Three weeks after the end of the talks that took place between Israel and the Palestinians in Amman which took place under the patronage of the King of Jordan, Israeli officials revealed their version of the events, laying the blame on the failure of the talks on Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Despite the mutual “blame game,” according to positions presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the topic of borders, it is clear that it is not much different than the positions presented by Tzipi Livni during the Annapolis Conference.
The five rounds of talks in Amman were the result of international pressure placed on Abbas immediately after his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 23 2011. On that same day, the members of the Quartet – the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations – declared a new outline for talks and called on both sides to respond positively.
After a few weeks, both Israel and the Palestinians responded to the request with a “yes, but” with both sides presenting a list of reservations. A month after the assembly, delegations from the Quartet arrived for first-round talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives.
According to a top Israeli official, on the day of the meeting, the prime minister’s envoy, Isaac Molho, arrived at the hotel and entered the meeting room only to discover that his Palestinian counterpart, Saeb Erekat, did not make it to the meeting. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a of Fatah’s central committee was sent in his stead. The Palestinian side did not agree to sit with Molho in the same room, and the envoys were resigned to hopping between different rooms in the hotel in order to hold discussions between the two sides.
After a week, the Quarter envoys arrived in Jerusalem, although the Palestinians refused once more to sit in the same room as Molho. “There is an empty chair in the room,” said Molho to the envoys at the meeting. “Where is Saeb Erekat?”
For over a month, the Quarter envoys attempted to bring the Palestinians to the negotiation room, but only when King Abdullah II began to apply pressure did things begin to move. The king came to Ramallah on a rare trip and pressured Mahmoud Abbas. Finally, on January 3, the Jordanians were able to bring together Erekat and Molho in Jordan’s Foreign Ministry in Amman.
First meeting: The blame game
A senior Israeli official said that the January 3 meeting began in a wider forum where Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian officials were present, as well representatives of all the Quarter members. While speaking in front of no less than 20 people, Saeb Erekat pulled out two documents: one on the Palestinian position regarding borders, and one on the Palestinian position regarding security.
The Palestinian documents were not surprising. On the topic of borders, the Palestinians called for a return to 1967 borders with an acceptance of land-swaps of 1.9% of the West Bank. On the topic of security, the Palestinians agreed to a demilitarized state (devoid of heavy weaponry), and the stationing of an international force on the border between Israel and Jordan, with no presence of Israeli soldiers.
After the meeting in the general forum, the sides moved to a smaller meeting with only Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian representatives alone. According to the Israeli official, the Palestinians immediately demanded a freeze on settlement building, freeing prisoners and emphasized that from their point of view, the talks would end on January 26 as that was the date that the Quartet set for negotiations on the subject of borders and security.
The Israeli delegation was surprised by the announcement. “We had just begun and you are already threatening to end the talks,” said Molho to Erekat. The Israeli side emphasized to the Palestinians that the talks are only in their beginning stages and that with such a short timeframe it is impossible to hold serious negotiations. At that same meeting, Molho presented a 21-point document that included all the topics Israel is interested in discussing during the talks, including borders, Jerusalem, settlements, security arrangements, Palestinian incitement and more. And although the document included all the points, it did not include any of the Israeli positions. The meeting produced very little progress, except for the fact that the two sides agreed to decide on another two meetings that would take place during January.
Second Meeting: Molho asks for clarification
On January 9, a second meeting took place between Molho and Erekat, this time in a smaller forum. Present alongside the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams was Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh and his top adviser. Molho, who went over the documents presented by the Palestinians during the previous meeting, passed along a document with 19 requests for clarification regarding the Palestinians' positions.
One of Molho's questions was about the future of the settlements in the Palestinian state. Would they be evacuated or would they be allowed to remain? From the question it is clear that Netanyahu's position on the issue of borders is that at least some of the settlements will remain where they are in a Palestinian state and will not be evacuated. "Erekat told us that he prefers not to respond to the question, and until this day we have not received an answer," said a top Israeli official.
Another question brought up by Molho to Erekat had to do with the PA's relationship to Hamas and the situation in the Gaza Strip. Erekat responded that the Palestinian state will be "a strong democracy," and blamed Israel for Hamas' takeover of Gaza.
Molho further asked whether the position on borders was final. The top Israeli official claimed that among the Palestinian delegation there were contradictory positions on the issue. "On the one hand, Erekat told us that the documents are not the Quran and are not holy. On the other hand, Mohammad Shatyyeh told us that the Palestinians had already made their compromise and that a land swap of 1.9% is the maximum they are willing to give," he said. "In the end, the Palestinian proposals were a step backward from the more progressive positions that they presented in Annapolis."
Fourth meeting: Israeli general sits outside the room
A third meeting between the two sides took place on January 14, but did not produce any results. During a meeting on January 18, the Israeli delegation brought with it the Head of the Strategic Planning Division in the IDF Planning Directorate, Brigadier-General Assaf Orion in order to summarize Israel’s position on security arrangements. The Palestinians refused to allow him to speak. “We came to the meeting place and were delayed for an hour and a half because the Palestinians were not willing to hear the Israeli general. They said that they are not willing to hear a military person speak,” said the Israeli official.
