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Time for the U.S. to bow out of the peace process

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he address the Palestinian Liberation Organization's (PLO) central council in the West Bank City of Ramallah April 26.

MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama announced Friday that maybe it was time for "a pause" in the troubled U.S.-assisted peace process between Israel and the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel suspended the talks on Thursday after Mr. Abbas's Fatah movement agreed to reconciliation with its arch-rival Hamas, a militant resistance group that has always opposed recognition of Israel.

Perhaps in a few months, Mr. Obama said, the time might be ripe for Israel and the Palestinians to "walk through that door," ready to compromise. Then and only then, the President implied, would he be willing to work with them again.

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The President's move brings to mind something said by James Baker, the U.S. secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, in 1991. After three frustrating years of cajoling and pressuring the Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir and the Palestinian Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat to find a way to negotiate an end to the parties' eternal conflict, Mr. Baker threw up his hands in resignation and walked away from the process. He said, as he went, "call me when you're serious."

The two belligerents never did find a way to negotiate, despite the convening of a multiparty peace conference in Madrid in the wake of the First Gulf War. But Mr. Shamir's successor, Yitzhak Rabin did communicate with Mr. Arafat, and the result was the Oslo Accords of 1993 that included the two parties' mutual recognition and a plan for negotiating a two-state solution to their conflict.

The Oslo negotiations had been conducted in secret -- without even the knowledge of the United States -- though the parties agreed to have the formal handshake and document-signing take place on the White House lawn.

The lesson many draw from this experience is that definitive negotiations are often best done between the adversaries themselves, without the meddling of even a well-intentioned mediator.

That appears to be the point at which these same adversaries find themselves today.

Certainly, for the Palestinians, they have lost trust in the United States.

They point to the past nine months of fruitless negotiations orchestrated by another well-intentioned U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, as the reason why.

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"Last July, we told the Americans that nothing would likely come of the talks," said a senior Palestinian official with knowledge of the process. "But we said we'd go along with them and hope for the best."

Palestinians had insisted they'd only engage in negotiations if Israel halted construction in its settlements in the West Bank-- something Israel refused to do.

They also said the starting point for the talks should be the Green Line, the ceasefire line that was drawn at the end of the Israeli-Arab war in 1949. That line was observed until fighting in 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip – hence it is often referred to as "the 1967 border." Israel had refused to agree to this too.

"And we needed the talks to be for a finite period," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about these details. "We didn't want to waste too much time – we had other avenues we were prepared to take," he said referring to international recognition via the United Nations etc.

Finally, the Palestinians insisted that Israel fulfill a promise it made at the time of the Oslo Accords to release some 100 Palestinian and Arab Israeli prisoners from before that period.

What the Palestinians got was a letter of assurance from the Americans stating that the negotiations would be for nine months only and the frame of reference would be based on the '67 borders.

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With respect to the prisoners, the Palestinians subsequently agreed to a release of 106 inmates in four groups over the nine months of the talks.

As for a freeze on settlement construction, "we were told the following: Outside the settlement blocs, there will be no new construction," the official said emphasizing the last three words. By "blocs" he was referring to the largest Israeli settlements that have been built near the Green Line and are likely to end up under Israeli sovereignty by mutual agreement.

"And inside the blocs, including east Jerusalem," he added, "there will be maximum restraint in construction." He underlined "maximum restraint."

"Most of the [PLO] leadership was opposed to these terms," the official said. "For one thing, we don't officially recognize the 'settlement blocs'."

However, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas thought it was "a step in the right direction" and "we decided to go for negotiations," he explained.

"However," he paused for effect, "Israel must have gotten a different memo."

"By the time we had our second negotiating meeting, Israel had announced 1200 new homes inside the blocs," he said. "By the third meeting, they announced 700 homes in settlements outside the blocs."

"This is what they meant by 'no new construction' and by 'maximum restraint'?" he asked.

By the fourth meeting, he added, Israel had demolished a number of Palestinian homes in the Jordan Valley that had been constructed without a permit. The valley is defined as so-called "Area C" over which Israel exercises complete control and in which construction permits for Palestinians are difficult to obtain.

In late October, at the end of the first trimester, there was a major crisis. "We wanted the U.S. to enforce the agreement on 'maximum restraint'," the official said. But they didn't.

"It became clear," he stated ominously, "that either the U.S. or Israel was lying to us" about there being any such an agreement.

From then on – from early November until late March – the two parties never met face to face. Instead, U.S. mediators met first with one side, then the other, and carried notes back and forth.

But the Palestinians said they could never again trust that they were getting the real story. No agreements were forthcoming; not even an agreement to extend the talks. "They were a smokescreen," the Palestinian official concluded.

Ironically, Israeli officials have said privately for a long time that they don't trust the Obama administration either.

For them it began with his 2009 Cairo speech when Mr. Obama reached out to the Islamic world and, in so doing, also said that Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank had to stop. It was like a red flag to a bull.

From then on, every move undertaken by Washington was suspected as being part of that 2009 initiative: Mr. Obama's support for the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and his opposition to the Egyptian Army's ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in 2013; his pushing for a 10-month settlement freeze in 2009-10 that led to talks that never really got going and his current Secretary of State's demands before these latest talks. All have been judged as being slanted toward the Palestinians, against Israeli interests, or both.

The Israeli administration of Benjamin Netanyahu, like the Palestinian Authority of Mr. Abbas, will welcome a break from the Americans.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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