The prime minister has been conducting talks with Mahmoud Abbas for several months now, and in a month and a half the two are set to participate in an international conference that will focus on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ostensibly, it's always a good thing to talk; it's always the proper thing to enter negotiations, because even if nothing is gained, nothing is lost. However, in practice the situation is different. Experience shows that negotiations may ultimately lead to a worse situation than the one that preceded the talks. Moreover, even if the process does begin with an Israeli initiative, its continuation is likely to be led by more dominant elements and culminate in less desired results.
When Menachem Begin accepted Sadat's call and entered negotiations with Egypt, it didn't occur to him that Israel would be forced to relinquish the whole of the Sinai "until the last grain of sand." When he realized that Egypt would not agree to less than this, it was too late to turn back, because US President Jimmy Carter had taken over the talks.
When Yitzhak Rabin agreed to let Shimon Peres lead the Oslo talks, he consoled himself by the fact that he, the prime minister, would remain the last adjudicator and would therefore be able to halt the process at any given moment. The outcome was different. Rabin may have been able to control Peres, but not Clinton. From the moment an Israeli-Palestinian agreement became an American interest, Rabin could no longer do much. His body language during the famous handshake with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn said it all.
When Barak engaged in talks with Arafat, at first in Camp David and later in Taba, he soothed his associates by saying that the negotiations are under full control and that "a deal isn't a deal until its done." In actual fact, if Arafat had said "yes" outright to what was proposed by Yossi Beilin or Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak couldn't have turned back. As of now, even if a final agreement wasn't reached seven years ago, those same Israeli offers constitute today's primary negotiating position.
Full analysis needed
The same applies to Israeli offers, whether alluded to or explicit as set out by various prime ministers with regards to evacuating the (entire) Golan Heights. They didn't produce an agreement, but they did erode our positions.
Even Ariel Sharon, who seemingly initiated the disengagement and limited it as he saw fit, was forced to extend "the unilateral disengagement carried out at our initiative, for our sakes and without partners," and to evacuate several settlements in Samaria as well. He did all this because one of his associates promised to do so and the Americans "took him by his word."
Hence, a diplomatic initiative can be a welcome thing, and negotiations are the preferred way to resolve conflicts, yet the assumption that talks are always the preferred option is mistaken. Moreover, it is inappropriate to engage in talks, particularly public negotiations with international sponsorship, before a full analysis comprising three phases is conducted:
• Clear definition of our interests (and priorities.)
• Analysis of the interests of all parties (including the Americans, the Saudis and others.)
• Based on previous clauses – definition of the "required achievement", which means how the process will end if it is conducted properly.
Only when this matter is adequately clarified will it be appropriate to make statements and commitments on behalf of the State. I am not sure such a full process is taking place, a few weeks ahead of the summit under the auspices of the Bush aministration.
On the other hand, it is obvious that Israel has already relinquished the principle that a final-status agreement will not be discussed before seeing a solution to the security issue. Perhaps such an Israeli concession is appropriate, but what did we get in exchange?
Giora Eiland is a retired IDF major-general and former head of the National Security Council