When both sides finally entered the room, Erekat handed Molho a letter that demanded the release of Hamas member and Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Aziz Duwaik, who was arrested a few days earlier. A few hours later, the contents of the letter were leaked to the Palestinian media.
The Israeli side also presented documents to the Palestinians, including one on incitement against Israel in the Palestinian media. The document contained quotes from the Mufti of Jerusalem that called for the killing of Jews. Erekat rejected the claims. “The accusations are wrong, and in the end you will have to apologize for this slander,” said Erekat to Molho.
In the meeting that took place afterwards, the Palestinians had understood that they had a problem on their hands, and suggested organizing a joint committee that would deal with the issue of incitement. Head of Israel’s National Information Directorate Yoaz Hendel, who participated in the meeting, told Erekat that instead of organizing a committee, they themselves can take care of the issue of incitement.
Fifth meeting: Molho presents Netanyahu’s proposal on borders
On January 25, a day before the date which the Palestinians threatened to walk out on the talks, the final round of talks took place between the sides. During the discussions, Molho presented Netanyahu’s proposal on the borders of the Palestinian state.
Molho presented several principles:
1. The border will be drawn in a way that will include the maximum amount of Israelis living in the West Bank, and the minimum amount of Palestinians.
2. Israel will annex the large settlement blocs, without defining what exactly is considered a ‘bloc,’ nor defining its size.
3. It is necessary to first solve the problem of borders and security in relation to Judea and Samaria, and only afterwards move to discuss the topic of Jerusalem which is far more complicated.
4. Israel will maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley for a period of time. Molho did not mention how long nor what kind of presence.
During the meeting, Erekat asked for clarification regarding the Jordan Valley. Molho referred him to Netanyahu’s speech’s to the opening session of the Knesset, as well as to that in front of Congress in May 2011. In both speeches, Netanyahu spoke of a “military presence along the Jordan River,” yet he did not demand that Israel maintain sovereignty over the valley. “And if we refuse?” Erekat asked. Molho responded: You would prefer that we annex the valley?”
Molho did not mention how size of the territory from which Israel will withdraw, but according to the principles he presented, it seems that it is similar, if not identical to that which was presented by Tzipi Livni during the negotiations that took place in 2008 after the Annapolis Conference. And although Netanyahu does not admit it, the meaning behind the principles Molho presented is a withdrawal that will cause Israel to give up 90% of its sovereignty. “The possibility of leaving the settlements in a Palestinian state also came up in Annapolis,” said a source that participated in the 2008 talks.
Erekat, who understood the principles, asked at the end of the meetings for a series of clarifications: whether Israel accepts the 1967 borders as a basic tenet upon which the two sides can negotiation, whether Israel accepts the principle of territory swaps, how many percentages of the West Bank is Israel interested in annexing, whether Israel has a map with border proposals, whether Israel is willing to evacuate settlements, etc.
“I’d be happy to answer all these questions in the next meeting,” said Molho to Erekat. But the next meeting never took place. A day later, the Palestinians said that they will not resume talks unless Israel freezes settlement building and accepts the principle of 1967 borders.
Israeli officials: Abbas ran away once again
Israelis are now admitting that the talks have come to an end and their renewal is not expected anytime soon, especially in light of the recent reconciliation meeting between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Doha. Up until two weeks ago, Netanyahu had discussed a series of goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians with Tony Blair and the Americans, in order to enable the renewal of the talks. However, the meeting between Abbas and Meshal caused the Israelis to take of the offer off the table.
In a briefing to journalists on Sunday in Jerusalem, Israeli officials blamed the freeze in the talks on Abbas. “For the past three weeks, Abbas has run away from negotiations, and has done the same regarding the talks in Amman,” said a top Israeli official. “We had the willingness to make gestures and we presented a full package, but the Palestinians simply did not want it. More and more international bodies understand that we were not the ones that thwarted the talks. You can see it from the silence on the part of the Jordanians. They did not blame Israel in any way.”
It must be noted that Netanyahu’s goodwill gesture package was much more modest han what the Palestinians and the international community had hoped for. Netanyahu proposed releasing 25 prisoners, establishing 10 new stations for the Palestinian police in Area B (where Israel is in charge of security), as well as a series of economic projects in Area C (where Israel has full control).
What now? Officials in Jerusalem are waiting to see which path Abbas will take: reconciliation with Hamas in a meeting set to take place in a week, a return to the United Nations or in a more optimistic scenario – a willingness to return to talks with Israel. “It is unclear what the Palestinians will choose, but we believe they will return to their campaign in the United Nations within a few weeks,” said the Israeli official.
The assessment in Israel is that the attempt to establish a unitary government with Hamas will not succeed. However, if the reconciliation does take shape, the Israelis clarify that it will have consequences. “We will not enter negotiations with any government that Hamas takes part in, or that its members are appointed by Hamas,” said the official. He hinted that Israel may once more freeze Palestinian taxes. “We will see what happens at the meeting in Cairo at the end of the month. The political leaders will decide what to do,” he said.