The issue of the Israeli settlements is considered one of the core issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in light of the heightened settlement activity in the West Bank. This activity deems any future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations regarding the borders of the ‘promised’ Palestinian state to be effectively devoid of any practical and strategic value, because it already demarcates such a ‘state’ with deformations and disparity.
Aside from tactical missteps that freeze it temporarily, the negotiations track seems to be a road with an endless horizon, with no foreseeable ends in the near future; a journey that might last forever, taking into consideration the current situation, conditions and stances of the various involved sides, and the regional and global power balances.
Recently, the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah conditioned the resumption of negotiations with the freeze of settlement activity in the West Bank. On the outset, this position appeared to be a holdup in the negotiations track; but the following developments hinted at the PA’s gradual retract in this position, thus being dragged again to the preceding vicious circle.
The Palestinian Position… Escalation and Retreat
A Tactical Maneuver
Positions of Relevant Sides
1.The Israeli Position:
2.The American Position:
3.The Arab Position:
Scenarios and Implications
1.A Minimal Ceiling of Demands
2.The Break of Anger among Palestinian Public
3.Going to the UN Security Council
Signed in 1993 as the first Israeli-Palestinian agreement, Oslo Accords postponed the issue of settlements to an anticipated ‘final-status agreement’. For Israel, signing Oslo was equivalent to entering a stage of racing with time to impose the maximum possible facts on the ground, especially with relation to minimizing the projected geographic area that will constitute the future Palestinian state, in case such a state was to be later negotiated with the Palestinians.
The Camp-David Summit that was held in 2000 to discuss the ‘final-status agreement’ ended in failure, because of the wide gap between the Israeli and Palestinian stances on final-status issues. Developments then dashed, leading to a collapse in the negotiations and the rise of Al-Aqsa Intifadah.
The pulse of negotiations resonated back in 2005, after the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat passed away, and Mahmoud Abbas took over the PA presidency and decision-making. This relative revive in negotiations, from complete freeze, is mainly attributed to the political agenda of Abbas; who consistently expressed his belief in negotiations as ‘the only strategic option to end the conflict with the Israeli Occupation’.
Unfortunately for Abbas, Sharon was then the Israeli Prime Minister and it was hard to achieve any actual progress in negotiating with such a veteran hard-line politician.
It was not until the end of 2007 that the Palestinian ‘official hopes’ witnessed a moment of bloom at the Annapolis peace conference, that was sponsored by the former American administration headed by George W. Bush. Annapolis implanted in the minds of the Palestinian negotiator, the illusion that the achievement of a final settlement and a Palestinian state on the basis of a two-state solution, is only a matter of few months, or maximum few years.
Few months, and this wishful illusion of approaching the historical moment of reaching a final settlement-and a Palestinian ‘state’, regardless of its nature-was shattered, because the Israeli Prime Minister then, Ehud Olmert, hesitated on specific issues especially the issue of Jerusalem. The Palestinian officials who promoted the negotiations line had to setback to a yet another stage of deadness in the negotiations track. This was regardless of the prevailing state of Palestinian rift, that was described by many critiques as Abbas’ ideal chance of signing agreements and negotiating ‘guilt-free’ of Hamas’ political stances and its ‘disturbing’ effect.
Apparently, the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had indeed approached the achievement of a final-status agreement that only lacked consensus on the status and future of Jerusalem; according to many credible Palestinian and Israeli sources, who were informed about the negotiation rounds that were taking place in profound secrecy to prevent any obstacles or hindering interventions.
The only known reasons of why this semi-complete agreement was not finished, is that Olmert for some private considerations of his own, decided not to complete it. Shortly after, Olmert walked out from the whole Israeli political and decision-making arena, and the Israelis were occupied with their internal affairs and preparing for the elections that brought into power the extreme right under the lead of Benyamin Netanyahu. The political agenda that is adopted by Netanyahu is characterized by a hard-handed and strict approach in dealing with the Palestinians.
With the arrival of Netanyahu, a new chapter was opened in the chronicle of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Discussions were brought back to zero, and all the attempts by the Palestinian negotiators, to start from the point where negotiations ended with Olmert, were fruitless.
