All of a sudden, after 10 months and who knows how many meetings, freezing construction in the settlements is no longer a precondition for negotiations. True, until now the Palestinians were willing to negotiate the end of the occupation while their partner made it worse. That is how we have gone from 109,000 settlers - not including East Jerusalem - when the Oslo Accords were signed 16 years ago to more than 300,000 today. Until when, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, will they have to remain suckers? True, all U.S. presidents since then, including Hillary Clinton's husband, treated the settlements just like the weather: an interesting topic for conversation, but impossible to change. But Barack Obama has promised a change, not more of the same.
Peace initiatives have always come without preconditions, and certainly without the precondition of a complete end to violence between the two warring parties. That is supposed to be the result of the diplomatic process, particularly in the case of negotiations between the occupier and occupied. But Netanyahu established an iron rule during his first term as prime minister: "If they give, they'll get - if they don't give, they won't get." In other words, no negotiations as long as there is violence. Netanyahu was proud of his differences with Yitzhak Rabin: He would not conduct the peace process as if there was no terror, and he would fight terror as if there was no peace process.
And how are we to explain Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's renewed demand to make the renewal of talks contingent on the Palestinians' withdrawal of their initiative on the Goldstone report? Isn't that a precondition? And how are we to define the Quartet's conditions for recognition of the Hamas government: an end to violence, recognition of Israel and honoring previous agreements? Are these also not preconditions?
The road map, which received the official stamp of the UN Security Council six years ago, established two preconditions: the end of violence on one side and the freezing of construction in the settlements on the other - including that required for natural growth. The decision also states that Israel must evacuate all illegal outposts put up since the beginning of Ariel Sharon's term as prime minister. That section is included in the first stage of the road map, which is two stages and a number of months before negotiations on a permanent agreement can be renewed.
U.S. generals, and even Israeli ones, have confirmed that the Palestinians have fulfilled the precondition set for them. It's hard to find anyone who will say this about the Israelis. If, God forbid, buses were to start blowing up in Jerusalem again, Netanyahu would not be seen near any Palestinian leader. He wrote in his book that it is forbidden under any circumstances to negotiate with terrorists. But to build during negotiations on land that the entire world claims is not yours - that's something else. The main thing is that Netanyahu promised in his Bar-Ilan speech that he supports two states for two peoples. Even Hillary Clinton said this was wonderful.
Since March 2002, an Arab peace initiative that makes normalization contingent on the end of the occupation has been waiting for Israel. Obama has pleaded with friendly Arab leaders to grant Israel an advance on future concessions to prepare the goundwork for the peace process. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and a few Gulf leaders agreed to launch initial steps of reconciliation. But even they, like Obama, had a precondition: freezing settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They did not ask for anything more than what Clinton announced a few months ago: a complete cessation without natural growth, without illegal outposts and without excuses.
The Palestinian public learned on Saturday that even the darkest hope of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his comrades has gone the way of all his predecessors. Why should Hamas stick its head into a government that isn't even capable of getting the Americans to pressure Israel to freeze the settlements for a few months? All they have to do is wait until election day in the territories when Netanyahu will hand over hundreds of prisoners in return for captured soldier Gilad Shalit. The important thing is that there will be no preconditions.
If Hamas lacked a reason to reject the initiative for reconciliation with Fatah and wait patiently for another round of the "peace process" to go the way of its predecessors, and have the West Bank return to its bosom, then Mrs. Clinton supplied just such a reason, in a big way.
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