Tavis: U.S. special envoy George Mitchell is in the Middle East tonight on an emergency mission to rescue the latest efforts for peace in the region. For more tonight I’m joined from Jerusalem by Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief for “The New York Times.” Ethan, thanks for your time. Good to have you on the program tonight, sir.
Ethan Bronner: It’s a pleasure to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me start with the obvious, the thing that has raised this level of concern so high tonight on the scale. Israel, on Sunday, as we all know, allowed the moratorium on Jewish settlements being built in the West Bank, they allowed that moratorium to expire. Let’s start with that. Why did they let it expire, knowing that they are now in the midst of peace talks and it would do exactly what it’s done now, which is to ratchet up the tension?
Bronner: Well, I can give you their explanation, obviously. The Israeli view, the view of this government from Minister Netanyahu is that first of all, until this particular time in previous endeavors of negotiation with the Palestinians, the need for a settlement freeze was never brought up, never demanded and didn’t exist. So in their view, one shouldn’t require the other.
The second point they would say is that the prime minister announced last November a 10-month settlement freeze because there was so much desire for there to be a freeze in the building of settlements in the West Bank in the hope that that would spur the Palestinian Authority to come to talks.
It took them nine months to take advantage of that. The prime minister said, “I said it from the beginning, this is a one-time gesture. I don’t see any reason for my having to extend it when this was the deal from the beginning, and if you,” Palestinian Authority, “are going to demand an extension of it or walk out, then how serious can you possibly be about peace talks?” So that’s the Israeli perspective.
Tavis: So whether one agrees or disagrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu, you’re in the region tonight. What has this, what is it doing now to the notion of peace talks progressing this issue?
Bronner: Well, it is fracturing that notion pretty seriously. I think that interestingly, the American government and the European government as well as the Palestinians and other Arab countries all hoped and believed, actually, that Prime Minister Netanyahu would extend the settlement freeze.
So when in the end he did not, a crisis did lower over the whole situation. From the beginning, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has been saying, “Look, if they start up with building settlements again, I’m walking.” He didn’t do that on Sunday night.
Instead, he said, “I’m going to take my time, I’m going to consult,” and he did a consult this Saturday with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the central committee of his movement within it, called Fatah, and then on Monday in Cairo there’s going to be a meeting of foreign ministers of the Arab League.
Between those three sets of meetings, in theory, he’s going to come up with an answer. Now in theory, George Mitchell is here and Catherine Ashton, the European Union representative, foreign minister, as it were, is also coming here tomorrow, and I know that Hillary Clinton is on the phone with the prime minister nearly every day.
So between now and then, in theory, some kind of package might emerge, but it’s hard to know what it’s going to be without it including a slowdown or a stoppage of settlements for some period of time, which the prime minister has said he’s not going to do.
Tavis: There’s a paper out of Tel Aviv tonight that’s reporting – and I’m curious as to what you know about this – reporting that President Obama indeed sent a letter, sent communiqué to Prime Minister Netanyahu offering what they term “far-reaching promises” from the U.S. in exchange for the prime minister extending this moratorium. What do you know about that letter and what the contents of it might be?
Bronner: Well, my understanding is that one of the main ideas in saving the talks has been for letters of assurance, if you like, from the United States to the Palestinian Authority and to Israel, the state of Israel, which would keep them going in these talks.
My understanding is that some draft of this letter exists, of each letter exists, and that at least on the Israeli side there’s not an absolute certainty that the guarantees are what they were looking for or that they’re enforceable, because to some extent the question is what is it that President Obama can promise Prime Minister Netanyahu with regard to his relationship with the Palestinian Authority, with regard to what they’re ultimately going to agree to in terms of security and borders in Jerusalem and so on.
How can the president promise those things? He can promise support, and he can also, of course, and has all this past year promised a great deal of military aid and shoulder-to-shoulder standing by Israel, and I’m sure those things are in there. Maybe they’ll be enough. The word at the moment is that the Israelis are still asking, that they’re, as it were, in the Middle East market and they’ve got a few more things they’d like to put into their shopping cart.
