Another innovation has been added to the list of sophisticated negotiation-stalling tactics. It is known by the business term "without preconditions." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's latest message is that he is ready to conduct negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad without preconditions, and the same applies to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Sounds good. Finally there is a breakthrough.
But wait a minute. Without preconditions on whose part, Israel's or Syria's? Netanyahu's or Abbas'? Is Israel ready to concede the basic condition it set down to the effect that Syria must disengage from Iran and stop supporting Hezbollah? More importantly, does "without preconditions" mean that the entire round of negotiations would start from the beginning and that everything previously agreed on with the Syrians would be null and void?
Would the so-called "Rabin deposit" of the Golan Heights in connection with a peace treaty with Syria and the "80 percent that was agreed on," as Assad used to declare, no longer be a departure point? Would all this be scrapped and the discussions start from scratch? Is the declaration "without preconditions" a cover for the Israeli demand that Abbas also drop his condition that Israel cease construction in the settlements as a basis for starting negotiations?
Netanyahu, Assad and Abbas all have filing cabinets full of yellowed documents that tell the saga of previous rounds of Mideast negotiations, what was agreed on, what was understood and what was winked at, including "non-papers" and cut corners. All this was achieved through public and secret meetings, as well as dozens of intermediaries who made the rounds.
A reexamination of even a portion of these documents would be enough to make any accountant dizzy. There is the 60 percent of the West Bank that Kadima's Shaul Mofaz now proposes to hand over to a Palestinian state, the 98 percent that Ehud Barak proposed to Yasser Arafat when he was prime minister, and the 99 percent that former prime minister Ehud Olmert offered Abbas. These mathematical calculations have achieved nothing so far because in the face of these virtual percentages, numbers have been cast in concrete on the ground with the settlements, land expropriation, bypass roads and other obstacles.
Under such circumstances, it isn't easy to approach Abbas and demand, "let's start negotiations without preconditions." And when Abbas refuses to abandon the only condition that could provide him with equal status opposite his Israeli non-partner, he becomes the one refusing to negotiate.
The understandings with Syria were stalled where things were left in 1996, more or less. A summit meeting involving U.S. president Bill Clinton, prime minister Ehud Barak and Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara in December 1999 and the Shepherdstown talks at the beginning of 2000 didn't achieve a breakthrough, and Turkish mediation - which almost brought Olmert and Assad to the home of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan - were not restarted. The negotiations have suffered the consequences of the spat between Turkey and Israel.
Assad's repeated calls for a resumption of talks have been dismissed by Israel, saying that he is only interested in improving relations with the United States. The stance of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to the effect that Assad could join the Arab moderate camp, and Barak's hypothesis that one should not ignore Syria's peace signals are not enough from Netanyahu's standpoint to jump-start the process.
He is busy with "preconditions." Should Israel agree to outside mediation or insist on direct negotiations? Should Israel drop the condition relating to Syrian ties with Iran and Hezbollah, or treat Israel-Syria contacts as a separate track? And if there is to be mediation, should it be "bestowed" on France or given again to Turkey? And public relations regarding the negotiations take on a life of their own, in Netanyahu's opinion. They are the "precondition" over which it is also possible to conduct a winning or losing battle, even before any negotiations begin.
So one gets the impression that Israel is making a major concession when it is not insisting on preconditions, as if it is taking off some kind of flak jacket designed to protect it from its diabolical negotiating partners. If Netanyahu is serious in his intention to resume negotiations with Syria and Abbas, he knows precisely what he has to do.
First, he has to stop waving around his declaration of "without preconditions." He must announce that everything that was agreed on and understood by previous Israeli governments is accepted by him without conditions. He must say that he agrees to the temporary but total halt to construction in the settlements, even if Washington shows understanding for his needs. The negotiations are with the Palestinians, not with the American president, and they are the ones whose agreement he must get. He must announce, as Assad did in the past, that he understands the price of peace in the Golan Heights and is ready to pay it. Everything else is the stuff of negotiations.
Netanyahu does not need to turn a new historic page in negotiations. He only has to be a statesman. That is the only proper precondition.
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