Washington’s decision to stop pushing Israel for a settlement freeze could well mean no direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for months, even years; a stalemate is likely at least until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reconfigures his coalition or leaves office in 2013. But would face-to-face talks between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have made a difference? Details NEWSWEEK has learned about three negotiating sessions the men held in September—16 hours of talks—suggest not.
The negotiations took place in Washington, Jerusalem, and Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt—with more meetings between advisers. A Palestinian official involved in the talks and an Israeli source familiar with the details say the gaps were wide. The sources, who didn’t want to be named discussing private negotiations, say Netanyahu told the Palestinians they had to accept Israel’s “security concept” before he would discuss other issues, including borders. The concept involved keeping Israeli troops stationed along territory on the Palestinian side of the barrier Israel has built in the West Bank to protect what Israel calls its “narrow waistline.” That strip would be several kilometers wide at some points, says the Palestinian negotiator, and run along much of the seam line. Also, to protect itself against the possible rise of a hostile Islamic state in Jordan, say both sources, Netanyahu insisted Israeli troops would remain posted in the Jordan Valley for years. Though Netanyahu didn’t present maps, Abbas and his negotiators calculated that Palestinians would be left with just 60 percent of the West Bank. (The Israeli source describes 60 percent as a “subjective Palestinian view,” not necessarily an accurate summary of Netanyahu’s position. Israeli and U.S. government spokesmen declined to comment.)
Abbas found the proposal offensive. Previous Israeli leaders had offered 90 to 95 percent of the West Bank and land from within Israel to compensate for the annexation of some Jewish settlements. Abbas countered in a position paper that Israel cede 98.2 percent of the West Bank, say the sources. He also offered to allow U.S. or other third-party troops to be stationed on Palestinian territory after Israel withdrew. But Netanyahu refused to read the paper. “He told [Abbas], ‘I don’t have a mandate to negotiate anything until you accept the Israeli security concept,’” the Palestinian official says. The discussions broke off when Israel’s moratorium on settlement expansion ended days later.