Diplomacy | Why won’t the Palestinians agree to direct negotiations with Israel?

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

One of the most repeated talking points of Israeli leaders these days is that by refusing direct negotiations, the Palestinian leadership is proving (again) that it doesn’t want peace. It is, Israelis say, another case of Arab Rejectionism.

Even members of the Israeli Left often wonder: if the Palestinian leadership really wants its own state, why not negotiate? What do they have to lose? After all, they can’t hope for a more sympathetic American administration, so why not take advantage of the current political circumstances, and try to gain something?

I’m not in the business of defending whatever the Palestinian Authority does (clearly an impossible task), but I do think that from his own perspective, Abu-Mazen is doing the right thing in refusing direct negotiations with the Israeli government (or at least postponing it as much as he can). The reason for this is the unbalanced nature of the diplomatic game.

By “unbalanced” I don’t mean that Israel is the strong side. Clearly, Israel has the upper hand from a military perspective, but this is not the important issue on this stage of negotiations. The unbalanced nature of the negotiations refers to the currency both sides are expected to exchange, and the moment in time in which they would exchange it.

It is pretty clear what does the Palestinian Authority want from Israel: land. Israel is expected to leave the territory it captured in 1967, give or take some minor changes. But what does Israel expect to get from the Palestinians? Most people will answer “security”. But that’s not true. Israel’s security will be put at risk by evacuating the land, and there is nothing the Palestinians can say or do that would eliminate this risk. Any kind of agreement Abu-Mazen signs won’t promise that in five, ten or twenty years the Palestinians won’t decide to attack Israel (or Israel the Palestinians, for that matter). The Peace we all hope for will depend on political circumstances and the way both leaderships conduct themselves in the years to come, not on documents they sign today.

The thing that Israel needs from the Palestinians is not security. It’s something even more important, and the one currency Israel was always short of: legitimacy. Legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and legitimacy in the eyes of most of the Arab world. That what Israel lacks, and that’s what the Arabs have offered it in the 2002 Arab League peace initiative: full legitimacy in exchange for a full withdrawal. Back then Israel declined this offer, so the Palestinians kept hitting it where it hurts, by questioning Israel’s legitimacy in controlling the West bank or even its entire right to exist.

And here is the important part: Israel will gain some legitimacy from the first moment of negotiations, while the Palestinians will get the land only after an agreement is signed, and even this is not certain (Israel have never completed fulfilling its part in the Oslo agreement, for example). In other words, the Palestinians start paying when they enter the negotiating room, while Israelis only pay at the exit.

For an Israeli Prime Minister – given his own political considerations – it will be very tempting to stay in the room forever.


How do you solve this problem? If you have some trust between the leaders, like we started having in the mid 90′s, you can convince both sides to enter negotiations knowing that the other party is as committed as them to reaching an agreement. But this is clearly not the case today, and hostility between Ramalah and Jerusalem couldn’t be more evident.

Another option is to have a third party in the room, one which will provide assurances for the Palestinians that the process will be limited in time, and that they will get something at the end of the road. My guess is that this is what Abu-Mazen was asking the US administration recently, and that this is the kind of commitment President Obama will try to force out of Netanyahu in their meeting.

Given what we have seen from the Israeli Prime Minister so far, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Even more troubling is the notion some in the administration hold – Dennis Ross is the best example, possibly also VP Biden – that the best way is to simply force the Palestinians to negotiate. The consequences, as we learned in 2000, could be tragic.

6 Comments on “Diplomacy | Why won’t the Palestinians agree to direct negotiations with Israel?”

  1. 1 Rechavia Berman said at 6:27 am on July 6th, 2010:

    Excellent analysis. In fact, it is telling that the campaign to de-legitimize Israel only truly picked up steam after it rejected the Arab League proposal.

  2. 2 ben said at 1:11 am on July 8th, 2010:

    excellent thanks, incisive and thought provoking, short and sweet !

  3. 3 Jewish Ideas Daily said at 1:24 am on July 11th, 2010:

    As a prerequisite for resuming peace talks, the Palestinians are insisting that Israel abide not only by existing agreements but by past negotiations that went nowhere. See http://www.jidaily.com/XiurN

  4. 4 noam said at 1:58 am on July 11th, 2010:

    JID: why should they ask for anything else? on average, Israel has a new government every two years. Is The world – not just the Palestinians – wrong in asking for some sort of continuity in the Israeli policy?

  5. 5 gurevich said at 6:21 pm on July 11th, 2010:

    It’s not because of continuity. It’s done for advantage and it creates a serious issue for Israeli governments in negotiations. Every time an Israeli government tries a new formula for peace, the Palestinians pocket the latest concessions and walk away.

    They do this because they know that in two years there will be a new Israeli government. They never have to accept a deal, only restart negotiations with the new government, pocket additional concessions and walk away for two years and a new government.

    Why are they killing time like this? Because they don’t want peace. The proof Israel wants peace and is willing to compromise is that it doesn’t “stay in the room” like you say. It makes offers, like Barak and Olmert did.

  6. 6 Jewish Ideas Daily said at 10:45 pm on July 11th, 2010:

    Continuity is certainly a problem, as is the fact that the major parties seem to hold the same opinions.