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The Middle East Peace Talks

The Wolf, the Lamb and the Third Party

by URI AVNERY

Tel Aviv.

WHEN YOU have a conflict between two parties, the way to solve it is clear: you put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with a reasonable solution acceptable to both.

For example, a conflict between a wolf and a lamb. Put them in the same room, let them thrash out their differences and emerge with…

Just a moment. The wolf emerges. Now where’s that lamb?

IF YOU have a conflict between two parties who are like a wolf and a lamb, you must have a third party in the room, just to make sure that Party 1 does not have Party 2 for dinner while the talks are going on.

The balance of power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is like that between a wolf and a lamb. In almost every respect – economic, military, political – Israel has a vast advantage.

This is a fact of life. It is up to the Third Party to balance this somehow.

Can it be done? Will it be done?

I HAVE ALWAYS liked John Kerry. He radiates an air of honesty, sincerity, that seems real. His dogged efforts command respect. The announcement this week that he has at long last achieved even the first stage of talks between the parties can give some room for optimism.

As Mao said: A march of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The parties have agreed to a meeting of delegates to work out the preliminary details. It should take place this coming week in Washington. So far so good.

The first question is: who will be the third person? It has been leaked that the leading candidate for this delicate task is Martin Indyk, a veteran former State Department officer.

This is a problematic choice. Indyk is Jewish and very much involved in Jewish and Zionist activity. He was born in England and grew up in Australia. He served twice as US ambassador to Israel.

Right-wing Israelis object to him because he is active in left-wing Israeli institutions. He is a member of the board of the New Israel Fund, which gives financial support to moderate Israeli peace organizations and is demonized by the extreme rightists around Binyamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians may well ask whether among the 300 million US citizens there is not a single non-Jew who can manage this job. For many years now it has been the case that almost all American officials dealing with the Israeli-Arab problem have been Jews. And almost all of them later went on to be officials in Zionist think-tanks and other organizations.

If the US had been called upon to referee negotiations between, say, Egypt and Ethiopia, would they have appointed an Ethiopian-American?

I HAVE met Indyk several times, generally at diplomatic receptions (not US embassy receptions, to which I was not invited.) Once I sent him a letter connected with his name.

The story about the Indyk is well known to anyone versed in Jewish folklore. It was told by a very influential Jewish rabbi, Nachman of Braslaw (1772-1811), who has many followers even today in Israel.

Once upon a time there was this prince who suffered under the delusion that he was an Indyk (turkey in Yiddish – from the Hebrew for Indian hen. He was sitting naked under a table and eating only crumbs thrown to him.

After all the doctors failed to cure him, a wise rabbi undertook the task. He stripped off his clothes, sat naked under the table and started acting like an Indyk too. Step by step he convinced the prince that an indyk may wear clothes, eat regular food and, in the end, sit at the table instead of under it. That way the prince was cured.

Some might say that this story has a direct bearing on his future job, if he is indeed chosen. Two naked Indyks are now under the table, and his job will be to get them to sit at the table and talk seriously about peace.

True, the Palestinians are used to having crumbs thrown to them, but they may now demand some real food.

THE CHANCES for any peace negotiations may be assessed by the atmosphere prevailing on both sides, the terminology they use and the internal discussions they conduct.

These are not very inspiring.

In Israel almost nobody uses the word “peace”. Even Tzipi Livni, who will be in charge of the negotiations on our side, talks only about a “final-status agreement” that would “put an end to the conflict”, not put an end to the occupation”.

Most Israelis ignore the event altogether, believing that Netanyahu’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ sole aim is to abort the negotiations in such a way as to put the onus on the other side. Most Palestinians believe the same. Peace is definitely not in the air.

However, a poll conducted this week showed that a large majority of Israelis – 55 to 25 (or, to percentualize it, 69 to 31) – would vote in a referendum for a peace agreement achieved by the Prime Minister. I have never had any doubt about this.

The idea of holding a referendum about a peace agreement is now being advocated by the Right and resisted by the Left. I am in favor. Without a solid majority, it would in any case be almost impossible for any government to remove settlements. And I believe that any concrete agreement accepted by a credible Palestinian leadership and recommended by the US will receive a resounding “Yes” in a referendum.

MOST OF the experts say that Israel should not strive for an endgame agreement, but for a more modest “interim” agreement. They cite the old Jewish adage: “He who wants to catch too much catches nothing.”

I beg to disagree..

First, there is the saying that you cannot cross an abyss in two jumps. No stopping in the middle. We quoted this saying to Yitzhak Rabin after Oslo.

The fatal flaw of the Oslo agreement was that it was all interim. The final aim was not stated. For the Palestinians it was clear that the aim was the setting up of the State of Palestine in all the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem. For the Israeli side, this was not clear at all. Absent an agreement on that, every interim step became a point of contention. If you want to go by train from Paris to Berlin, the intermediate stations are different from the ones on the way to Madrid.

Oslo gave up its poor soul somewhere along the way with the endless wrangling about the “safe passage” between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the “third withdrawal” and such.

The only way to proceed is first of all to reach an agreement on the “core issues”. This can be implemented over some time – though I would not recommend that either.

Israeli-Palestinian peace is a huge step in the history of the two peoples. If we have the courage to do it, let’s do it, for God’s sake, without lying down  along the way and crying.

AT THE moment, the great riddle is: what has Kerry promised each side in secret?

The method seems sound. Since the two sides could not agree on anything, and each demanded that the other start negotiations “without pre-conditions” while posing a lot of pre-conditions themselves, Kerry chose a different way.

It is based on a simple logic: in the American-Israeli-Palestinian triangle, almost all decisions will have to be made two-to-one. In practice, each side needs American support to get its demands accepted.

So, instead of trying to achieve the impossible – Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the basis of the negotiations – America gave each side a promise to support it on certain points.

For example, at a guess: a promise that the US will support the Palestinians on the border issue. The border will be based on the Green Line with reasonable land swaps. Also, on freezing settlements while the negotiations go on. On the other hand, the US will support Israel on the definition of Israel as a “Jewish” state and on the (non-)return of Palestinian refugees.

In the past, the US has broken such promises without blushing. For example, before the Camp David meeting, President Bill Clinton gave Yasser Arafat a solid promise that he would blame neither side for a failure. (Since the meeting was convened without the slightest preparation, failure was predictable.)  After the conference, Clinton put the blame squarely – and wrongly – on Arafat, a vile act of political opportunism, designed to help his wife get elected in New York.

In spite of such experiences, Abbas put his trust in Kerry. It seems that Kerry has the gift of inspiring such trust. Let’s hope he does not squander it.

So, with or without a turkey to keep the wolf from devouring the lamb, and in spite of all the past disappointments, let’s hope that this time real negotiations get going and lead towards peace. The alternative is too dismal to contemplate.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.