The Palestinian conundrum on direct negotiations

The PLO is now facing one of the most difficult problems it’s had to deal with in quite a while, as it comes under very heavy pressure from the Obama administration and, as Pres. Abbas said at the African Union summit in Kampala two days ago, the ?entire world? as well, to return to direct negotiations with Israel. For most people, although on two different sides of the equation, this is a no-brainer. One position will argue that the bottom line of a full settlement freeze has never been adopted by Israel and that since this was the original precondition for negotiations established by both the Obama administration and the PLO last summer, and is Israel’s primary commitment under Phase 1 of the Roadmap which is still the operative model for achieving peace, until that is accomplished direct negotiations shouldn’t even be considered. The other position will recognize that Palestinians can only achieve their goals through direct negotiations with Israel, albeit with third-party (practically meaning American) mediation and engagement, and that therefore any prolonged avoidance of them is completely unacceptable. Neither of these knee-jerk positions recognizes the complexities of the diplomatic and political situation with which Abbas and his senior PLO colleagues are presently confronted.

I think it’s important to try to tease out these difficulties in some detail.

First of all, it’s absolutely true that the Palestinians are under extremely heavy pressure from the Americans, the Europeans and many others, including some of the Arabs, to reenter direct negotiations under the present terms and conditions on the table. If they don’t, they risk placing themselves back into the position of the party that says ?no,? into which PM Netanyahu rather deftly maneuvered them between the UN General Assembly meeting in October and the fiasco of the Biden visit and the confrontations between Israel and the United States over settlements in Jerusalem earlier this year. Anyone who gets positioned as the primary obstructionist in Middle East diplomacy is in a dreadfully unenviable position, especially when they have the limited degree of options, power and prerogatives available to the Palestinians. So saying no incurs an extremely heavy price diplomatically and internationally and it’s something any sensible Palestinian would be deeply loath to do.

One of the reasonable points the Obama administration has been making in no uncertain terms to the Palestinians is that it cannot help secure concessions from Israel outside the context of negotiations and that the proximity talks are not sufficient to do that. The fact is that outside of the context of direct negotiations, in which all parties will be forced to really put their cards on the table, Netanyahu can continue to obfuscate, postpone, dither and focus on procedural and minor matters. Avoiding direct negotiations allows the Israeli government a luxury they dearly cherish but should not be allowed: the ability to avoid being tested on their commitment to making serious compromises or taking any real political risks to advance peace. Moreover, it allows them to maintain the carefully constructed ambiguity that has at least minimally satisfied both the Obama administration and the Israeli far right over the term of the present Israeli cabinet. The only thing that can really shake them out of that ambiguity might be direct negotiations.

Worse still, since the Obama administration’s entire strategy since October has been based on the idea that direct negotiations will create their own momentum or at least produce sufficient clarity to inform the next step the United States will take to try to achieve its national security priority of a peace agreement that involves the establishment of a Palestinian state, being perceived as the primary obstacle to direct negotiations places the Palestinians in an increasingly direct confrontation with American desires which they have much less ability to finesse and manage than an Israeli government in a similar position can, as we have recently observed. The one thing the Palestinians absolutely cannot afford, under any circumstances, is to alienate the US administration because leveraging American power based on its own vital national security interest in ending the conflict is the only real means Palestinians have of strengthening their position vis-à-vis Israel and making real progress towards ending the occupation. Obviously, the Palestinian leadership has to do everything it can to avoid any such development, because it will leave them with almost no options and certainly no ability to advance their position.

However, the Palestinians have two very real problems to contend with on the question of direct negotiations.

The settlement freeze issue is largely resolved, in the sense that it’s no longer really on the table: the United States has put the matter to one side practically speaking, while maintaining its position that settlement should not expand and new settlement activity is illegitimate, so the Palestinians really cannot hang their hat on it being the essential precondition for direct negotiations, because it’s not going happen. On the other hand, it also seems clear that if the United States, especially if it feels things are going relatively well diplomatically with the Palestinians, is not going to stand idly by if there is a major expansion of settlement activity after the temporary, partial and largely fraudulent ?moratorium? expires in September. It would appear the Obama administration doesn’t care what Israel calls it, or even if they formally say anything at all, but that it doesn’t want to hear about major new projects anywhere in the occupied territories and certainly not in Arab neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem.

Of course the outcome of the November midterm elections will be extremely important in shaping the next phase of US policy, which is probably on hold until then. There are many different possible electoral results, and this seems a particularly tricky midterm to predict, and many different possible consequences on policy and conclusions the administration may reach after the election. I don’t think either Israel or the Palestinians should have any confidence that the elections or their consequences will necessarily strengthen their position. There are far too many imponderables for that. But I do think we can say that not only is making re-engagement in direct negotiations contingent on a complete settlement freeze an implausible diplomatic position in the long run, but also that the Palestinians have realized this.

However, what this points to is the profound political difficulty Abbas faces in any decision to return to direct negotiations in the absence not only of a settlement freeze but anything concrete to show from Israel for Palestinian diplomatic efforts in recent months. During his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu spoke of “confidence building measures” on the ground to be implemented “within weeks.” If anything remotely of the kind has taken place since then, I’m completely unaware of it. What we have seen is a new round of home demolitions and a number of other significantly unhelpful gestures. As in the fall and early winter, the PLO simply doesn’t have anything it can point to politically to justify to the Palestinian people why it would feel that the proximity talks and diplomatic process in recent months produced any results or conditions that would justify upgrading to direct negotiations.

