Only hope is if Bibi and Abbas get to know each other personally
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The formula for overcoming the current crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can be found and the parties may get back to the table for another few months.
To overcome the crisis, John Kerry and his team proposed a package of reciprocal freezes. Israel was to cease building settlements, the Palestinians were halt their application to UN agencies. Prisoners were to be released — Palestinians and Jonathan Pollard — and an agreement made to spend more time negotiating.
This formula fails to deal with what seems to be one of the central flaws of the whole process — the absence of clear and agreed-to terms of reference. This is what the Palestinians have demanded and what Israel has refused to accept.
The Palestinians have proposed that the renewed negotiations focus on determining the border based on the June 4, 1967 lines and that East Jerusalem be accepted as the capital of Palestine. Israel rejects these terms of reference and calls them pre-conditions.
Setting an agreed border would enable Israel to continue building settlement units in areas that will be annexed to Israel as part of an agreement. But Israel has always demanded that the border issue be linked to security arrangements. Additionally, it seems impossible to deal with borders and security without including the discussion on Jerusalem, and then it all gets back to the same complexity that we have faced in all past negotiations.
After 20 years of negotiating, it is not really the issues themselves or the solutions that are impossibly complex. It is not even the internal political alliances and coalitions on each side that makes the process so difficult. If both of the leaders were successful at reaching an agreement they would be able to sell it at home and have enough political support to carry a referendum in support of the deal.
The fundamental difficulty remains in the total mistrust between the parties, and particularly between the leaders. In their heart of hearts, most Israelis, and most Palestinians, including the two leaders, really believe that the other side is planning to destroy the other.
Palestinians believe that Israelis are constantly working to cleanse the land of them, and that settlements are the tool being used to achieve that aim. Now they even speak adamantly of concrete Israeli plans to remove Muslims from Jerusalem. Israelis believe that the unwillingness of the Palestinians to recognise Israel as the Jewish nation-state is a clear expression of Palestinian plans to destroy Israel. These beliefs are held by both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.
It is quite amazing that even after eight months of negotiations, the two leaders have not held face-to-face talks. It may sound rather simplistic, but no Israeli Palestinian permanent peace agreement will ever be possible unless the leaders begin to trust each other. That trust must be built by the leaders getting to know each other on a personal basis and perhaps even liking each other.
I say this from my own personal experience of negotiating with Hamas. The release of Gilad Shalit became possible because basic trust developed between me and my negotiating partner — the product of five years of direct contact.
Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu do not need five years of negotiating time, but they must be brought together for intensive, continuous and direct bilateral negotiations. Without building trust, it is difficult to imagine a deal emerging any time soon.
Gershon Baskin is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information. His new book, ‘Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel’, has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and ‘The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Shalit from Hamas’ by the Toby Press