Indirect Talks Bring Israel, Palestinians Back to Square One

19 years after Madrid and 17 years after Oslo, we find ourselves back at the starting point.

Finally, a ladder has been found that enables Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to descend from the tree he had climbed. The Arab League follow-up committee authorized him to hold indirect talks with Israel. They are not to exceed four months, and the progression to direct talks is dependent on a total freeze on construction in the West Bank settlement. The negotiations, as everyone knows, cannot actually die so once again they are being put on an IV drip.

The fact is that this result could have been achieved in November, when the building freeze, but the issue was allowed to drag on until March. It can be assumed that things will stall once again, at the same point, in July, when the time comes for direct negotiations. But then it will only be two months before the scheduled end of the settlement freeze, when will be able to breathe comfortably once more, to build and settle en masse.

According to the theory of connected vessels, the same thing that brings Abbas down from his tree causes Israel to entrench itself deeper into the sand pit.

Indirect talks are a good trick when the other side is an enemy with which there is no dialogue and agreement must be reached on the initial conditions for negotiating, or for entities that do not recognize each other. This was the case for the indirect talks between Israel and Syria that were meant to formulate preconditions and to summarize what had been agreed to that point, or for the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

With the Palestinians, however, the situation is fundamentally different. For many years now both parties have recognized one another. They have cooperated on security issues and have recognized each other's needs. They have signed agreements, and above all they both recognize the right of the existence of two states, side by side.

In theory, this is not a repetition of Madrid circa 1991, which led to the proximity talks between Israel and a joint Palestinian-Jordanian delegation and later to separate talks between delegations. The couch that the U.S. State Department placed in the hallway because Israel refused to sit in the same room with the Palestinians has surely been sold to a secondhand furniture store on the assumption that it was no longer needed.

That was a mistake. Nineteen years after Madrid and 17 years after Oslo; following one war in Afghanistan, another in Iraq; the creation of new states after the disintegration of the Soviet Union; with Iran on its way to a nuclear bomb, after years of nursing its wounds from the Iran-Iraq war; after two intifadas, five and a half U.S. presidential terms, seven Israeli prime ministers and two Palestinian presidents, we find ourselves back at the starting point. At indirect talks and talks in the hallway, the couch and the Madrid curse. The setting that is so familiar failed to produce anything in the past, and there is no reason to assume that this time will be different.

Israel and the Palestinians do not need any more confidence-building measures, the lifting of roadblocks or the razing of outposts. Each knows the other all too well, and knows that these are hollow steps that even if they are carried out will only contribute to the occupation's extension. The road map drawn by George Mitchell also led to a dead end. The Palestinian price tag for direct talks will not change in the indirect talks.

A settlement freeze was and has remained a fundamental condition of the Palestinians. The view that East Jerusalem is the Palestinian capital does not match Jewish construction there. The territory of Palestine, which theoretically is the easy part of the negotiations, is also known, as is the territorial contiguity that is necessary in order to have a viable state. The settlements are contrary to these principles and removing a large portion of them is a necessary requirement.

But the right-wing government, even when it is decorated with some symbols of Labor, is contrary to freezing settlements, and certainly opposed to their dismantling. The Palestinians' basic conditions are antithetical to the conditions for the existence of a Netanyahu government. Therefore, it does not matter what the format of the talks will be. Because in the balance between the government's survival and the conditions for the state's existence, the government is of course more important.

The only encouraging sign we can draw from these talks is in the fact that the American mediator has become part of the actual price tag. Because he is the one who in the end will have to rule on who is to blame for the failure. This is the only element that can threaten Israel and the Palestinians.

But if we are to judge by the degree by which the Americans have shown they are committed to a resolution of the conflict, we should not hold our breath. They softened their tough stance on the settlement freeze pretty fast. The problem is that Barack Obama will not have to live with the results of failure.