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Mr. Greenblatt, this is what is needed to have direct talks

Apr 24,2019 - Last updated at Apr 24,2019

Jason Greenblatt, assistant to the 45th President of the US and Special representative for international negotiations, took time out of his busy schedule preparing “the ultimate deal” and responded to my April 18 column in this paper.

My April 18 column was based on a tip I had learned from a respected diplomat in Amman about the methodology that the secretive American Middle East negotiators were considering using to unlock the decades-old Middle East jam. My source suggested that the Americans were thinking of “baseball arbitration” as the mechanism to do this. I explained in my column what this kind of arbitration is all about, namely a way of getting baseball players and owners to compromise their positions by means of suggesting a pay salary that they can live with, knowing full well that a fair arbitrator would choose the side whose offer is the most reasonable. I argued that we are dealing with people’s lives and not baseball salaries, and, anyways, the US team has shown itself not to be a fair arbitrator because in this case, the referee is playing on the side of one team.

The US team responded in the Trumpian fashion with a Tweet from Greenblatt on April 19.

“Another incorrect story”, the Tweet began. “Our vision doesn’t provide for ‘baseball arbitration,’ which wouldn’t work in this situation. There’s no avoiding direct negotiations between parties to reach a comprehensive deal. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken.”

A careful reading of the Tweet infers that the idea of baseball arbitration was considered but a decision was made that it “wouldn’t work in this situation”.

The fact that the Tweet actually admits that there is “no avoiding direct negotiations” is encouraging, but it begs a few other questions.

If direct talks are needed, what would be the basis of these talks, and what would be the US position if the talks fail again? All previous talks included internationally-accepted principles encoded in UN resolutions, such as “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territories by force”, which is part of the preamble of UN Security Council 242, or George H. Bush’s “land-for-peace” formula. Will the talks envisioned by Washington require an acceptance of the “ultimate deal” or a mutually amended version of it?

Direct talks also require recognition and respect of the parties to a conflict. Currently, the Trump administration has closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington based on congressional anti-terrorism legislation which gave the president a waiver option, but this president chose not to use it. The US State Department said in September 2018 that the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s leaders refused to engage with US efforts to bring about peace with Israel and attempted to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court. The “refused to engage” references Palestinian leaders boycotting the US after President Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and boasted that he took Jerusalem off the table.

More importantly, it is crucial that both sides agree not to carry out any actions that can affect the end results of the talks. Any arbitrator needs to understand that you cannot allow two people to negotiate over how to share a pizza while one side is busily gobbling the very same pizza pie that they are negotiating about. This brings back the issue of the need for a settlement freeze during the period of negotiations.

It is important and helpful to remind all of what happened the last time direct talks took place during the Obama administration.

First, Israel refused to have an American representative in the room to be a witness and an arbitrator. Furthermore, the Israelis, according to then US secretary of state John Kerry, were largely responsible for the failure of the talks. “The prisoners were not released by Israel on the day they were supposed to be released and then another day passed and another day, and then 700 [Jewish settlement] units were approved in Jerusalem and then poof — that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. The Israelis blew up the talks and went back to their practice of gobbling up the pizza, for which the talks aimed at finding a way to fairly divide between the two parties.

It is clear that the absence of a legitimate Palestinian negotiating partner has caused the American team to lose its footing and direction. If the Trump team truly intends to steer talks in the right direction, it needs to stop interfering on one side and act as an honest broker by truly recognising the rights and representation of both sides, set clear internationally-accepted principles for the talks, ensure that both sides commit not to carry out any acts that will harm the final results of the talks and then work hard, as the former republican US secretary of state James Baker III did, to find the right formula to get the parties back to the table, with clear consequences for either party that violates the agreed-to basis for talks. Such a change would surely bring the Palestinian leadership back to the talks and bring back hope for the possibility of peace based on justice and equality.

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