Serious negotiations are underway to resolve the Palestinian problem. There is also a partner in these negotiations. His name is not Mahmoud Abbas or Ismail Haniyeh, and the negotiations are not being conducted in Ramallah. Israel is conducting its talks with the administration in Washington, in English rather than in Arabic, and on the status of Israel rather than on a solution for the Palestinian problem.
"Israel is asking the U.S. to agree to limitations on the sovereignty of the future Palestinian state, including its complete demilitarization, the freedom for Israel to fly in Palestinian airspace, and concealed Israeli supervision of the border crossings of the Palestinian state," as Aluf Benn reported last week. In particular, if and when there are negotiations, Israel wants to be able to continue to operate in the territories without restrictions while the talks are being held.
It is possible, of course, to argue that these demands result from a serious Israeli internalization of the new reality in which a Palestinian state will arise, and that to seal the deal there remains only the question of the airspace and Shin Bet officials sitting behind one-way glass at the border crossing.
But there is a sneaking suspicion that this conclusion is unfounded. Because why is Israel negotiating with Washington and not with the Palestinian Authority? After all, these issues cannot be implemented without Palestinian consent. It seems Israel seeks conditions that will become the permanent policy of the U.S., regardless of who its president may be.
In this way, if the Palestinians do not accept these conditions, they will appear to be acting against U.S. policy rather than opposing Israel's position. On the other hand, if a new American president decides someday to disregard these demands, he will be regarded as someone acting against Israel rather than for the Palestinians.
The other possibility is that these conditions were merely designed for the minor festival slated to take place here Wednesday, when U.S. President George W. Bush visits. After all, none of the sides believes it is really possible to avoid conducting negotiations with the Palestinians on the core issues while bargaining with the U.S. on unessential secondary conditions. But if this is the ultimate focus of Bush's visit, it would provide further proof of the futility of the Annapolis conference and the helplessness of a superpower unable to impose peace with the same determination with which it wages war.
At the same time, if Israel succeeds in placing these conditions on the agenda, it will add a new political minefield - a kind of explosive constraint - to the road map, which itself is an obstacle course nearly impossible to maneuver. Israel's demands sound logical and almost succeed in covering up the fundamental contradictions they entail.
For example, if Israel conditions the negotiations with the Palestinians on implementation of the road map, whose basic premise is a Palestinian fight against terror, why does Israel also demand freedom of military action in the territories during the negotiations? If it does not trust the Palestinians in the war against terror, it should forgo implementing the road map and continue to fight terror itself. In this way, at least one fundamental stumbling block in the negotiations would be removed. If the future Palestinian state must be completely demilitarized, as indeed it should, how will it be able to fight terror? Was it not Israel that allowed the Palestinian Authority to bring in dozens of armored vehicles to combat terror? Was it not Israel that distributed weapons to the PA's security forces?
And what is the significance of the Israeli monitors at the crossing points when the rules for their operations are not consensual? Will they be able to detain Palestinian citizens for questioning? Will they be able to prevent the transfer of funds? Will they be authorized to search pilgrims' belongings? Is there any country in the world that allows the authorities of another country to monitor its border crossings?
As in the case of the road map, is it not superfluous to ask whether the negotiations on the border monitors will precede negotiations on the holy places or the demarcation of borders or the use of water? Will an agreement on open Palestinian skies for Israel aircraft be a precondition for Israel's consent to evacuate illegal outposts? Is this not a road map to the road map?
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