Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: why now?

Written by Nassar Ibrahim, AIC & OPGAI



Why did the PA agree to resume peace negotiations with Israel when its oft-stated conditions of a settlement freeze and acknowledging the 1967 borders as the basis for talks were not met? How can we judge if the negotiations are a success and should they fail, what possible reactions may ensue?


 John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas (Photo: PressTv)


Direct peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis are slated to begin Monday, following yesterday's decision by the Israeli government to release 104 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners and preceded by months of intensive shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The welcome prisoner release notwithstanding, why did Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agree to restart negotiations now, as he has previously stated on a number of occasions that there would be no renewal of negotiations without a settlement freeze and declaration of the 1967 borders as the basis for talks. With Israel offering none of these assurances, other motives must then be at play for Palestinian representatives to agree to enter into a new round of negotiations. 


At this particular juncture, and within the broader political context of the region, Palestinian representatives believe that two current circumstances count in their favour and are conducive to a stronger political position vis-a-vis the Israelis. 


Firstly, with the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and the Syrian National Coalition’s(SNC) failure to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Abbas considers the U.S. position in the Middle East to be somewhat precarious.Because of these strategic failures and the sudden fall from grace of the U.S backed poster-boys of neoliberal capitalism in the Middle East - fronted by the Muslim Brotherhood - Fatah representatives are under the impression that the U.S. needs these negotiations to reassert its position of power and influence in the region. As such they believe that, coming from this position of political necessity and strategic survival in the Middle East, the U.S. is more likely to respond positively to some of their demands, or at least to respond less negatively.


The second set of circumstances Palestinian representatives count in their favour is again deeply tied to wider regional events. Hamas first emerged as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at a time when the movement was largely banned or suppressed and forced underground. With the public emergence and strengthening of the Brotherhood in the past two years, Hamas believed it would soon have broader regional power and firm allies with which to face Israel and its supporters. As the Brotherhood bolstered its political position and garnered U.S. support, Hamas formed closer bonds with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, tightened its relationship with Qatar, voiced its support for Morsi in Egypt, cut ties with Assad in Syria and increasingly strained its relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon. However with events currently unfolding across the region, it would appear that Hamas put all of its eggs in the wrong basket and, contrary to their intentions, have in fact isolated themselves further.


This reality has emboldened Fatah to seize the opportunity of a weakened Hamas to strengthen its own power on a regional and international level by entering into U.S. sponsored negotiations as the leading Palestinian actor.


In addition to the current political climate and ongoing power shifts,  the Palestinians ultimately do not possess the political strength or economic independence to refuse U.S. demands. The more politically relevant question than that of Fatah’s motives in moving to the negotiation table then, is the U.S. administration’s reasons for such an aggressive push towards direct talks: why has Secretary of State John Kerry spent the past four months relentlessly seeking to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? What is the American angle and why now?


Although the U.S. may not be as fraught as Abbas would like to believe, the failure of its policies, particularly in Egypt and Syria, have most certainly prompted the U.S. to re-evaluate strategies to best secure its economic, political and security interests in the region.Several regional and global factors have influenced this shift in American strategy, including the necessity to:

  1. Reorganise and ensure region-wide allies before the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
  2. Reassert dominance following the failure of U.S. backed Morsi in Egypt and the SNC in Syria.
  3. Marginalise the influence and efficacy of other global powers with interests in the region, such as Russia and China.
  4. Relegate the wider Arab role within the region to the sidelines if the negotiations are viewed as successful and delegitimise Arab contributions, thereby making U.S. conceived and led solutions the sole viable options for regional stability.
  5. Designate resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict as ‘in-progress’ during negotiations so the U.S. can pursue its more pressing interests, such as the isolation of Russia and Iran, and the new Saudi-led strategies supporting the rebels in Syria.

With the regional upheaval currently underway, and a long history of failed negotiations and unratified treaties between Israel-Palestine, many people are deeply pessimistic as to the likelihood of these talks laying the foundations for a final resolution. Indeed, the current situation in Israel and the objectives and ideology of the Netanyahu government are not conducive to the achievement of an equitable peace. As such, in its immediacy, there is nothing that can be done to ensure success of these negotiations. The changes that need to occur for a viable peace process are broad, and would have to be part of long-term strategies from both Israeli and Palestinian political actors.


On the Israeli side, the primary shift needed is not one of policy, but attitude. Israel holds the unwavering support of a number of Western powers regardless of the laws it breaks or the atrocities it commits; this lack of  accountability and the unshakeable support it receives has left Israel with very little incentive to enter into negotiations in good faith. Israel is unquestionably in the dominant position, so why would it sacrifice anything? With Hamas signed to a long-term ceasefire agreement and the PA acquiescing to its orders, Israel already has the complicity of the leading Palestinian parties and therefor exactly nothing to gain by compromising with them.


The biggest challenge for Israel at the moment is not its relations with the Palestinians, but with its own fracturing society. Netanyahu’s biggest headache is forging a balance between the needs of the moderates in Israel and the increasingly extreme demands of its far-right. In the context of negotiations, a good balance can be struck: the moderates are appeased in the knowledge that Israel is at least appearing to participate in peace talks, and the far right is safe in the knowledge that the talks will go nowhere.


