April 24th: Date to Start Start Israel-Palestine "Final Status" Negotiations


Israel must sort out its political tectonics in its election on March 28th, and then the emergent Israeli leadership, regardless of victor, should move forward in negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas a "final status" deal defining the boundaries of tomorrow's Israel and Palestine.

Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, lays out the plan in a compelling op-ed today in the New York Times, "What the P.L.O. Has to Offer".

All that is missing in his sensible comments about the importance of moving now on final status negotiations is a date.

I propose that Monday, April 24th be the start date of such serious negotiations -- and if not the formal start of table-to-table talks then at least the start of laying the groundwork for such talks.

This start date gives Israel more than three weeks to digest the outcome of its election and to sort out its negotiating stance. Israel should move forward with a credible plan, working with individuals like Abbas, Erekat and others -- with the presumption that Hamas will cooperate. The world will be watching, and if Hamas fails to perform, then at least what has been achieved is that Israel has demonstrated a serious willingness to work out a land deal that might have been reasonable.

I spent about an hour with the charismatic Saeb Erekat last December at his offices in Jericho, and I have rarely met anywhere a more dynamic politician -- and democratic advocate to the core.

While a member of Fatah, from my assessment then and since, it's clear that Erekat is on the reform edge of his otherwise corrupt party -- and he works hard to keep his constituents in Jericho believers in his leadership, which is what democratically-minded politicians competing with other potential rivals should do.

Erekat opens his interesting piece:

Many have argued that Hamas's winning of a decisive majority in the Palestinian Parliament provides yet another setback for peace and democracy in the Middle East. Some have even suggested that it vindicates Israeli unilateralism. I, however, think the opposite is true: A negotiated and lasting peace may now be closer than many of us could have imagined just weeks ago.

The parliamentary elections could be seen as a referendum on the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, who came to office a year ago after winning nearly two-thirds of the popular vote. Mr. Abbas ran on a platform of job creation, internal security and a negotiated resolution of the conflict with Israel based on two states living side by side in peace.

Many people believe that Mr. Abbas did not deliver. Today, there are fewer jobs, not more; security for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Gaza Strip is worse, not better; and negotiations, like the two-state solution, are stalled.

Mr. Abbas, however, is not ultimately to blame. When he called on Israel to lift restrictions on Palestinian movement and trade within and between Palestinian areas, Israel refused -- despite similar calls from the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The restrictions translated not just into more poverty but also into less security, for Mr. Abbas could not even move police forces within Palestinian territory.

President Abbas did deliver, and largely maintained, a "tahdia" -- a "period of calm" between the Palestinian factions and Israel. And he was able to do this despite scores of Palestinian deaths and several thousand military raids and arrests that Israel conducted in violation of its agreement not to undertake such activities. Israel also tightened its control over key territory, resources and markets -- primarily occupied East Jerusalem -- that we will need to build an economically viable state.

So, President Abbas, the leader of the Fatah party, made a set of campaign promises; the opposite came to fruition; therefore, Palestinians elected the only alternative: Hamas.

In reality, however, the vote was neither a rejection of President Abbas and his peace program nor an endorsement of the Hamas charter. According to recent polls, nearly 70 percent of Palestinians still support Mr. Abbas as president. And 84 percent of Palestinians still want a negotiated peace agreement with Israel. Even among Hamas voters, more than 60 percent of those polled support an "immediate" resumption of negotiations.

The Palestinians -- in all polls that I have seen -- want negotiations with Israel. To want negoatiations with Israel is de facto recognition of Israel, and at minimum, is recognition of the realities of co-existence.

It is not serious at this point to seriously entertain the cliche that many Israel leaders have promulgated that they have no negotiating partner. That is not true -- and if they fail to move forward with Abbas, using the trappings of legitimacy that Abbas and his office still have in the eyes of the Palestinian people, then Israel and the Palestinians will be a victim of this missed opportunity.

Let me share something that Saeb Erekat told me when he met:

If Israel does nothing, if Israel avoids negotiations using the fake excuse that they have no negotiating partner, we Palestinians are fine.

We will just wait. Our population is growing faster than theirs, and when we are the majority, we will simply vote our will in a democratic state.

Today, the population difference between Israelis and Palestinians is 53% to 47% respectively.

Israel's motivations lie there. Israel must resolve this battle over borders, or a unified state will find them in a minority.

I had originally thought that April 17th would be the right start date, but that date falls in the middle of Passover, which ends at sundown on Thursday, April 20th. Just so that all parties can be on board, this process should begin without haste on Monday, April 24th.

Since Sunday is a work day on the Israel and Palestinian side, this will give one prep day at the beginning of the week before these proposed negotiations begin. April 24th, Monday, is the right day for Israel and Mahmoud Abbas to move forward.

Steven Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note, and is both a frequent contributor to Huffington Post and editor of Bolton Watch.