Tavis: So when you say that the Israelis are still asking, if one is a cynic one would think that this is all a game, this is a ploy, this is leveraging what they want and what they need from the U.S. in exchange for extending the settlements, as opposed to this being a core belief that they have based upon X, Y, or Z.
Bronner: I think that’s a fair criticism. The issue here of course is that the core belief I guess you’re referring to has to do with settlement building. It is a core belief of a certain percentage of Israeli society. I would say maybe 20, 25 percent, maybe 30 – some substantial non-majority portion.
Where Prime Minister Netanyahu fits into the political spectrum now is a little bit of a mystery. He used to be solidly in that camp and has, since becoming prime minister a year and a half ago, taken a more moderate perspective with regard to settlement building and arguing that the need for two states, that if Israel is to remain a Jewish democracy, meaning majority Jewish and democratic, it couldn’t possibly continue to rule over four million Palestinians or whatever number you want to count, depending on whether you want to count Gaza in there or not.
So you’re right, to some extent. This is politics, this is – game is a little strong, as I think it’s an existential struggle for both sides – but certainly as they go forward there is a kind of horse trading going on.
Tavis: Mm-hmm. I’ve seen poll after study after survey, Ethan, that suggests that the majority of the Israeli people do understand and even accept that if this issue is ever going to be resolved or solved or mediated it’s going to require some kind of exchange of land. It’s going to be land for peace, and most Israelis in these surveys I’ve read over the years seem to understand that.
So if in fact the majority of the Israeli people understand that and accept that, then why does this debate about extending more – pushing further into the West Bank, building more settlements into the West Bank, those two points would seem to be incongruent.
Bronner: Okay, that’s a good question, and I think we need to clear something up. The settlement-building that we’re talking about is not extending further into the West Bank than Israel is today. It is all within existing settlements and it is not – they’re mostly building within – almost from the outer edges in.
So, on some level it’s not really a contradiction. I think the basic view is because you have this 25 percent, whatever percentage it is that believes deeply in settlements on the Israeli side – and by the way, that percentage of 50-plus that believes in a two-state solution is about the same on the Palestinian side.
But on that side, there’s about 25 percent that believes in violent resistance to Israel’s occupation. So there is a substantial portion of each population that has to be dealt with. So the Israeli argument is look, we’re going to negotiate this over the course of the coming year. We’ve agreed to a one-year negotiation framework.
We need to talk about borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees and settlements all in one pot, and stir it in. Each is going to have to give something. If we build another thousand homes in the course of this, what’s the difference when in the end there’ll be a deal?
So don’t make us have to sort of pacify our 25 percent and face an internal struggle of such momentousness until we’ve got a deal. When we’ve got a deal we’ll go to the people and we will make it work, but until then, why are you being so fastidious about particular building? I can give you the Palestinian perspective back, but that’s the Israeli perspective.
Tavis: So here’s the exit question, Ethan. To the extent that this collapse in these talks can be avoided, what’s going to be the thing that allows the deal to be made? Is it the U.S. offering, again, X, Y or Z? Is it the Arab League signing off on something? What has to happen to keep this thing from completely falling apart right now?
Bronner: Well, we don’t really know. Honestly, I think we are all on tenterhooks, including the principal actors in this drama. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to make it work. Obviously, if the Israelis were to somehow agree to an extension of the settlement-building moratorium, we all know that that would keep the Palestinians talking.
So I guess there’ll be some kind of a deal cooked between now and Monday which will involve a slight extension of the moratorium or a great reduction in building, or the talks will, in fact, end next week and then there’ll be quiet negotiation for some period of weeks, perhaps months, and then they will be revived under a slightly new formula.
Those would seem to be the only two options that we’re facing, and the difficulty, of course, of option B is that we don’t know what could happen in those weeks – whether there could be violence, whether there could be an enormous amount of building, whether the tensions could rise and make it very difficult for the two sides to go back to the table.
So it’s a very dramatic moment, actually, even though it’s filled with bureaucratic and diplomatic toing and froing.
Tavis: Indeed it is. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief for “The New York Times.” He’s Ethan Bronner. Ethan, thanks for your time tonight. Thanks for sharing your insights. Delighted to have you on the program.
Bronner: I was happy to be here, Tavis, thank you.
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