement.
On the other hand, Abbas does have a point when demanding a clear agenda for direct talks. Without one, say the Palestinians, Netanyahu may propose terms for a peace treaty that are completely unacceptable, leaving Abbas tarred as a rejectionist when he refuses to accept them. His credibility could be irreparably damaged if he becomes embroiled in lengthy direct talks which get bogged down in irreconcilable differences.
The same argument does not quite apply to Netanyahu. His street-cred is not at stake. Except for a minority of hardliners, Israelis are not generally opposed to their prime minister sitting down with Palestinians to talk peace. Equally, if the talks fail, Netanyahu is unlikely to feel he has lost face – or, indeed, votes in a forthcoming election. Nevertheless he, like Mahmoud Abbas, has more to gain than to lose from a successful outcome.
Whether or not this current momentum will indeed carry the parties to the negotiating table, it has become increasing clear that to that table they will, sooner or later, inevitably come.