Later this week, the Arab League will decide whether to recommend that the PLO move from proximity to direct talks in its negotiations with the Netanyahu government. The American-led Quartet and the moderate Arab states are reportedly pressuring President Mahmoud Abbas to request precisely such a recommendation. This, then, is a good opportunity to reflect on the advantages of US-brokered proximity talks as opposed to direct talks in the Israeli-Palestinian context.
The initial inclination of most Israelis is to prefer direct talks: the latest TAU/IDI poll shows 62 percent favoring direct talks with the PLO and only 14 percent favoring proximity talks. But this is not necessarily a comprehensive approach to contacts with our neighbors. After all, less than half of all Israelis want to talk at all with Hamas, although it's reasonable to assume that if PM Binyamin Netanyahu were to advocate negotiating with Hamas most of the public would back him. (Then again Hamas, like Iran and Hizballah, refuses to talk to Israel, so this is at best an academic exercise.) Moreover, just two years ago the Olmert government engaged in productive Turkish-facilitated proximity talks with Syria that met with the approval of Israelis.
In the current context, Netanyahu has consistently invited the PLO to direct negotiations and has been supported in this appeal by Washington. Abbas, confronted with the unprecedented Israeli gesture of a settlement freeze and strong American support for Israeli concessions in sensitive issue areas like Jerusalem, has relented regarding proximity talks but has refused until now to enter into direct talks.
Ordinarily, one would have expected a Palestinian leader to embrace direct talks enthusiastically in order to unmask the intransigence of a right-wing Israeli government and either oblige it to reconstitute itself along more moderate lines or maneuver it into a serious confrontation with Washington. There are several likely explanations for Palestinian reluctance thus far.
The most obvious reason is a total lack of Palestinian faith in Netanyahu's good intentions, based on the Israeli prime minister's record and his insistence on maintaining a coalition that is essentially incompatible with the kind of concessions required to make progress toward agreement. Thus the PLO understandably hesitates to engage in any negotiations at all with the current Israeli government. Yet there may be additional, more intriguing explanations for Abbas' reluctance that seemingly justify his preference until now for indirect talks.
One is Abbas' political weakness within his Fateh movement. He is seen as a lame-duck leader and there is strong sentiment among his potential successors and others, opposing any concessions to Israel. A second is the veto power that Hamas in Gaza seemingly can exercise over any real negotiating progress.
Yet a third explanation is Abbas' own hard-line positions on core issues like refugees and the Jerusalem holy basin. We got a sense of Abbas' red lines in his rejection of Olmert's far-reaching proposals in late 2008; why should he now position himself possibly to be seen yet again rejecting reasonable Israeli proposals?
A fourth reason could be current progress in the Palestinian state-building project, which is essentially an exercise in unilateralism. The anticipated political endgame of this dynamic, a year from now, requires international recognition of a Palestinian state and could conceivably even be compromised by the existence of productive direct negotiations. Indirect negotiations, on the other hand, are adequate for coordinating the kind of Israeli unilateral gestures, such as relaxing security demands and withdrawing from additional territory, that reinforce the state-building process.
Given the positive prospects of the state-building project, in view of the seeming inability of both Abbas and Netanyahu to make the compromises required for genuine progress in direct negotiations and considering the Obama administration's mismanagement of the entire process for the past 18 months, one could argue that the proximity talks have proven convenient for all concerned. They allow all three parties to pretend there is a peace process without confronting their own intransigence and mistakes.
The coming months could prove fateful for the negotiations, whether indirect or direct. Netanyahu is under heavy pressure from his constituency to relax the settlement freeze two months from now, thereby further constraining Abbas' room for maneuver. US mid-term election considerations could hamper American management of the talks until November, while the outcome of that election could constitute a constraint after November. Further afield, events in Iraq and the health of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt could affect the decision-making of Abbas, Netanyahu and Obama alike.
Among Palestinians, the discussion that has been held in political and media circles in recent weeks about the need to move from indirect to direct talks is perceived as being about Israel trying to escape its responsibilities by trying to shift the focus from substance to form.
In the Palestinian understanding, the form of negotiations, whether direct or indirect, is not what has been preventing progress in the peace process. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have negotiated, mostly directly, for over 18 years without much progress. The problem is not the lack of or form of negotiations, but rather the level of seriousness evinced by the parties about the substantial issues of negotiations.
In addition, there is a strong feeling among Palestinians that Israel has two other motives behind the desire to move from indirect to direct talks.
