The claim that there is no one to talk to on the Palestinian side is a common one in Israeli discourse, seemingly an axiom. The Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman government has managed to stick the "no-partner" label to the Palestinian leadership and thus has slammed the door on diplomatic negotiations. The credit for this slogan goes to Ehud Barak, who placed full responsibility for the failure of talks with the Syrians on Hafez Assad, and responsibility for the failure of the Camp David summit on Yasser Arafat. However, scrutiny of the history of talks between Israel and its neighbors reveals that the no-partner claim has been a part of the Israeli-Arab conflict from its outset.
A study of statements by Israeli leaders David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, by pre-state Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky and many others reveals that the concept of the "iron wall" led their actions. To their mind, there was no partner to talk to on the Palestinian or Arab side. The fact that most of the Arab leaders refused to speak to Israel's leaders, at least until 1967, lent credence to this idea. But its dominance became counterproductive when leaders began to appear on the other side who did show willingness to talk to Israel under certain conditions.
That was the case, for example, when as far back as 1965 the president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, proposed recognition of Israel on the basis of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. That was also the case with Anwar Sadat, who was not perceived as a possible partner although he had proposed a peace plan even before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. So it was with Arafat, although in 1988 he declared his acceptance of Resolution 242 and his abandonment of the road of terror. The same thing happened with regard to the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which proposed a peace treaty with all the Arab countries in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Down through the years, the no-partner claim was criticized by researchers studying the Middle East. In the 1980s, Yehoshafat Harkabi, who had been the chief of Military Intelligence and was a renowned scholar of the Israeli-Arab conflict, said this claim was serving as a pretext for annexing territories conquered in 1967. Criticism has also recently come from Middle East expert Prof. Matti Steinberg, who saw the no-partner claim as a manifestation of Israel's patronizing attitude that the worthiness of Palestinian partners is a function of their willingness to obey Israeli dictates.
The case of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is particularly interesting. Since he became president in 2005, he has called for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with agreed-on adjustments. In fact, on both of the thorniest issues, Jerusalem and refugees, a moderate Palestinian stand can be seen from the minutes of secret talks in 2007 and 2008 between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas and between then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia.
The minutes were leaked to Al-Jazeera. Since the participants had not imagined such a leak, we may assume that the minutes reflect their true positions. The Israeli public, which was not exposed to this information at all, is not aware that the gap between the two sides, including on key issues, had become significantly smaller.
Abbas' consistency in his position, his reiteration of opposition to a popular struggle against Israel and his emphasis that the establishment of a Palestinian state does not mean a return to the borders of the Partition Plan or 1967, validates his statements. It is interesting that when the Arab-Palestinian side refuses to negotiate (for example the "three nos" of Khartoum in 1967, the Palestinian National Charter, the Hamas charter ), Israel's leaders treat these declarations seriously and view them as credible reflections of Arab positions. However, when Arabs take a positive position, moderate or conciliatory (Arafat, Assad, the Arab peace initiative ), there is a tendency to belittle the importance of such declarations, which are perceived as an attempt to mollify the West or as worthless rhetoric.
The obvious conclusion is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's declaration that there is no Palestinian partner does not necessarily stem from the fact that there is no one to talk to, but more from the fact that Netanyahu and Lieberman have nothing to talk about. People who do not want to promote peace talks find it convenient to explain away the continued stagnation by saying that there is no partner, not by Israeli rejectionism.
There is a partner on the Palestinian side, and his name is Mahmoud Abbas. Perhaps after the elections an Israeli partner will emerge.
Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Einat Levy is writing her M.A. thesis on the concept of "no partner" in Israeli society.