A Carpet Sellers Complaint

One of the results of the current investigation of the Trump administration, and the volley of competing charges is that, insofar as the media seems to be concerned, the rest of the world has stoped its revolutions and has placed other critical issues like Middle East peace on hold. But other problems are not going away and among them the threat of another explosion in the Middle East. The US claims it is an honest broker in the Middle East, but in my 35 years of working on the problem the only “honest brokers” I encountered were the Norwegians.

Kissinger and Carter wanted to stabilize the situation and to prevent Soviet inroads in the region - they accomplished that at the expense of putting the Palestinians in last place in the Camp David agreement through “autonomy.” Bob Strauss invested in preventing a failure in the run up to the Presidential election that Carter lost.  Linowitz, a great man (I am biased) had integrity and was totally committed to the concept of peace but ran out of time before Carter’s election demise.  Reagan dabbled in the issue and even published some reasonable parameters, which I helped write, but quickly backed away when the sh—- hit the fan with the lobby. The Norwegians lit a candle with the Oslo accords, but it was snuffed out with the life of PM Rabin.  Clinton was more interested in handing PM Barak a win than he was in understanding the limitations on Arafat or the Importance of Jerusalem to the Islamic world.  Thus, failure was preordained by his rushed and shallow approach.  

Throughout all these years, the US has always looked to Israel to define what is possible and to set the limits on how far we could go.  In 2000 I was stunned by the approach that some of our negotiators were taking at Camp David suggesting tradeoffs which could only have meant the assassination of Arafat or the initiation of a religious war.  We started each negotiation with the assumption of the maximum that the Israelis could accept and worked from that baseline. We never seemed to credit that the Palestinians too had limits beyond which they could not go and still survive. And now, one has to ask, with talks going on, the question is whether or not there has been a fundamental change in the approach of the parties, including the US, which could lead to success.

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East negotiator, said Oct 19 that Hamas, the Palestinian organization centered in Gaza, cannot play any part in a Palestinian Government unless it meets the following conditions: “Any Palestinian government must unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence, recognize the state of Israel, accept previous agreements and obligations between the parties - including to disarm terrorists - and commit to peaceful negotiations. If Hamas is to play any role in a Palestinian government, it must accept these basic requirements.” 

After Greenblatt’s diktat, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he will not appoint to the Palestinian unity government any Hamas officials who don’t publicly recognize Israel.  In response, a Hamas spokesperson said the organization would consider recognition of Israel.  As you know, the US Government has defined Hamas as a terrorist organization.

By Way of comparison, the US in December 1988 required the PLO (and Arafat) to meet three conditions: 1) that the PLO renounce terrorism, 2) recognize Israel`s right to exist, and 3) accept UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which refer to the right of all states in the Middle East to live in peace and security. On the basis of an Arafat statement 14 December 1988, the US agreed that the PLO had met these conditions and , therefore, opened discussions with the PLO in Tunis. 

The original conditions for the PLO in 1988 have now been amped up by Greenblatt for Hamas.  Now, Hamas must “recognize ‘the state of Israel’”, - not just its “right to exist.” By recognizing the ‘state of Israel’ Hamas would recognize its physical presence and borders, not just its theoretical “right” to exist in an unspecified location and with unspecified borders.  That is a substantial difference.  Now Hamas must also not only “renounce terrorism,” but must “unambiguously and explicitly commit to nonviolence” and must actually “disarm terrorists” which in effect means disbanding its military wing the Izz ad Din al-Qassam Brigades. Greenblatt leaves to our imaginations how the Fatah organization, which has now taken on the added duty of guarding the border crossing points, is supposed to “disarm the terrorists.” 

Even assuming that the PLO could do these things, The question remains what they would get in return? So perhaps we are asking the wrong question. What does Israel have to do in response? And how did we get into the position of dictating the positions of the parties?  As you may recall, Trump himself has said he can live with whatever the parties themselves can agree to : “I‘m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like,” Trump told a joint news conference with Netanyahu. “I can live with either one.” Now it appears that his negotiator is changing the script and is dictating terms.

I am not sure that Jason’s IQ is lower than that of Trump or Tillerson - I suspect it is higher - but  any rational sentient human being, among whom I count Jason, would understand that the conditions he outlined are impractical and, for Hamas, impossible. So why bother wasting his breath when it only complicates his task of negotiating a ”deal?” 

Perhaps Jason was working on the realtor’s formula to start high and negotiate down. But anyone who has ever bargained for a rug in the Souk in Jerusalem knows that if you start too high the seller is gong to walk away.  For Jerusalem merchants, negotiation is an art form designed to sort out serious buyers from the curious tourist and to maximize a final price. Why waste time otherwise?  

Anyone who has carefully considered the Palestinian problem knows that it is not just an issue of territory or borders - it is not a real estate problem or an economic problem so much as it is an identity problem. It is the land that sets the Palestinian apart from any other Arab, and it is the land that establishes Jewish permanence apart from the diaspora. Until we focus on this essential issue - two peoples - both seeing their existence in perpetuity as defined by one piece of land, then the problem will persist and all we can hope for are temporary accommodations that offer a degree of tranquilly and well being, but fall short of resolving the problem. Perhaps that is enough for now. 

Ned Walker