Obama’s arrival to the American administration was another ‘moment of bloom’ for the Palestinian ‘official hopes’, especially with his announced stances towards the Palestinian issue and namely the settlements in the West Bank. Consequently, the Palestinian negotiators team boldly announced that the resumption of negotiations is conditioned with complete freezing of the Israeli settlement activity.
But later, as the American position loosened, the Palestinian negotiators team lead by Abbas was cornered in a very critical dilemma.
The Palestinian Position… Escalation and Retreat
The last few months were one of the most critical and disconcerting periods for Mahmoud Abbas in negotiations; a period that is possibly unprecedented throughout his experience of heading the PA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). These months witnessed significant regional and international developments related to the Palestinian issue and the future of the conflict with the Israeli Occupation.
However, the continued settlement activity was among the most challenging and critical issues, that demanded from Abbas a serious reaction or policy, or at least a political statement. On that, Abbas initially reclined on the apparently sympathizing international positions that prevailed with Obama’s arrival, and escalated the tone against settlements. He, along with other Palestinian negotiators, had hope that this international pressure against Israel, especially the American pressure, could lead to a tangible gain in negotiations.
Such a gain could have been the first for the Palestinians since more than 20 years, but the American stances that were initially bold and strict in tone towards Israel, gradually leaned; as the Israeli relentlessness turned deaf ears to pressure attempts. This was first reflected in calling for partial freeze of settlement activity in return for resuming negotiations. The US administration suggested first a freeze for one year, then went down to six months, then three, to eventually end up with eliminating this condition, and thus calling for unconditioned negotiations.
Essentially this was no more different than the stance of the earlier GW Bush Administration, and Abbas was cornered in an unenvied position. It is not easy to retreat from his earlier ‘bold’ position in a matter of few days, taking into consideration that his whole political future is at stake, especially in face of the rising resistance movements including Hamas. Hamas calls for abandoning ‘futile’ negotiations, which only brought the Palestinians additional violations of their rights, sufferings, and concessions in their national fundamentals. Abbas’ political position was further weakened at the postponement of the Goldstone report earlier in October 2009, which leveled to a ‘scandal’ within many Palestinian circles.
Abbas was disturbed by the American fluctuating position, but didn’t have the courage and preparedness to object to it, or even adopt a different stance and keep up with holding negotiations; although he tried to delay the moment of facing that as much as possible. This ‘delay’ didn’t last long, and soon after, Abbas “agreed in principle to the U.S. proposal for indirect talks,” adding that he “intends to ask for a number of clarifications with the U.S. administration” before returning to direct negotiations; in an attempt to lessen the expected level of public and political criticism that followed, not only from Hamas and the resistance but also from figures and groups within Fatah and the PA.
Abbas is trying to assimilate the critical discomfiture and the negative implications that resulted from returning back-unconditionally- to negotiations.
Most remarkable in his attempt was his request for keeping the negotiations indirect for a period that won’t exceed four months, on the pretext that in this period he intends to:
1) Obtain ‘American clarifications’ on critical issues (borders, Jerusalem, and settlements), along with American guarantees-if possible- in these aspects.
2) Obtain an Arab cover for the decision to resume negotiations. This was reflected in the Arab league call for a special convention on the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Arab follow-up committee. This convention was held on 2/3/2010, and the committee expressed its support for indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks for a period of four months.
It is out of question whether or not Mahmoud Abbas would challenge the American administration, but Abbas realizes that his political program that is primarily based on negotiations is currently threatened seriously; and that unless he resorts to some form of political maneuvering of ‘boldness’ and ‘decisiveness’, his political image and future will irreversibly collapse in front of his rivals and supporters equally. Not to mention other Palestinians who have experienced the ‘fruits’ of the negotiations in the last two decades: additional suffering, settlements, humiliation and occupation.
Abbas realizes, more than anyone else, that asking for ‘American clarifications’ does not substantially have any effect on the negotiations or their results. The American administration that have failed to pressure the Israeli government for any concession, even in the form of a temporary or superficial settlement freeze, is definitely incapable of pressuring it to commit to more serious requirements in major issues like Jerusalem, the refugees, and the sovereignty of any future Palestinian state.