Ultimately, the possibility of achieving a just and equitable peace hangs in the balance of the same key issues as it always has: Jerusalem, settlements, 1967 borders and the refugees' right of return. What makes these issues so contentious is that they are the bottom-line for both sides; neither can compromise on these issues without compromising the very core of their beliefs or rights. Israel, for example, cannot maintain its demographic ethnocracy of Jewish-Israeli dominance if the refugees are allowed to return and conversely, Palestinian representatives cannot sacrifice that right and claim to represent the millions of displaced and diaspora Palestinians living in exile.


On a global level, should the international community wish sincerely for a just and equitable peace to be reached during these negotiations, it is vital that it creates incentives for genuine change. As previously mentioned, Israel has no incentive to change its approach and as the dominant party, motivation is unlikely to come from within. Such motivation must thus come from without, whether in the form of sanctions or the threat of International Criminal Court indictments.


The Palestinians, for their part, must perform a large-scale overhaul of their approach, and re-evaluate the strategic needs for building a formidable resistance that reunites its divided political factions under the PLO. There are two key interconnected issues currently stunting the Palestinians' capacity to be an effective negotiator in the face of prevailing powers. Firstly, they must treat Palestinian social needs and human rights as a priority instead of pandering to the conditions of neoliberal institutions like the World Bank and IMF, which focus on economic development and free market access rather than the social and political development of Palestine.


Palestinian representatives must form their strategies on long-term goals of equality and liberation, instead of focusing on short-term economic fixes that are detrimental to the survival and legitimacy of the struggle; economic development plans must compliment goals of liberation instead of replacing or marginalising them. Secondly, much like Israel, the PA is currently more consumed by internal socio-political divisions; with the political environment drawn on the lines of Fatah versus Hamas, each party spends more of its time formulating strategies and making deals that best suit their parties’ interests - and the interests of their political elites - than on working toward presenting a united front to Israel and the U.S. Such divisions can easily be taken advantage of, and serve to distract from the real issues of Israel's occupation.


This political fracturing has not only hindered formation of long-term strategies for liberation, but has also impaired efforts to sustain a unified body that genuinely represents all Palestinian interests. It is important to note that, despite its central position, the PA does not and has never claimed to represent the entirety of the Palestinian population within the territories occupied in 1967, within Israel and abroad. The sole political body with the current legitimacy to represent all Palestinians is the PLO. 


The reality on the ground, however, is not so simple. If Palestinian negotiators are willing to compromise on issues of refugee return or abandon the Palestinian population in Israel or the diaspora, they would instantly losetheir legitimacy as representatives. The PA currently represents Fatah interests above all else, and the same can be said for Hamas; each party seeks to meet its own interests and propagate its own survival rather than focus on broader Palestinian social and political needs and liberation.As for the PLO now, where is it? It is not in the Palestinian camps in Syria, Jordan or Lebanon, battling the discrimination faced by the refugees, and it is not in 1948 or the diaspora unifying Palestinians across social, political and geographic spectrums. 


With this in mind, it is important to note that Palestinian national and political unity is integral to the survival of the struggle, and the political efforts of all parties must be focused on finding common ground and cooperating to build long-term liberation strategies. It is important also that Palestinians cease marginalising themselves from the wider Arab context and anti-colonial struggle. Only a broad movement, built on unity and regional anti-colonial strategies, can truly be said to represent the Palestinian people and present a formidable force in the face of Israeli and American dominance. 


One of the biggest tragedies is that after more than 100 years of anti-colonial struggle, these internal divisions have left the Palestinian people disillusioned with the political process and the parties that are supposed to represent them. With such indecisive leaders and the total stagnation of effective political action, negotiations with the current and historic colonial powers of Israel and the U.S. seem like the only option for advancement. 


On an International level, one issue that seems to be of particular media interest following Kerry’s announcement, is speculation as to of what would happen should the talks fail. In the context of negotiations and the past experiences of peace talks and agreements however, it is vitally important to first define the measure of failure and success. If both parties sign a new agreement but the occupation continues, can it be deemed a success? 


In its most basic form, the Oslo Accords of 1993 could be deemed successful negotiations: two opposing parties sat down and negotiated terms of an agreement that was then signed. Of course Oslo later proved itself to be one of the biggest impediments to the advancement of Palestinian rights and liberation. The success or failure of such talks then, cannot be measured by whether or not the process of negotiations itself is successful, but rather upon the realities it creates on the ground. 


One of the biggest problems of negotiations and their prospects for advancing a genuine peace process is, as previously mentioned, the issue that both parties have the same bottom-line that cannot be comprised. As such, any agreements without these key issues are merely mandating rules within the occupation framework and outlining terms of engagement.


One of the most popular speculations of Palestinian reactions should the talks collapse- particularly following the massive protests and political upheaval seen in the Arab Spring - is a third intifada. Every year media outlets proclaim the imminence of a third intifada, although this misguided analytical approach assumes that there is only ever one reaction of which the Palestinians are capable. Due to the current social climate of political disunity and the PA’s campaign of delegitimising movements of resistance outside of its own structure, it is unlikely that an organised and unified movement of Palestinian resistance will ensue should the talks collapse. There may be instances of reactive resistance, although such fractured socio-political conditions are not conducive to the formation and success of a united front for liberation. In the face of such challenges, Palestinians know that there is currently very little to gain from an uprising in the long-term.