Nine months. That's the amount of time the people running the American-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinians allotted for reaching a peace treaty. If a permanent agreement is reached, Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel will eat his hat.
But if you ask Dekel, who for two decades closely followed the various attempts to hold talks with the Palestinians, the chance of that happening is slim. So he supports the idea of an interim agreement with the Palestinians, as do formerly high-ranking figures such as Yossi Beilin.
Dekel has been following the talks with the Palestinians from up close for many years. Today he is the deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. Recently he presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a 1600-page book summing up all the talks that have ever taken place between Israel and the Palestinians.
From 2007 to 2009, Dekel served as the head of Israel's negotiating team in Ehud Olmert's government. Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak appointed Dekel after he left the Israel Defense Forces at the rank of brigadier-general, after having served as the head of the Strategic Planning Division in the General Staff's Planning Directorate. Before that, he served as the chief of staff's assistant for diplomatic agreements. There really is such a position -- it is filled by the army official responsible for the peace talks, and his job is to provide the security-related perspective, which is an essential part of any peace agreement. Before that, Dekel served as head of the Research Division in Air Force Intelligence and as the IAF's representative in discussions about peace agreements.
"Oslo started with a progressive approach of stage-by-stage progress," Dekel says in a special interview. "It didn't work. Ehud Olmert changed the approach. He came along and said, 'Enough working on the process. Let's work on the question of the conclusion, the question of the final-status agreement. Let's decide what we want in the final-status agreement, and then we'll see how to get there.' That was the idea of the Annapolis summit: to discuss the final-status arrangement while continuing to move forward according to the road map.
"We had 12 committees at Annapolis that discussed issues such as the economy, infrastructures, environmental quality, border crossings, water transfer, various legal issues such as extradition agreements, and also the issue of the Palestinian prisoners. One of the committees even discussed the culture of peace. We reached agreements on all topics. Tzipi Livni coordinated all the teams' work. She ran the talks very responsibly and seriously. She examined every issue thoroughly. She did not rush things. She did not promise things she could not commit to. At the same time, she built trust among the Palestinians; they saw that she was truly striving to reach an agreement with them. That was very important. It created a positive approach in the rooms where the meetings took place.
"The subject of Jerusalem wasn't discussed in the teams. Olmert put it on the table at the end. A partition plan for the city was suggested that got to the level of street names. The basis of the Jerusalem partition plan was that the Jewish neighborhoods would be on the Israeli side, and the Arab neighborhoods would be on the Palestinian side. They suggested a partition of the Old City and the creation of a joint municipal agency. A special status was discussed for the Holy Basin that would include the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion and the City of David.
"The land would be managed by a third party. An international force would be established that would serve as a police force in the area. For example, the commander would be American and have two deputies, an Israeli and a Palestinian. The Waqf would keep managing the Temple Mount, and an international force would be in charge of security. Regarding sovereignty, a decision was made not to decide. Neither they nor we would give up sovereignty. We demand sovereignty over the place. Now, on the strength of our sovereignty, we give authority to a third party there."
The result is well known.
"We accomplished nothing because the Palestinians decided to run away," Dekel says. "The moment Olmert put the things on the table, with a generous proposal from our perspective, they decided to vanish. They didn't want to say yes or no. They avoided saying no because they wanted to keep all the flexibility that Israel had put on the table.
"As much as we love to blame ourselves -- and we do -- the other side is as much to blame as we are that there is no agreement. At Camp David, too, in the talks between Arafat, Barak and Clinton and in the talks with Olmert, the other side refused to accept things in which we met them halfway. Every time it reached the testing point, the Palestinians decided not to make the hard decisions."
Q: What about Olmert?
"Olmert took the whole package and wanted to play give-and-take with it. So we make territorial concessions, and they make security-related concessions. The Palestinians wanted to take Olmert's proposal and break it up into the 12 committees that we established in Annapolis so they could benefit from Israel's flexibility without having to give anything in return."
According to Dekel, "The Palestinians didn't want to close with Olmert. Later, they said that the reason they didn't take the proposal was that Olmert didn't stay on as prime minister, and the next prime minister was evidently going to be Netanyahu and not Livni. Regarding Netanyahu, they didn't believe he would carry out the agreement that Olmert had proposed, so what would they gain by agreeing to Olmert's proposal? A situation would be created in which the plan would be revealed and Mahmoud Abbas would be considered a traitor, since all the Palestinians' flexibility would be exposed, and no agreement was reached.