This was lately revealed in the PA’s disappointment with the ‘clarifications’ carried by David Hale, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs; that were short of the Palestinian requests regarding the final-status issues. It was possibly the most brief and truthful revelation of the empty circle and the dead-end situation reached by the settlement process and efforts to revive it.
1. The Israeli Position: It doesn’t seem that Netanyahu’s government is in a hurry for a political settlement, as it is for Abbas. On the contrary, it is possibly more inclined towards maintaining the current status-quo of negotiations (frozen – indirect), which allow it more comfortably to proceed with its policy of imposing facts on the ground, and/or relieves it from some of the international pressure and criticism it faces.
It should be taken into consideration that the current Israeli government and its political platform, don’t suggest any possible Israeli concession in any of the significant issues: borders; Jerusalem; refugees; stopping settlements growth and further occupation, including the pretext of “natural growth”; in addition to its refusal to pick up on negotiations from the point reached in December 2008.
2. The American Position: Obama’s Administration is concerned with launching the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, even if in the form of a mere formality to pacify the Palestinian situation currently; in case it was impossible to establish a Palestinian ‘state’ of any form or structure according to the two-state vision. The American Administration needs such an achievement, so as to have more time for the more demanding crises it faces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other regional issues-the Iranian nuclear issue being at the top; in addition to its efforts to restore its deformed image in the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The US realizes its limited ability to pressure Israel, and the extent of the Israeli Lobby’s influence in the American Middle East Foreign Policy decision-making. In addition, the US is unwilling to threaten its ‘strategic alliance’ with Israel, as the latter remains the primary determinant of the American foreign policy in the region.
The American ‘disappointment’ from Israel’s statement with regards to building 1600 new settlement units in Jerusalem, was responded to by an Israeli apology. However this apology was not for the building project itself, but for the unsuitability of the timing at which it was announced.
It became clear that the American administration is disinclined towards taking any strict measure or commitment against Israel. Instead of soothing the offended/occupied and wounded Palestinian side, the US was more concerned with assuring Israel on the American commitment to the Israeli security needs and the US-Israeli strategic partnership; especially during Netanyahu’s visit to the US and the AIPAC meeting. During that visit, Netanyahu claimed that Jerusalem is not a settlement, and thus building in Jerusalem is similar to building in Tel-Aviv.!
Thus, the American position currently is to maintain an ongoing negotiation process; so as not to say that the settlement process has failed or ended, because the latter would leave a vacuum that will be invested by other Islamic and resistant ideologies and groups.
3. The Arab Position: Many Arab countries have yet hopes in Obama’s vision towards the Arab and Islamic worlds, as expressed in his two famous speeches in Turkey and Egypt. Thus, they cooperate with him positively in an attempt to help him achieve this vision.
What further increases these countries’ hopes, in looking with esteem to Obama’s Foreign Policy, is that no pressure is exerted on Arabs to provide Israel with a concession namely with regards to explicit normalization of relations; unless Israel commits to a freeze of settlement activity.
The above factor was possibly the major reason behind the earlier-mentioned Arab stance expressed officially in the Arab league foreign ministers’ convention, supporting the unconditional resumption of negotiations. This stance was earlier expressed as well on 26/9/2009, in a joint statement issued by the Arab ministers and the American Secretary of state. It was justified on the pretext of ‘facilitating the American mediation’, while essentially it provided Abbas with an excuse to retreat on his earlier position that insisted on freezing settlements before resuming negotiations.
Regardless of the above positions, it should be noted that the Israeli announcement of building additional 1600 new settlement units in Jerusalem is but an additional demonstration of the Israeli relentlessness and disregard to the Palestinian rights and international positions and laws. On the other hand, the Arab regimes and the PA continue with ‘adopting negotiations as a strategic option’, regardless of how distressing, fruitless and upsetting this stance has been for them.
In light of the above, the scenario of resuming negotiations under the cover of indirect talks according to the Palestinian-American ‘clarifications’, a preordained development. This scenario seems to provide Abbas with a temporary and minimal-damage solution to get out of the corner following his demand of complete settlement freeze as a precondition to any resumption of negotiations. It could possibly establish for a prelude to resume direct negotiations after the end of the four months.
