Where do we go when these non-negotiations end?

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The Quartet negotiators plan to meet yet again with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week. They have in hand a Palestinian reply to their request for the two sides’ positions on territory and security. They do not have an Israeli reply; the Netanyahu government insists that its demands on these two issues be delivered only in the course of direct negotiations. The Palestinians, for their part, insist there will be no direct negotiations until Israel ceases settlement construction.

There are more conditions and counter-conditions, but the kernel of the issue is that neither side is really interested in negotiations right now. On January 26, 2012, when the three months allotted for this exercise by the Quartet expire, it will declare who is to blame. That declaration will constitute a very minor event in the annals of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations or, in this case, non-negotiations.

The Palestinian proposal is hardly earthshaking, but it certainly could constitute a basis for negotiations were the two sides to sit down again. It reportedly offers the 1967 lines with land swaps totaling 1.9 percent of the total, an international peacekeeping force on the Palestine-Israel border and in the Jordan Valley, a demilitarized West Bank and a Palestinian commitment not to enter into alliances hostile to Israel. That’s about where we were when the Olmert-Abbas talks ceased in late 2008–the last time anyone negotiated seriously.

What is somewhat more significant about this round of non-negotiations orchestrated by the Quartet is the notion, seemingly accepted by both sides, that negotiations in the first stage concentrate on territory and security, leaving the pre-1967 "narrative" issues of refugee right of return and holy places for a later time. This corresponds with US President Barack Obama’s proposal presented last May in a speech to the State Department. It is actually the only agreed innovation registered in this non-process over the past three years.

What happens after January 26? On the Israeli side, nothing: the Netanyahu government is not really interested in a viable two-state solution and is happy to cite the Arab revolutions as an excuse, if it needs one, to sit tight.

On the Palestinian side, the date is more significant. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has frozen his United Nations initiative until the end of January in deference to the Quartet’s initiative. It also appears he will delay until that time any final decision regarding reconciliation with Hamas, an agreed interim leadership and agreed elections.

This does not necessarily mean that Abbas will take a new and dramatic step in late January. He seems to be vacillating and undecided regarding all the options on his table, from another UN push via an agreement with Hamas, to disbanding the Palestinian Authority and resigning.

January 26, then, offers the Quartet, along with interested Arab states and the peace lobbies in both Israel and Palestine, yet another opportunity to reassess the entire process and explore the formulation of a new paradigm for advancing it. The Oslo process–meaning the agreed procedure whereby the two sides have to negotiate and agree on all the final status issues together (even if they do approach them in sequence, beginning with territory and security) and thereby end the conflict–has run its course. By their action and inaction, both sides have informally recognized this reality for three years now. Only the Quartet seems oblivious to it.

A post-Oslo peace process should focus on the single ray of hope we can divine in the current reality. Whether by design or not, Abbas has shown us the way. The Palestinian UN bid with its sole concentration on the issues of sovereignty and territory can and should be leveraged by the international community into a win-win proposition. It could award UN recognition for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with negotiated land swaps and a capital in East Jerusalem, along with a reiteration of UN recognition from 1947 of Israel as a Jewish state with adequate provision for minority rights, recognition of Israel’s capital in West Jerusalem, and comprehensive security provisions.

This approach gives priority and an international imprimatur to the more doable "1967 issues" of borders and security and leaves the more daunting pre-1967 narrative issues of refugees and holy places for a stage that follows the emergence of a Palestinian state. It recognizes that the Oslo paradigm is no longer workable. Unless and until the international community and the parties accept this new reality, we will continue to go through the motions of hapless Quartet exercises like the current one.

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