Negotiate about what?

Ostensibly, it is a fairly simple exercise to list those parties, Israeli and Palestinian, that do and do not seek to negotiate. In Israel, some of the Arab parties and the Zionist left (Meretz and Labor under Peretz) want, explicitly, to renew peace negotiations unconditionally. Kadima says it wants to negotiate in accordance with the roadmap. What is left of the Likud will presumably adopt a similar official position. Even the far right and ultra- orthodox parties don’t reject the principle of negotiation.

In Palestine, Fateh seeks immediate peace negotiations whereas Hamas appears to reject peace negotiations. Islamic Jihad certainly rejects negotiations, while the secular left wing parties embrace negotiations.

But when we adopt a more nuanced approach and ask, "negotiate about what, and under what conditions", the issue becomes far more complicated. Some parties on both sides profess to favor negotiations when in fact they mount obviously unacceptable conditions, or they state clearly that they seek to negotiate something less than an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Some pledge their allegiance to the roadmap while others want to go back to Oslo, or straight for Geneva. Some who favor negotiations believe in the concept and possibility of a negotiated end-of-conflict agreement, while others acknowledge they do not.

In order to focus discussion, let us concentrate on the leadership of the four parties or movements that are likely in one form or another to be running Israel and Palestine after the two sides’ respective elections. In Israel, Kadima leader Ariel Sharon has stated on numerous occasions that he does not believe "the Arabs" are really ready for a genuine peace with Israel, and adds that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas has failed to satisfy even the minimal roadmap conditions that would enable negotiations to commence. While he consistently endorses the roadmap, he appears mainly to want to be seen as coordinating his policy with that of US President George W. Bush. Everything about Sharon’s approach tells us that he has no intention of negotiating a roadmap phase III final status agreement with Abbas, and would prefer either an interim agreement or another unilateral withdrawal.

Sharon stands to win the upcoming Israeli elections and retain the premiership. While there is virtually no likelihood he will find a Palestinian partner for his interim schemes, he has proven that he can dismantle settlements unilaterally, thereby moving the two parties closer to a territorial two-state solution.

Labor leader Amir Peretz, in contrast, advocates an immediate, unconditional return to bilateral peace negotiations. He is a proven negotiator (a title none of Israel’s recent prime ministers qualifies for) but is totally untried as a national leader. He is most likely to become a junior coalition partner after these elections, but if by some stroke of luck he becomes prime minister, his coalition partners will be on his political right, thereby constraining his freedom to make concessions. He does not reject the notion of dismantling settlements unilaterally, but would prefer to negotiate solutions.

On the Palestinian side, Mahmoud Abbas wants to renew peace negotiations immediately, moving directly to phase III of the roadmap. In the eyes of many Israelis, including many who want to return to talks without conditions, he does not currently exercise sufficient control over the diverse forces in Palestinian society to qualify as a viable partner for a lasting and stable deal. The approaching Palestinian elections, which will empower Hamas and integrate it into the Palestinian polity, could conceivably make Palestinian society more cohesive and less violent, as Abbas assures us. But in the short term they will almost certainly render the Palestinian negotiating position more hawkish and less flexible, in deference to Hamas’ positions, which reject peace negotiations with Israel (though Hamas might conceivably agree to discuss interim arrangements). Moreover if Hamas, as it insists, refuses to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure even after elections, the next Israeli government will be fully justified in refusing to reopen negotiations of any sort with a PA/PLO that comprises that terrorist organization.

Looking, then, at the likely post-election leadership situation, and factoring in not only who wants and who does not want to negotiate, but what issues they are prepared to discuss, the conclusion is inevitable: the most we are likely to see by way of progress toward a two-state solution is additional disengagement on the West Bank, conceivably–if there is a cohesive and willing Palestinian partner–as part of some sort of interim scheme. This is not peace, but it is a step in the right direction as long as no negative parallel steps are taken, particularly in and around Jerusalem and regarding settlement construction, that foreclose the possibility of an agreed two-state solution.

This is where a third party enters the picture: the United States professes to favor a negotiated two-state solution under the roadmap, but has done precious little to facilitate such a solution. Indeed, by taking a lenient attitude toward Sharon’s actions around Jerusalem on the one hand, and encouraging the enfranchisement of Hamas without insisting that it disarm on the other, it is hurting the chances for a solution. So in order for even another non-negotiated step, i.e., more disengagement, to play a constructive role after elections, we shall have to see a change in the American position.