Following the expiration of Israel's ten-month confidence-building moratorium on settlement activity, the Palestinian Authority [PA] have announced its intention to precondition further peace negotiations on the fulfillment of a demand that Israel cease any and all building in Jewish neighborhoods and communities (settlements) beyond the 1948 ceasefire line.
In reaction, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stated yesterday:
"I call on [PA] President Abbas to continue the good and sincere talks that we have just started, in order to reach an historic peace agreement between our two peoples." Prime Minister Netanyahu added: "I hope that President Abbas will stay in the talks and, with me, continue on the road towards peace, which we started only three weeks ago … Israel has gone a significant way towards helping the Palestinians by easing restrictions, which has advanced their quality of life, both in Judea and Samaria, and in the Gaza Strip. I say to President Abbas: For the future of both our peoples, let us focus on what is really important. Let us proceed in accelerated, sincere and continuous talks in order to bring about an historic peace framework agreement within one year."
Israel seeks to reach a negotiated peace settlement with its Palestinian neighbors as soon as possible. Consequently, Israel is opposed to the preconditioning of peace talks in general, and to this latest Palestinian precondition in particular, for the following reasons:
Preconditions are Counterproductive
In Israel's view, preconditions of this kind are counterproductive to peacemaking.
Peace talks should be used as an opportunity to solve differences, not to create new obstacles. Both the United States and Israel made clear at the restart of the direct negotiations in Washington three weeks ago, that Israeli-Palestinian talks would be conducted without preconditions. Palestinian preconditions had already delayed negotiations for 18 months. Yet, now almost immediately after the negotiations have restarted, the Palestinians have again turned a disagreement between the parties into preconditions for talks.
Preconditioning is not a Mutual Tactic
While it is natural that both parties have complaints about the other's actions, Israel does not use them as a threat to boycott talks.
Making preconditions is a Palestinian tactic, not used by Israel. Israel too could turn every disagreement with the Palestinians into preconditions for direct talks. Every day, there the Palestinian Authority (PA) stands behind incitement against Israel in Palestinian schools and media. The PA is also conducting an international campaign to delegitimize Israel. And there is an even more fundamental concern that conducting peace talks with PA President Abbas may be a waste of time when half of the Palestinian people is controlled by Hamas - a terror organization that openly calls for Israel's destruction. All these matters could afford Israel legitimate reasons not to negotiate. But Israel is trying to find solutions at the negotiating table, not excuses for walking away from it.
A Precondition about Settlements is Unwarranted
Israeli settlement activity is nothing new, and has never prevented talks in the past. Indeed, settlements have never prevented Israel from serious negotiations and compromises for peace.
For the last 17 years, Israelis and Palestinians negotiated without the Palestinians placing as a condition for talks the demand for a settlement freeze. President Abbas negotiated with Ehud Olmert for over a year while settlement building continued -- negotiations which Abbas says almost led to an agreement.
Israel has repeatedly demonstrated that the settlement issue doesn't prevent serious negotiations and compromises for peace. Peace was achieved with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo accord was signed with the PA, and Israel disengaged from Gaza - settlements notwithstanding. There is no historical justification for boycotting peace talks due to the settlement issue.
Preconditions cause Unnecessary Delays
After wasting 9 months, the PA now threatens further postponement of progress towards peace.
Last November, the Government of Israel did something which US Secretary Clinton rightly called unprecedented. It decided upon a 10 month moratorium on all new housing construction in the settlements. This moratorium was in addition to the Israeli policy of not building new settlements and not expropriating additional land for existing settlements. Israel explicitly said that the moratorium was a one-time confidence building measure to facilitate the Palestinians entering into direct talks.
Unfortunately, the PA formally rejected the moratorium as unacceptable and chose not to enter talks. After wasting nine months sitting on the sidelines, the Palestinians are now threatening to walk away from the negotiating table if their demand for an extension of the moratorium is not met. The moratorium the Palestinians once said was unacceptable they now say is essential.
Precious time has been squandered, and no more should be wasted now on further posturing. Serious negotiations should begin, where Palestinians and Israelis can overcome their differences through dialogue rather than through prior demands.
Preconditions Undermine Negotiated Compromise
Israel is committed to reaching a framework peace agreement with the Palestinians in the coming year. This will demand compromises on many difficult issues. Israeli ask, 'if we cannot find a temporary compromise on building in the settlements over the next year, how are we to find permanent compromises on the more difficult issues that divide us?' The ability of the parties to successfully overcome differences over settlement building is in many ways a litmus test for their ability to solve the even more complex historic issues that lie ahead in these talks.
It should be recalled that the main issue is not the 'settlements', but 'the settlement'. Israel is open to discuss all the core issues of the conflict, including the future of the Jewish settlements in the disputed territories. The Palestinians will bring their positions to the table and Israel will bring its positions to the table. That is where the settlement issue must be dealt with.
Israel is ready to negotiate an historic peace. Israel urges its Palestinian peace partners to not once again miss an historic opportunity for peace.