In “Rick Richman’s Mis-State-Ment,” Peter Beinart responded to my Commentary post this week, “Beinart’s Backwards History,” in which I challenged his assertion that Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington in May 2009 with a “lack of interest in negotiations.”
Beinart argues “[t]here’s just one problem” with the narrative that Netanyahu was interested in negotiations:
When Netanyahu came to Washington in May 2009, he had still not endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state (an idea he had opposed his entire career). He would not do so until his Bar-Ilan University speech on June 14. (And even then, Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, told Israel’s Channel 2 that his son “doesn’t support [a Palestinian state]. He supports the sorts of conditions that they [the Palestinians] will never accept.”)
So to believe that Bibi was serious about negotiations in May 2009, you have to believe that more than fifteen years after the Oslo process began and almost a decade after the negotiations at Camp David and Taba, it was possible to be serious about peace talks without supporting a Palestinian state.
There is more than one problem with Peter’s response.
First, he did not deal with my description of the formal presentation on May 3, 2009 by Netanyahu’s top aide, who outlined a three-track approach of security, economic development and political negotiations (the video of the presentation is here and here), nor Netanyahu’s own statement on May 18, 2009 at the White House calling for negotiations “immediately.”
Second, he does not explain why Netanyahu’s willingness to publicly declare his acceptance of a Palestinian state -- which Obama demanded and Netanyahu did on June14 at Bar-Ilan -- was not a confirmation that Netanyahu was serious. Netanyahu undoubtedly wanted to trade Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state for Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish one. He was pressured to make an unreciprocated, pre-negotiation concession in order for negotiations to begin, and he did so. How does this indicate he wasn't serious about negotiations?
Third, he does not indicate why Netanyahu’s “conditions” set forth on both May 18 and June 14 -- (1) Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state, and (2) adequate arrangements for Israeli defense -- were unreasonable; nor does he acknowledge they were not set forth as preconditions to negotiations, but as Israel's view of what was necessary for negotiations eventually to succeed. For their part, the Palestinians made an increasing list of pre-negotiation demands -- Israeli concessions on issues that were supposed to be the subject of negotiations.
But let’s not simply debate. Let’s turn to the historical record and see who was serious about starting negotiations and who was proposing non-starter preconditions to them. The following is an excerpt from the “Meeting Minutes” of the January 15, 2010 meeting between Palestinian “chief negotiator” Saeb Erekat ("SE") and David Hale ("DH"), George Mitchell’s top aide. In the excerpt, “AM” is Abu Mazen, the nom de guerre of Mahmoud Abbas:
DH: We wanted to get a sense of what is possible. Our desire is to get into talks right away, but want to do that in a way that honors your positions, and your dignity. We realize that the outcome may not resolve all issues. We now have 67 lines and swaps on the table, which wasn’t there before. … So your approach is either an un-announced freeze in Jerusalem, or adoption of the principles. Neither of these is feasible. They won’t happen. You know about Netanyahu’s position on the freeze. And the [Palestinian paper] describes the end of the negotiations not the start. But there are ideas, as we discussed with the Egyptians, that we can build on. They’ve talked with Netanyahu and think he is serious. We should look at what more will Israel do beyond what it has done already. However a freeze in Jerusalem is beyond reach. …
SE: Thanks for the briefing … First, you don’t need to convince us of the need for negotiations. We know the devastating impact of a stalemate -- vis a vis Hamas, Iran, relation with Israel on the ground. Keep this in mind: our cardinal interest is to resume negotiations. But (and I’m telling you the truth as AM sees it -- he is not a tactician) AM has assessed the impact of Netanyahu’s conditions. If he goes into negotiations with these conditions, it will destroy him.
SE: Netanyahu says East Jerusalem is just a neighborhood, like Tel Aviv, so it’s building as usual, tenders … it will finish AM off. The problem with all US administrations is they underestimate the significance of Jerusalem to the Palestinians -- for internal Palestinian politics. … You give me goals. You got the Israeli goal right: Jewish state, secure borders, security arrangements, and subsequent developments. You said my goal is a viable and independent state based on the 67 border with agreed swaps. That is not my goal. Swaps are a Palestinian concession in the interest of peace and reaching an agreement. My goal is a sovereign state on the 67 border.
SE: … So we said 67 borders with agreed swaps. That’s your position, so say it! If you put down such a paper we will call an emergency Arab summit and get it accepted. Netanyahu will reject. Either he will change his coalition or there will be new elections. Israelis want the two state solution but they don’t trust. They want it more than you think, sometimes more than Palestinians. …
DH: I would still like to get back to the paper. If you still ask us to adopt this paper we might as well talk about something else entirely: This administration will not be in any way directive about the outcome of negotiations. Almost every line of the second section is a topic for negotiation. …
SE: Tell him what I said about AM’s state of mind, about Netanyahu’s conditions. Tell him AM will not negotiate under Netanyahu’s conditions: Jerusalem excluded, no resumption from where we left off …
DH: These are your conditions, not the Israelis …
Perhaps Netanyahu’s father was correct that the Palestinians would never accept his son's criteria: more than 18 years after Oslo and more than 11 years after the failed 2000-01 negotiations, they still haven’t.
They pledge never to recognize a Jewish state, will not agree to defensible borders, demand a state but will not sign an end-of-claims agreement, want recognition of a "right of return" for refugees from the wars the Arabs started. They still have not made a Bir Zeit speech to match Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan one.
Over the past decade, they have rejected the offer of a state three times, each of which would have given them a state on substantially all the West Bank and Gaza and a capital in East Jerusalem. They still refuse to address the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict; until they do, they cannot be said to have a serious interest in negotiations.