"When the critical moment arrives where the tough decisions have to be made, they don't have the courage, leadership or the drive to make those tough decisions. Then it's easy for them to find some issue and get the process stuck on it, and gain what they can at that moment. Back in Olmert's time, the Palestinians decided that they were going to play on the international court. They believed that there, it would be easier for them to gain much more."
According to Dekel, the Palestinians say they have "natural rights to the land, and that they don't need anything from Israel. They say Israel came from a position of strength, as rulers, with the strong army, but they come with a natural right. Now, with their right, they are coming to receive recognition from the international community."
They're still doing that today, aren't they?
"Yes. Today, too, their purpose in going into the talks is to prove that Israel is not a partner, that Israel is not willing to move forward. Even now, we understand from the leaks on the Palestinian side that they're saying Israel is not flexible enough and isn't moving enough, in the talks, in the direction they want. This is an obvious trend whose purpose is to prepare the ground so that later, they will be able to come to the international community and say: 'We tried, but Israel isn't willing to move forward and reach an agreement, so go ahead and give us what we want.'
"I don't see any chance that we will reach a permanent agreement. The gaps in the core issues haven't narrowed from the talks in Olmert's time to those in Netanyahu's. They've only grown wider."
Dekel is the one who coined the phrase "Anything agreed upon will be implemented" -- the same motto uttered frequently by those known as "the Oslo people," who, like Dekel, favor an interim agreement.
"It's true that I'm the one who came up with that sentence, and people were angry with me when I said it then," he says, and hastens to explain the idea behind it.
"The rule that governed the talks with the Palestinians during Ehud Olmert's time was that nothing would be agreed upon until everything had been agreed upon. The idea on which this approach was based was to create flexibility in the negotiating room. What it really did was create stubbornness. My understanding is that to change a reality, you have to take steps that change that reality all the time. My idea says that if something was agreed upon -- for example, today we can agree about water -- why not implement it?
"The game where you're not willing to make any concessions as long as there's no permanent arrangement isn't relevant. My approach, and that of those who were involved in past negotiations, is that the chance of reaching a final-status agreement is slim. Now, as long as there's positive potential in the talks, there's a chance to build an alternative."
Dekel suggests looking at the possibility of an interim agreement or "independent step," as he puts it.
"A final-status agreement will remain the final goal, but we need to decide that we're going to change the reality in stages. Israel has an interest in the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders and in anchoring the two-state solution. So let's get there, and we'll catch up on the details later.
"There's no need to determine the borders -- just the principle of the borders. Tomorrow morning, we can establish a state for the Palestinians that includes more than 60 percent of the land in the West Bank without evacuating the settlements, with complete freedom of movement for them, as well as control of the area. It's true that it isn't completely a sovereign state, but it's a significant leap from their current situation.
"While the concepts of 'unilateral' and 'disengagement' are unpopular, we must also plan unilateral measures as a relevant option. We're busy with strategic planning in a changing environment. We can no longer plan something and figure out the goal as we go. The new policy has to be that at each point in time, you have to create as many options as you can that will anchor the main principle.
"Now the main thing is to protect Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and anchor the two-state solution. There is broad agreement on these two principles. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition agree on them, and there is agreement outside the coalition as well. After all, we've been trying unsuccessfully to reach an agreement for the past 20 years.
"It's obvious that a permanent agreement is preferable, but if there is no chance of that, then we need to find a solution that is good for us. An interim agreement will anchor what is good for us. It makes no mention of the return of the refugees. There is no change in Jerusalem. We are keeping the settlement blocs in our control and deploying along the route of the security barrier. We are keeping the army deployed in the Jordan Valley. It's true that the demands are endless, but a new situation has been created that the world will have to deal with.
"What will we accomplish by that? You are giving up land and making concessions on many topics, the conflict is continuing, the other side has made no commitment to stop what it is doing in the international arena and the conflict on the ground is continuing.
"The new strategic approach says: 'Let's take the tools we have and shape the situation without depending on what the other side wants. Staying in place is a bad thing because all you do is accumulate demerits without making progress toward your goals, with or without the other side.'"
Dekel adds that the process of unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip is not like the measures that would be taken in a unilateral interim agreement in Judea and Samaria -- first, because there would be no evacuation of settlements; second, because the Jordan Valley would remain under Israeli control.
"We're not making the border porous. We're preventing the entry of arms and of people whom we don't want to go inside the Palestinian state," he says. "One way or another, we reserve the right to defend ourselves, and if we must take security-related measures within it, we will do so."