The first is that the proximity talks that have been conducted so far involve the presence of a US mediator shuttling between the sides. This kind of negotiation thus includes a witness to the level of seriousness of each party, who can testify as to who has been adhering to the terms of reference and the relevant stipulations of international law. In direct talks, however, it is one side's word against the other as to who is responsible for any lack of progress. Israel would like to remove this witness.
The second is that from past experience, Israel likes to play power politics to ensure a reflection of the imbalance of power on the ground at the negotiating table. The Palestinian side wants to ensure that this time, negotiations reflect specific terms of reference based on the internationally accepted roadmap, which later became a UN Security Council resolution, other relevant international resolutions and previously signed agreements. This is something the current Israeli government seems uncomfortable with.
Another Palestinian concern is related to continuing Israeli practices that consolidate the occupation. The fear among Palestinians is that resuming direct negotiations without ensuring a cessation of all Israeli settlement activity will only provide a cover for continuing these Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.
Palestinians very well remember that while the years of negotiating the implementation of the Oslo agreement did not move us toward an end of occupation, they did allow Israel to increase the number of settlements and double the number of settlers on the very territory that is supposed to become, through negotiations, the land of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian side is committed to a peaceful and negotiated solution and is enthusiastic about resuming negotiations. However, with past failures in mind, Palestinians want to ensure that lessons have been learnt properly for any next phase of negotiations. The last thing the Palestinian side wants to see is another Annapolis process. That would only empower the wrong forces in the two respective societies while undermining the peace camps, which are promising their respective publics freedom, peace, security and prosperity through negotiations.
It is crucial that any next phase of negotiations, in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, from the outset contain as many ingredients for success as possible. These comprise preventing the two sides from any activity that could jeopardize negotiations, including all violence and all settlement activities. They also include clear commitments to signed agreements and the roadmap, which stipulates that the aim of negotiations is to end the occupation that started in 1967.- Published 26/7/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Proximity talks are the only format
by Gidi Grinstein
Pressure is mounting on the Palestinian side to agree to direct negotiations with Israel. There seems to be unanimous agreement that this is the optimal path to political progress that could lead to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Here we are in dire need of a reality check. The premise of the political process in the 1990s, which peaked during the period encompassing the Camp David summit, the Clinton parameters and the Taba talks, was that on both sides there are legitimate representatives that have the capacity to negotiate, sign, ratify and implement an agreement. Whereas this remains the situation on the Israeli side, a dramatic shift has occurred among the Palestinians.
Since January 2006, with the election victory of Hamas, and certainly since Hamas' coup d'etat in Gaza in June 2007, the Palestinian side has witnessed an ideological, constitutional and political crisis fueled with blood that led to the split between Gaza and the West Bank. The upshot of this crisis is that the Palestinian leadership does not have the capacity to ratify any agreement signed with Israel, which would inevitably include historic concessions. Neither the PLO's Palestinian National Council nor the PA's Palestinian Legislative Council enjoys the legitimacy to take such decisions, as the harmony among territory, demography, the political process and political institutions has broken down beyond repair.
The idea that such an agreement could be ratified by the Arab League is a fallacy as well. That would not only represent a setback to Palestinian self-determination, but would also surrender the outcome of the process to the notoriously destructive nature of intra-Arab politics. This is a valid explanation for President Mahmoud Abbas' rejection of PM Ehud Olmert's offers, as well as for his non-willingness to engage in direct talks. He knows better.
Maneuvering the Palestinian polity into a process that may lead to a moment of truth and a need to take historic decisions at a time of unprecedented weakness is tantamount to playing with fuel next to a bonfire. It may lead to a breakdown of the Palestinian Authority and to an irreversible setback for the two-state solution.
Against this backdrop, proximity talks are the optimal format for advancing the political process, for four major reasons. First, and for the first time, there can be accurate documentation of the parties' interests and positions. This is essential for gradual progress toward a political settlement. One of the major failings of the 1999-2001 Camp David process and specifically of the July 2000 Camp David summit was the lack of such a record.
Second, proximity talks allow for parallel Israel-US and PLO-US negotiations on the bilateral packages that are indispensible and integral to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement or understanding. Third, these talks will serve to educate the American team on the nuanced substance of the process, which will prove to be critical in the final moments of deal-making.
