So when the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the initial invitation yesterday on behalf of the United States to both sides to come to Washington to launch peace talks and the parties responded, news stories, typified by this Reuters story, began to form the following narrative:
Israel and the Palestinians accepted on Friday an invitation by the United States and other powers to restart direct talks on September 2 in a modest step toward forging a deal within 12 months to create a Palestinian state and peacefully end one of the world's most intractable conflicts.But what most stories missed is how the parties, in disagreement over the talks for months, finally accepted the invitation. It happened because in their minds, and before their constituencies, they accepted different things. You see, two different statements where issued yesterday. One by the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which was designed for the Israelis, and another released by the Quartet (The US, UN, EU and Russia) which was designed for the Palestinians. They, in essence, contradict each other.
Here is Clinton's statement yesterday and the vital excerpt (emphasis mine):
As we move forward, it is important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it. There have been difficulties in the past; there will be difficulties ahead. Without a doubt, we will hit more obstacles. The enemies of peace will keep trying to defeat us and to derail these talks. But I ask the parties to persevere, to keep moving forward even through difficult times, and to continue working to achieve a just and lasting peace in the region.
As we have said before, these negotiations should take place without preconditions and be characterized by good faith and a commitment to their success, which will bring a better future to all of the people of the region.
Now, here is the response from Israel (again, emphasis mine):
Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomes the invitation of the United States to begin direct negotiations without preconditions.
The Prime Minister has been calling for direct negotiations for the past year and a half. He was pleased with the American clarification that the talks would be without preconditions.
So Clinton's statement said "no preconditions", which is what the Israelis have been demanding and the Palestinians have been objecting to. Clearly, as seen from the Israeli response, the American acquiescence to the Israeli demand resonated.
Well, what about the Palestinians? The statement drafted for them came from the Quartet. Here is the important excerpt (emphasis mine):
The representatives of the Quartet reaffirm their strong support for direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians to resolve all final status issues. The Quartet reaffirms its full commitment to its previous statements, including in Trieste on 26 June 2009, in New York on 24 September 2009, and its statement in Moscow on 19 March 2010, which provides that direct, bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues should “lead to a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbours”.
By reaffirming previous statements they made in the statement they made yesterday, they in essence said to the Palestinians that the Quartet does not recognize Israel's sovereignty over East Jerusalem (Quartet Statement from March 19, 2010 in Moscow), condemns settlement activity especially in E. Jerusalem and throughout the occupied territory, and calls for an immediate settlement freeze (Trieste Statement , New York Statement).
And how did the Mahmoud Abbas-led PLO Executive Committee respond to the Hillary Clinton's statement? It didn't. The response was based on the Quartet statement which said something completely different. Here is a report on the PLO response:
The PLO's Executive Committee on Friday accepted a US invitation to begin direct peace talks on 2 September by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a statement read.
"Based on the Quartet's statement ... the PLO announces its approval to resume negotiations aimed at solving all final status solutions," a statement issued by the Executive Committee read.
The PLO said it had agreed to negotiations with a timeframe of one-year based on the Quartet's statement, which "included calling both sides to abide by international law and in particular, stick to the Road Map, calling on Israel to stop all settlement activity."
...The PLO statement also cited "the Quartet’s confirmation that international community will not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem," when it accepted the US invitation.
The US's statement gives Netanyahu wiggle room and the Quartet statement does the same for Abbas, but neither side is on the same page, they have just been enabled to enter direct talks and show their domestic constituencies a statement that, especially on the Palestinian side, isn't worth the paper it is written on.
So what side is the US on? Does it stand by the statements it issued as part of the Quartet that calls for a settlement freeze or does it stand by the statement it made out of the Department of State that doesn't call for a settlement freeze.
After this diplomatic dance that was intended to give each principle negotiator a way to deceive their people into believing the other side had acquiesced to their terms of reference, Special Envoy George Mitchell says this when asked about the terms of reference question:
Only the parties can determine terms of reference and basis for negotiations, and they will do so when they meet and discuss these matters. As you know, both we and the Quartet have previously said that the negotiations should be without preconditions.
What? Now this is getting pretty ridiculous. The only Quartet statement that called for negotiations without preconditions was in June of 2010 and the statement issued yesterday by the quartet reaffirms all previous statements which contradict the June statement on preconditions.
None of these words have any meaning anymore. This is just a load of garbage designed to quell public dissent and get both sides together for a photo op that will look like a diplomatic victory for Obama, come at no cost to Netanyahu, and possibly be political suicide for Abbas.
So what happens when, in the midst of this process, Israel continues to build settlements which runs contrary to the stated Palestinian understand of the framework of these talks? From Reuters this morning:
The Palestinians will pull out of direct peace talks due to start with Israel next month if the Israeli government announces new settlement building, the chief Palestinian negotiator said on Friday.
We will inevitably run into a point where the understanding of this process is challenged. Whether it is because of settlements, the 67 borders, or the status of Jerusalem, it is clear that negotiations will not escape the minefield that they have set for themselves. At that point, the US, the so-called honest broker, will have to choose to stand with the positions it has taken with the Quartet or the position it has taken alone. It will be in that moment that we will clearly see the profile of Janus' ugly head and, if history is indicator, the US will fall squarely on the Israeli side of the dispute and abandon the positions they took with the Quartet.
This happened earlier this year. In March, the US joined in the Quartet statement calling for a settlement freeze before acquiescing to Netanyahu's demand for direct talks without preconditions.
The industry which kicks into gear every time there is an announcement like this is trained to "find the hope" in the peace process and shun critics of the process as "skeptics" and "pessimists".
But the reality is that criticism of this process has little to do with one's nature as an optimist or pessimist. Rather, it is about wisdom and naivete. No objective observer, in their right mind, can look at this and see anything other than a process that was built to collapse on itself.