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Rowhani Takes a Leaf from the PA Playbook

Ever since Hassan Rowhani’s election as Iran’s new president last Friday, many Westerners have been enthusing over the prospects of a negotiated solution to Tehran’s nuclear program. But these enthusiasts should take a long, hard look at what Rowhani actually said at his very first press conference: Asked whether direct talks with Washington were possible, he replied, “First of all, the Americans have to say… that they will never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. Second, they have to recognize all of the Iranian nation’s due rights including nuclear rights. And third, they have to put aside oppressive… policies towards Iran.”

In other words, the U.S. must first promise to let the nuclear program proceed unhindered, lift all sanctions and recognize the mullahs’ regime as legitimate. Only then, once there’s nothing left to talk about because America has already capitulated fully to Iran’s demands, can negotiations begin.

If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s the exact same tactic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been using to evade negotiations with Israel for four years now. As his Fatah party’s central committee reiterated for the umpteenth time yesterday, the PA won’t agree to talks unless Israel first freezes all settlement construction (by which the PA means even huge Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that everyone knows would remain Israeli under any deal), accepts the 1967 lines (including in Jerusalem) as the basis for the final border and releases Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. In other words, it will agree to negotiate only after there’s nothing left to talk about, since Israel has already capitulated fully to its demands on several key final-status issues: borders, Jerusalem, settlements and prisoners.

As Alan Baker, a former legal advisor to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, explained in detail on Tuesday, these preconditions are completely groundless.

“Nowhere in the history of the peace process negotiations is there any commitment to the ‘1967 borders’,” he wrote. “The opposite is in fact the case. All the agreements between Israel and the PLO, as well as the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, base themselves in their preambular paragraphs on the call by the international community, in UN Security Council resolution 242 of 1967, for ‘secure and recognized boundaries.’”

And though Baker didn’t mention it, not only doesn’t that resolution demand a withdrawal to the 1967 lines, but it was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain some of the territory it captured in 1967.

Baker also noted that “Israel has never, in any of its agreements with the Palestinians, undertaken to freeze settlement activity in territory it continues to administer pursuant to the agreements with the Palestinians.” Indeed, he wrote, the Oslo Accords explicitly permitted Israel to keep building in the part of the West Bank known as Area C, and designated the settlements as “one of the agreed-upon final-status negotiation issues, together with borders, refugees, water, Jerusalem and security.”

While Baker doesn’t address the prisoner issue, that, too, is a classic final-status one. In Northern Ireland, for instance–a precedent Westerners love to cite–the prisoners were freed only after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, not before negotiations even began.

Thus the PA’s insistence that Israel agree on all these final-status issues before talks even start effectively ensures that the talks never will start–and that is equally true of Rowhani’s preconditions.

But Rowhani has assuredly noticed that this tactic has worked beautifully for the Palestinians: Much of the world continues to insist that the absence of talks is Israel’s fault, for not accepting the PA’s preconditions. So who can blame him for hoping it will work equally well for Iran?


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