Finally, inability to reach a comprehensive agreement means that the likely outcome of the political process is trilateral back-to-back understandings among Israel, the PLO and the US. These will inform coordinated actions by Israel and the PA in the West Bank with a view to upgrading the PA into a state based on agreed parameters regarding permanent status, thus ushering in a new era of state-to-state relations between Israel and a Palestinian state. This architecture can only come into being through proximity talks, where the mediator is not only note-taking but is actively engaged in policy-design.
Many people, particularly on the left, blame the Netanyahu government as well as the Obama administration for a setback relative to the direct negotiations that Israel and the Palestinians had in the 1990s. Quite the contrary: in the present political climate, proximity talks are the only format that can yield progress toward bilateral understandings and perhaps even an agreement.- Published 26/7/2010 © bitterlemons.org
Gidi Grinstein is founder and president of the Reut Institute. He served as secretary of the Israeli delegation for negotiations with the PLO between 1999 and 2001, including during the Camp David summit.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Is there really a difference?
by George Giacaman
Syria and Israel negotiated directly in the US in 2000 and indirectly in 2008. The PLO and Israel negotiated indirectly first in the late 1980s and directly since the start of the Oslo process. Negotiations so far have not led to a comprehensive peace on either track. What moral can be drawn about the modus operandi, direct or indirect? None. The problem lies elsewhere.
The interest of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in direct talks appears to be motivated by two considerations: first, generating the appearance of "normal" relations with the Palestinian Authority, given the relative international isolation of his government; and second, keeping his coalition afloat. The latter factor requires that no credible progress is achieved in such talks. That is, unless the PLO accepts a "state" in 50 to 60 percent of the West Bank, in isolated cantons, lacking in sovereignty, with possibly the village of Abu Dis being called "Jerusalem", or whatever other area is outside the Wall adjoining Jerusalem that Israel is eager to get rid off for demographic reasons. No Palestinian leadership can accept such terms and survive politically.
For the Palestinians, the predicament is that after 19 years of negotiations, since the Madrid conference in late 1991, it is not possible to have another 19 years of negotiations and retain whatever credibility and legitimacy the PA still maintains among Palestinians. This is why President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) insisted on going directly to so-called final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees and sovereignty in the "Annapolis process" that folded at the end of 2008 with no agreement.
After the election of US President Barack Obama, the PLO decided to go along with another final round of negotiations. Following Obama's lead, talks were conditioned on a settlement freeze. After Obama backed down, accepting a partial and temporary freeze rather than a complete one, "indirect negotiations" or "proximity talks" as they came to be called, were a way to save face for the Palestinian side. Following the lead of the Arab League, the PLO insisted that there should be progress in indirect talks and agreement about the borders of 1967 as a starting point for any direct negotiations before direct negotiations could start. None of this has happened.
Now the Palestinian leadership is under pressure from the Obama administration to go into direct negotiations as Netanyahu demands. This may just be the straw that will break the camel's back. But even if it doesn't and the PLO is prevailed upon by the US, with Arab regime backing, time is indeed running out. Barely a day passed after the Netanyahu-Obama meeting in early July when there were already calls in opinion columns in Palestinian newspapers on Abu Mazen to resign and refuse to proceed any further with "negotiations" that most Palestinians see simply as a charade. The internet is full of vituperative condemnation of the PA by Palestinians and Arabs, and the PA is well aware of this.
Whatever political "movement" is generated in the near future as a result of the Netanyahu-Obama meeting, for now and at least until the end of the year everything is short-term crisis management. Obama wants his party to pass through the mid-term November elections as peacefully as possible given the role of the Israel lobby in domestic US politics. Netanyahu needs to gain as much time as possible to keep his coalition intact, and the Palestinian leadership is at the mercy of more powerful actors and is hesitant to use its main source of leverage, i.e., putting the PA's existence on the line.
For, from a Palestinian point of view, it was never envisioned that the PA would function permanently as a large municipality to administer the affairs of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Thus without a clear end in sight to "negotiations", the PA's future is doomed. Abu Mazen understands this quite well. This is what was behind his declaration earlier this year that he will not run again for elections. He also said he may take other steps, but did not elaborate. It is widely assumed that resigning from office remains a strong possibility.
But even if he is prevailed upon to give the Obama administration another lease of life on the current crisis management, the future of the PA is very insecure. And there is no partner in government on the Israeli side.- Published 26/7/2010 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman is a faculty member at Birzeit University and teaches in the MA program in Democracy and Human Rights and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies.
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