17 July 2010 1 Comment

Tragic friends on a search for peace

JERUSALEM—If you asked about a moment that encapsulates the tragedy of the Israelis and Palestinians, there’d be no shortage of incidents, fatal and wrathful, from which to choose. This week, however, I’d point out an occasion that was less shocking but just as poignant.

In a banquet hall of the King David Hotel, an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader came to the podium together Sunday evening. They embraced, spoke of each other as good friends and talked of the breakthroughs they made in the peace talks they shared. The audience applauded warmly and a benign smile made its way to the faces of almost everyone in the room.

Why is this a tragedy? Because former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, failed to make a peace deal.

The two were prime negotiators at regular meetings in the King David Hotel during 2007 and 2008 in what became known as the Annapolis Process — for a conference held in late 2007 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The talks got even closer to a resolution of the conflict than the Camp David summit of 2000. In the end, Livni’s boss, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said that he made a wide-ranging offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, never heard back and subsequently had to resign because of corruption investigations.

Since then talks have been at an impasse.

As Livni and Qurei reminisced affably about their near miss, I had two impressions. The first was that they had done a pretty good job of hiding how they really felt back when the negotiations were going on. Things in the region looked quite bad then. Israel fought a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and launched an attack on Hamas in Gaza at the end of 2008. Palestinians complained about building in Israeli settlements and, of course, fought a low-grade civil war between Hamas and Fatah.

The second important impression was that these two had really made a kind of personal peace. To differing degrees, they had gotten past the victimhood mentality that prevents either side from progressing. Yet they still hadn’t been able to hash out a deal, face to face across a table in a hotel (a very nice hotel, incidentally, where a basic room is $400 a night.)

What chance, then, do peace talks now have? For one thing, they aren’t face to face. They’re “proximity talks.” The Palestinians talk to the Americans, who drive down the road and talk to the Israelis, who send them back to the Palestinians with responses and questions.

Qurei pointed out exactly how silly that is. “I’m here in West Jerusalem in the King David Hotel,” he said. “I’m not a Syrian who has no relations with Israel. I can see why a Syrian would need indirect talks. But I’m right here.”

Livni, who’s now the leader of the Israeli parliamentary opposition, said that current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned from Olmert’s government because he opposed the Annapolis Process. So if the Annapolis deal wasn’t good enough for the Palestinians, one can assume Lieberman isn’t going to give out any new freebies.

“The idea of two nation states represents the interests of Israel,” Livni said. “It’s not a gift to the Palestinians.”

That interest doesn’t seem to be foremost in the mind of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his acceptance last year of the idea of a Palestinian state. Rather he seems concerned with holding his coalition together and playing for time – though it isn’t clear exactly what he wants to do with the time he gains.

Palestinian negotiators appear to lack a sense of urgency too. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat told Turkish television this week that there could be no direct negotiations between the two sides if there were any building in Israel’s West Bank settlements.

“Our position is that the key to direct negotiations is in the hand of Mr. Netanyahu,” he said. “The Israelis have a choice, settlements or peace. They can’t have both.”

At the King David Hotel, leading Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki was on hand to point out that his own people want to have things both ways too. Shikaki’s polls show that 51 percent of Palestinians would like to turn to non-violent protest, if negotiations fail, though only a quarter of those thought it would have any positive effect.

Support for a violent, new intifada, he said, was only 44 percent, but much firmer. In other words, everyone who was in favor thought it’d have a positive effect. “So,” said Shikaki, who’s based in the West Bank town of Ramallah, “almost half of all Palestinians believe violence pays.”

See, I told you it was tragic.

(I posted this yesterday on the Global Post news site.)

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