Editorial: Talks charade

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15 February 2010

Published — Monday 15 February 2010

Last Update 7 May 2012 10:35 am

IN an attempt to break the logjam in negotiations, the Middle East peace participants are close to a novel approach — talking, yes, but from a distance.

Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly agreed to start “indirect talks” with Israel by the end of February, to restart negotiations that broke down at the start of the war in Gaza in December 2008.

This would be a sight worth watching. Separated by just a few feet, the Palestinians would be sitting in one room, the Israelis in another and special US Middle East envoy George Mitchell shuttling back and forth with messages. Mitchell would need to wear his best walking shoes, for these talks at a distance could take three to four months. They could be labeled the proximity talks but the more apt description is the nonsense of non-talks.

What happened to face-to-face encounters? If not, where are phones, mobiles, e-mails, teleconferencing and faxes? And more important: How does this particular method of doing business make for better negotiations?

Such a strange style of negotiations would not only become the butt of jokes but a setback given that Israel and the Palestinians have held countless meetings ever since the 1991 Madrid conference.

What might have forced Abbas into this oddity is the belief that Washington may be trying to coerce the Palestinian leadership into abandoning the traditional Palestinian constants with regard to the inviolability of the 1967 borders, the status of Jerusalem and refugees. Abbas does not want to be perceived as succumbing to American pressure to drop all demands and preconditions for the resumption of the stalled peace negotiations, so it could be that he wants to have talks, but not really. He might want to use this indirect method to be able to claim that he is still clinging to his earlier stance, which precludes any resumption of talks in the absence of a definitive freeze in Jewish settlement expansion.

It is not clear what subjects the two sides would discuss. Netanyahu has consistently refused to restart the talks from the point where they left off under the Olmert-Livni government, whereas the PA has been demanding that the Israeli government show commitment to understandings and agreements reached earlier.

Netanyahu has been suggesting that his repetitive calls for an immediate resumption of peace talks in no way imply that he is willing to give in to the Palestinians. In fact, he has been adding fresh conditions that any prospective Palestinian entity would have to be completely controlled by Israel, including borders, border crossings, foreign relations, communications networks, airspace and territorial waters. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu said that Israel would have to maintain a military presence in the West Bank. Israel also wants to retain military control of the Jordan Valley, which constitutes the boundaries between Jordan and any future Palestinian political entity.

And in espousing these understandings, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been saying that the entire concept of land-for-peace was dead.

As such, Abbas will not want to get too involved in another spate of negotiations that may very well prove as futile as previous talks, especially since the two sides have exhausted discussion of all pertinent issues and that what was really needed was taking decisions, not conducting more talks, this time from afar.

A model for Mideast

THE Turkish-Armenian reconciliation should be acknowledged as an example of the way forward, of a better alternative to the seething tensions that have bedeviled this region for almost all of living memory, said The Daily Star of Beirut in an editorial on Saturday. Excerpts:

In a move that deserves praise and support, Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan moved forward again on Friday to normalize relations with Turkey. Sarksyan submitted to the Armenian Parliament two protocols which spring from the deal he signed with Turkish President Abdullah Gul last October; the two protocols would open bilateral diplomatic relations and open the countries’ shared border.

Sarksyan will need all the help he can get for this initiative. He is going against the prevailing tide in his own country and among much of the Armenian diaspora, as we have seen demonstrated here. In a bow to this resistance, Sarksyan’s government added codicils to the accords that should make it easier for Yerevan to walk away from the deal if Turkey dawdles. This surprising and welcome break from the past should be seen only through the perspective of the Armenia. The massacre has become a mascot for many other phenomena plaguing Armenia, a cudgel that can be readily brandished to cast blame or distract attention from a spectrum of problems: High unemployment, a stagnant economy and a lack of foreign investment.

Nevertheless, the Armenian president has taken a bold and necessary step. It is time to move forward; instead of living in the past and playing the game of blame and victimhood, this region needs understanding and reconciliation. For its part, Armenia has a well of untapped potential, whether as a passageway for a natural-gas pipeline or in its historically talented populace — Armenians can boast a wealth of chess champions, world-class musicians and accomplished engineers.

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