This however is expected to reflect on the Palestinian scene as follows:
1. A Minimal Ceiling of Demands
The Palestinian negotiating stance has not witnessed any change towards their favour or interest. While insisting on going to negotiations, Abbas has no choice but to accept the Israeli demands and conditions that are not expected to give the Palestinians any fair share, but rather provide for a deformed and crushing ‘peaceful settlement’. Otherwise, he will have either to continue into the same empty loophole till God-knows-when; or to retreat and decline from accepting the Israeli conditions, but then he will be subject to international pressure and Israeli criticism of being ‘unwilling to broker a peaceful settlement’ and the ‘absence of a Palestinian partner for peace’. International pressure could also extend to other forms similar to the former PA president Arafat’s experience, including political embargo and suspension of financial aid.
Historical developments have proved that the US and the international community are disinclined towards pressuring Israel, and that they will often pressure the ‘weaker’ side, which is in this case the Palestinians.
2. The Break of Anger among Palestinian Public
Another option for Abbas would be to invest the prevailing state of dissatisfaction and anger among the Palestinian public, towards the continued futile negotiations and the heightened activity of the occupation’s settlement and Judaization in the West Bank. This could be through warning the international community and the American administration against a new Intifadah on the rise in the West Bank, in case no real pressure was exerted on Israel and the negotiations didn’t respond to the Palestinian demands.
But such a step will not ‘fool’ the international community and the Americans, who know clearly by now that Abbas himself doesn’t want such a rise that will not be to his interest. Add to this the efforts that have been made in the West Bank to curtail any infrastructure for the resistance, with complete cooperation-if not on demand- from Abbas and his security forces with Lt.Gen. Dayton and the Israeli occupation forces, to create a West Bank that is ‘secure’ for Israel; these oppressive efforts that made the rise of a new Intifadah in the West Bank today almost impossible.
3. Going to the UN Security Council
As the Arabs and Palestinians come to realize that the settlement process has reached its dead-end, and that negotiations are getting into an empty loophole that only helps the Israeli occupation to further establish facts on the ground, many calls have been issued to abandon the option of negotiations and to resort to the UN. The argument is that the protection of the Palestinian rights from the Israeli violations, and the Palestinian land from the repressive occupation, should be responsibly and seriously taken by the UN who had earlier stated the Palestinian right to resistance and to self-determination; at least to a sovereign state within the 1967 borders. These calls however seem to resonate more with ‘wishing’ rather than ‘demanding’, because of the many relevant details of bureaucracy within the UN, the time such a process will take, and the always-available veto possibility by any of the major powers, namely the US.
– Stopping current negotiations with the Israeli occupation authorities, because these negotiations lack seriousness, and only serve to give the occupation more time to continue its violations. In addition they don’t serve the Palestinian interest, nor adopt the minimum Palestinian fundamental ceiling of rights, nor involve a legitimate representation of the Palestinian people.
– Developing a national Palestinian strategy, based on the current realities and available options; and prioritizing the national Palestinian interest.
– Pushing forward the Palestinian reconciliation, and being adamant in the implementation of all the required preludes to re-establish trust between the different Palestinian factions; so as to avoid previous experiences of ‘reconciliation agreements’ that remained merely a matter of paperwork and were not effectively implemented. Besides, national unity should be identified as only one stage of preparing for a more serious and critical stage of facing the continued occupation, and the fierce campaigns of settlement and Judaization in the Palestinian lands.
– Rebuilding/reforming the PLO on the basis of new structural and political foundations, so as to be a unity establishment that brings together all Palestinians, Palestinian factions, inside and outside Palestine; and calling for the elections of a new National Council according to procedures and rules to-be-agreed-upon; all in a way that considers fore and foremost the interest of the Palestinian people.
– Forming Palestinian lobbying groups and strengthening the Palestinian civil society, thus to constitute another pillar of national Palestinian efforts, that aim at organizing the available potentials and investing it in various forms of resistance to the occupation and its expansionist schemes.
Al-Zaytouna Center would like to express its sincere thanks to Mo’min Bseiso for writing the draft text on which this assessment was based.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Arabic version published on 30/3/2010