Commentary Magazine


Negotiating the Conditions for Negotiations Without Preconditions

In a press conference Friday with the Jordanian foreign minister, Hillary Clinton said the U.S. wants new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “as soon as possible without preconditions.” She repeated word-for-word her November 25 statement that the U.S. believes negotiations can end the conflict and reconcile (1) “the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines with agreed swaps,” with (2) “the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.”

At a press conference later in the day, a reporter asked Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley about a word omitted from Clinton’s statement:

QUESTION: The [Jordanian] foreign minister also used the word, when he talked about the creation of a separate Palestinian state, one that is contiguous. I noticed the Secretary did not use that word. Where is the – what is the U.S.’s position on contiguous in terms of somehow uniting the West Bank and Gaza?

It was a significant question (for reasons noted here) — but Crowley dodged it:

CROWLEY: This is a – this is the fundamental challenge of a negotiation, which is to determine the borders of a state. We recognize that any state that would be formed for the Palestinians has to be viable and it has to be based on agreed upon borders. So the foreign minister at his formulation, the Secretary at her formulation – what we really want to do is get the parties back into a negotiation where you can actually put these questions before them.

The next paragraph of Crowley’s answer indicated, however, that the U.S. may answer the question later on:

The United States will continue to play a role. At various times, we may offer our own insights as to how to resolve these very kinds of questions. But let’s get to that negotiation. That’s why we’re continuing to push as hard as we can to get this started as quickly as possible.

The administration strategy is apparently to get negotiations started, assuring both sides that their goals can be met, and then later “offer our own insights as to how to resolve these very kinds of questions.”

Once the process begins, however, it is likely to involve more than insights. In his January 7 interview with Charlie Rose, George Mitchell was asked if he had any “sticks” he could use in the negotiating process (his answer: “Oh, sure”). Pressed to give an example (“You sit there and you say to Israel, look, if you don’t do this — what?”), Mitchell noted the possibility of withholding loan guarantees: “That’s one mechanism that’s been publicly discussed. There are others, and you have to keep open whatever options.”

Mitchell travels to Europe and then the Middle East next week and is expected to bring with him letters of “guarantees” to persuade both sides that their goals can be met in new negotiations. The conditions for the negotiations “without preconditions,” in other words, are being negotiated now.

It will be important to see whether the letter given to the Palestinians includes the word contiguous. As for Israel’s letter, the question will be whether the U.S. will honor the assurances of “defensible borders” given by both the Clinton and Bush administrations — or whether that issue will be relegated to a question for later American “insights” (and “options” in case of disagreement).