leaders - AFP - Sept 3 2010
From left, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington on September 2, 2010. Photo by AFP
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The bull dies in the end, no? He always dies. So what's the fun in a bullfight? You don't understand. It's the style. The style. You have to know how to kill the bull. It's an art. I no longer remember which Spaniard explained this truth to me, but I was reminded of it when I saw the handsome table where the matadors Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas sat, next to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, and the host, U.S. President Barack Obama. They were preparing for another round over the corpse of the peace process.

Netanyahu spoke well when he told Abbas: You are my partner for peace. Indeed, there are always two competitors, Israeli and Palestinian. For the next 12 months, if the process doesn't die first, each will once again have to demonstrate his style. But in contrast to the bullfight, the art here is how to avoid responsibility for the death.

The ground rules are clear. On the Israeli side you must not agree to a withdrawal, Jerusalem must not be divided, no returning of refugees, and don't relinquish water resources or the Jordan valley. On the Palestinian side there is no giving up on a single inch of land but only minor land swaps, the refugee issue can be discussed, East Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine, and no settlement will remain in Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu began well. He declared in the measured tone of a master of rhetoric that he is ready for a historic compromise and that genuine peace will require painful concessions by both sides. What, for example? Continuing the construction freeze in the settlements? Dismantling unauthorized outposts? Adopting the map that former prime minister Ehud Olmert proposed to Abbas? Stationing a multinational force in the Jordan Valley?

What prevented Netanyahu from offering these things to Abbas during the indirect talks? Does he have a mysterious rabbit in his hat that he can sell Abbas without anyone noticing? In three weeks he will have to publicly confront his adversaries regarding construction in the settlements. No bluffing will do here. Bulldozers can't be hidden in drawers. So it can be safely asserted that Netanyahu has no new wares to peddle to the Palestinians, and Abbas knows it.

What is needed here is a decision by the leaders, not negotiating teams, Netanyahu said, explaining his mission. If so, why is it necessary to have a referendum on the agreement, if and when it is achieved? Does Netanyahu fear that he is acting outside the mandate given him by the public, contrary to his party's platform? Or maybe he's sure the public will approve what his coalition partners will reject? But this is the same public that elected the rightist majority that formed the governing coalition. It's the same public that Netanyahu has done nothing to convince that it would be best to withdraw, strike a peace agreement and separate from the territories.

The next stage is even more dangerous, because it's too easy to con the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and present them with the trap of interim arrangements, a flexible timetable or a framework agreement that contains no practical details. These are minefields that have already exploded, from the Mitchell Report, to the Tenet Plan, to the road map, to Annapolis.

At most, these are escape hatches for each side. They are not much more than the declaration of two states for two peoples. Anyone who proposes them is dooming the process to failure from the start. It's worth remembering how we waited with baited breath to hear the two-state formula uttered by Netanyahu, and after he said the magic words it turned out that the words were meaningless without a practical, political decision that can be translated into a complete agreement.

Upon his return from Washington, Netanyahu has to prepare for his next meeting with Abbas. But even more, he has to prepare for his dialogue with the public. He has to sell the form of peace and not the peace process. He can't again offer the public the arrangement he obtained from Abbas, but rather the asset he will get at the end of the process. The Israelis, as well as the Palestinians, deserve to finally know what their country's borders are, and to rid themselves of the stigma of occupation. He doesn't have to whisper this in Abbas' ear but to announce it publicly in Israel, in Hebrew.

Without this honest conversation with the Israeli public, Bibi will remain the matador, who with elegance and style drives the sword into the process, blames the Palestinians and declares that he won.