Coming To The Table, Redux

An old Soviet joke. A customer enters a fish market, asks for the last pathetic mackerel, and the clerk behind the counter is out of newspaper. So the clerk goes to the complaint box, pulls out the sheets, and wraps the fish. "Wait," the customer says. "You can't wrap fish in those." "Then write a complaint," the clerk says.

I'm not entirely sure why, but I thought of this joke listening to Arye Golan's circular questioning this morning of Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, who is close to Abu Mazen. It is important to understand that the program, on the IBA's Reshet Bet, is the equivalent of NPR's "Morning Edition," perhaps even more influential. Golan himself recently won the Solokov Award, something like a Pulitzer. Reshet Bet has over a 40% market share. (Hebrew speakers can listen themselves: click "Haboker Hazeh," and move the slider to about 1:34:40)

What makes the interview so interesting, in other words, is that Golan is probably our perfect representative of what Israelis call the "center." I might add, the entire conversation was conducted in Hebrew, which Dr. Abu-Zaida spoke fluently (the translation, perhaps a little rough here and there, is mine):

Here with me on the line, Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida, a senior Fatah official, good morning:

Good morning Arye.

With regard to construction in Jerusalem, you're demanding that it be frozen for the next three months; this is more important to you than negotiations over a border finally?

First of all we have had nothing official; it's not at all clear what the details of the agreement, such as it is, are…

Abu Mazen, the chairman [of Fatah], has not been updated?

I'm not sure because, even on the Israeli side, it is said that nothing is written, nothing is finalized; and that the negotiations are continuing to reach an understanding…However, if the issue of Jerusalem is divorced from the whole question of the freeze, I don't think you'll find one Palestinian, smart or stupid, will accept such a thing…

But in the past, there were all kinds of negotiations, and during times when a massive amount of construction took place in [East] Jerusalem. So Palestinians were idiots then?

I tell you, any Palestinian will say that during those years we made a very serious mistake: to sit at the negotiation table while the Israelis continued to build settlements. But we had made a calculation, that within 6 months or 12 months, we would get our state and we would live in peace, we with you. Until we realized that this is a "process" and not "peace." So Palestinians have understood, that we are not going to make exactly the same mistake again. We learned from our past mistakes. Moreover, everything Israel has done for the last 40-45 years has been aimed to divorce Jerusalem from all the other issues. You tell me, what is the difference between building in Givat Zeev or Maale Adumin...; what does Givat Zeev have to do with your holy Jerusalem, or mine.

But it seems the issue is…

...just because the government of Israel decided in 1967 to expand the borders of Jerusalem from 11 sq. kilometers to 70 sq. kilometers…

Actually Givat Zeev is not a part of Jerusalem, but a municipality of its own. But this is not the issue. There is the feeling here that you're always looking for excuses to flee negotiations:

You mean all that time we were negotiating we were looking for excuses not to negotiate. Why? We are living, where? Do we not live with only marginal rights? Where does this logic come from that we flee negotiations? We are simply not interested in continuing with the process that is merely called negotiations. We are actually looking for a solution.

But a solution is only at the table. And there is always something else, now it's Jerusalem now it's a settlement freeze; and these give Abu Mazen a chance to say, "I’m not in the game." Maybe it's worthwhile to sit and talk, to clarify all matters at the table:

You speak as if we didn't sit and talk and debate all these issues, including the question of Jerusalem, including the border. We have debated all of these issues. The problem is that the answers we've gotten have not been encouraging--no point in sitting for nothing. For example, we’ve been saying all along: "My friends, tell us where are the borders of our state." Netanyahu, through all of the indirect talks and even in the 3 or 4 weeks of direct talks, when Abu Mazen sat with him 3 or 4 times…well, he asked him, or you prepared to talk about the boundaries? And Netanyahu answered that he isn't prepared to talk about the boundaries. He's prepared to talk about security, he's prepared to talk about other things. But about the border, no. Why? Not because he doesn't know we will ultimately have to talk about the border, but because he knows that, politically, he cannot talk about any withdrawal.

Well, what about the famous case when Ehud Olmert gave Abu Mazen a map and said, "Think about it and get back to me," and to this very day he hasn't been back:

Not true, not true, Arye. He did get back to him; he did get back to him. Olmert gave him a map which had about 7% of [Palestinian] land going to Israel [presumably, in anticipation of a land swap], then corrected it to about 6%--what disinformation! Look how the Israeli public is building its positions on things that are simply not true--and Abu Mazen came back to him with a map of 1.9%. He came back to him. But then there was the war in Gaza, and then there were elections in Israel…

Oh, let’s stop debating history. Let’s think how to go forward...

But you should know in Israel that there are many things that explain the situation that are not true.

Okay we will have to leaves things here. Thank you very much Dr. Sufian Abu-Zaida.
Now read the interview again, and look at the sequence of questions more carefully. Ask yourself if Golan's challenge to the Palestinian leadership to "come to the table" is not something like that clerk's invitation to file a complaint: You are looking for an excuse not to come to the table: building in Jerusalem is just an excuse not to talk about a border. Okay, the matter of Jerusalem is relevant to the border, but you talked before when we were building like crazy. Okay, you got nothing, and we kept building, but, look at history, we offered you a reasonably deal and you refused it. Okay, you didn't refuse it, but why are you debating history? The question is how to go forward. Why won't you come to the table?

(Incidentally, the best record we have so far of the Olmert negotiations with Abu Mazen can be found in this report of the James Baker Institute. See especially the maps, pp. 63-65)

Which brings us back to the future. I wrote yesterday that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have bought themselves an opening. If they are not prepared to cut into Golan's creepy circularity they can forget about a settlement. Very soon, they will have to make clear to the Palestinians, privately, if not publicly, that they will see to it that East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, and that Israel's border cannot include places like Ariel and Kiryat Arba. Otherwise, the only thing Palestinians would be coming to the table for is an argument about why they should come to the table. I suspect they know why already--and why they shouldn't.