The Palestinian leadership strongly, and with a great deal of justification, fears the consequences of a failed, and especially a spectacularly failed, set of direct negotiations. People remember the dreadful consequences of failure at Camp David in 2000, and especially the public blaming of Pres. Arafat by Pres. Clinton (who had solemnly promised him that there would be no blame if the talks failed) and the hideous video imagery of Arafat being manhandled into the negotiating room by PM Barak, even if it was genuinely an effort at “you first” politeness on the Israeli part. It seemed to sum up so much of what Palestinians felt they were being put through, and contributed mightily to the outbreak of the catastrophic second intifada that in a few months more or less killed constructive Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy until today. They are also concerned by memories of the less dramatic but still damaging consequences of the failure of the Annapolis talks during the Bush administration, even though they didn’t go badly from a Palestinian perspective. It’s more the lack of any tangible deliverables or political successes, and a narrative on the Palestinian side, especially in terms of public opinion, that has seriously compromised the flexibility Palestinian leaders and diplomats have with their political constituency.

A huge number, probably a large majority, of Palestinians feel that at least since Oslo and probably since Madrid, meaning for the past 20 years or so, they’ve been sucked into negotiations that have been all process and no peace, and that the occupation has entrenched itself, expanded and deepened during this time rather than been negotiated to a conclusion. Of course there’s a whole other story to be told about what the past 20 years have done in terms of the eventual prospects of Palestinian liberation and peace in the Middle East, but from the point of view of realities on the ground, it’s not a pretty picture and the skeptics and critics have an exceptionally powerful case to make. So as long as the PLO can’t produce tangible deliverables, let alone real diplomatic and political successes that strongly point in the direction of liberation, the credibility of both negotiations and negotiators is quite tenuous. The large majority of Palestinians according to almost all polls support negotiations and a two state solution to the conflict, but that same majority (like their Israeli counterparts) doubts it will be achieved and doesn’t believe the other side is interested. On the Israeli side there is a lack of trust in negotiations, but on the Palestinian side there is also a lack of trust in their own negotiators, and Israel has very rarely over the past two decades taken actions to bolster their credibility or prevent its continuous erosion. So there is a real political problem for the Palestinian leadership to enter into direct negotiations under the present conditions in spite of all the pressure and the very real diplomatic costs involved, not least of which is that it lets Netanyahu and his colleagues completely off the hook. In a nutshell, it will be very difficult for the Palestinian leadership to justify politically, no matter how much sense it makes in terms of national strategy.

To make matters more complicated, there is a real diplomatic difficulty as well, putting the question of the, at present, implausible and apparently unavailable complete settlement freeze aside. The Palestinians have a very real concern and an important point when they say, as they continuously have, that clear and specific terms of reference are essential to make direct negotiations meaningful. Those of us who have not been privy to the details of the proximity talks cannot really be sure what kind of conversations about terms of reference, benchmarks and mechanisms to hold the parties accountable for fulfilling their agreements have been discussed between the three parties, but it’s clear the Palestinians are totally unsatisfied with what they’ve heard from the Americans directly and the Israelis indirectly. It’s also quite clear that the Israelis dislike the idea of specific terms of reference, reject the concept of benchmarks, and only support mechanisms that would hold Palestinians accountable for their commitments (they’ve been extremely hostile to any effort to extend the privilege to themselves, naturally). It’s not clear how much the Obama administration has been or will be willing to do to provide those essential components of a process that is actually going to work, and the Catch-22 may be that in order to get more out of the Americans in that context, the Palestinians would have to agree to enter direct negotiations first, which might serve to let the Israelis off the hook on these questions anyway. But then, of course, there is no way of forcing Netanyahu’s hand on the final status issues in any other context than direct negotiations.

There are a number of other less important considerations, but this is the essential framework of the extremely difficult situation the Palestinian leadership presently faces between the Scylla of saying no and the Charybdis of saying yes under the present circumstances. In the end, no party needs direct negotiations as badly as the Palestinians do, because they have the most to gain from success and the most to lose from failure. And they cannot, by any means, afford to alienate the most sympathetic American administration in recent decades, and probably in decades to come. But their fears of the consequences of a spectacular failure are rational, and their demands for ?clear and specific? (in Abbas’ own phrasing) terms of reference, benchmarks, and mechanisms for real accountability are not only legitimate, they are extremely important for eventual success.

The bottom line is this: the ideal scenario for Netanyahu is to continue to sit there and say that he wants immediate talks without any preconditions and that he is the one who is saying yes, while the Palestinians continue to say no, even if it is for understandable and justifiable reasons. Therefore, it is essential that the Palestinians find a way to say yes as soon as possible, and that the Obama administration and all parties that are serious about resolving the conflict find a means to help them do that. They need something to show for their efforts thus far, and it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Everyone interested in peace needs the Palestinians to say yes, and the PLO leadership clearly wants to, but they do have to be given a reason that can justify that decision to their own people.