Representatives of Israel and of the Palestinians sat down yesterday for the first significant face-to-face talks since the end of the administration of George Bush the Lesser. These aren’t exactly negotiations bur rather are talks about the talks, discussion of how the negotiations will proceed once the contours of the issues are agreed. This is what comes of trying to solve an insoluble problem rather than managing it. These talks will either fail or lead to talks that fail.
American Secretary of State John Kerry said, “It’s no secret that this is a difficult process. If it were easy, it would have happened a long time ago.” He added that the negotiators would seek “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues.” And if the two sides were discussing quotas on the importation of pig iron or some kind of treaty to avoid double taxation of their citizens, that might work. What they are talking about, though, is who gets what land, and both sides want much of what the other claims.
“The Israelis talk about peace, but on the land they act otherwise. We want peace, but the settlements are taking the land. This is an enormous problem,” said Yousef Abu Maria, a spokesman for the Popular Movement, a Palestinian group posed to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennet said earlier tis month at the Shiloh settlement, “As negotiations get underway, we will insist on continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. History has taught us that building produces life, while dismantling settlements produces terror.” Whether he is right or wrong about the effects of construction, there is no doubt that the building will continue, and that will annoy the Palestinians ever more
Nor has anyone any idea of what to do with Jerusalem. To Israel, it is the indivisible capital of the nation. To the Palestinians, that sounds good, too, except they want it to be the capital of their nation. There is no precedent for a city being the capital of two countries, and the reason is it is unworkable. Even when Berlin was divided between two different Germanies, it was not the capital of both.
These talks are trying to do the impossible, find a compromise between mutually exclusive aspirations. If the two sides want to succeed in getting along better, solving the insoluble is not the way to go. Managing the manageable is. They would be better off finding ways to reduce the violence on both sides; neither has an interest in more of it. Find ways to boost the Palestinian economy; trade always helps. And figure out ways to use water and other natural resources for the common benefit of both peoples. These measures won’t solve the whole problem of who gets to live where, but one must ask a simpler question. Who opposes less violence and more wealth?
Instead, there are talks about talks that are doomed to fail.