Tuesday 22 April 2014

"And then poof”: Futility in the Abbas-Netanyahu Negotiations 2013-4

This round of negotiations began with parties agreeing that they would not talk to the press. After 9 months I have collected over 150 pages of news reports quoting anonymous sources (“Western”, Israeli, Palestinian and American) about the talks. This post is not meant to be an authoritative account of the talks but will seek to use the best evidence available to evaluate the claims of these officials meshed in with my own thoughts about the final status issues. I should emphasise that the majority of what follows is based on Palestinian sources. It will be years before the actors write biographies and even longer before the Israeli archives are opened allowing for a better, truer understanding. Even if readers disagree with my conclusions and prescriptions, this post should reflect the best descriptive evidence available.

Start of Negotiations

Quite amusingly, the basis for negotiation at the start was disputed by the two sides. A ‘Palestinian source’ told the Associated Press that the Palestinians had received a letter from Kerry ‘guaranteeing that the basis of the negotiations would be Israel’s 1967 lines.’ But another Palestinian source, Abaas Zakki of the PLO Executive Committee said no such assurances were given. Funnily enough, given the coverage of Israeli officials making inappropriate remarks against John Kerry, Zakki accused Kerry of having an “extraordinary ability to deceive not only others, but first and foremost himself.” Meanwhile, Israeli sources were bragging that the talks were not to be held on the basis of the 1967 lines – including Netanyahu:

I pulled the Palestinians down from the tree of preconditions; I didn’t agree to a further freeze of building in the territories; I refused to release 120 prisoners before the talks began; and the 1967 borders aren’t mentioned

A “Western official” confirmed that the 1967 lines were not mentioned as the basis for negotiation to the New York Times. What seems likely, however, is that the U.S wrote a letter and that is what they would consider the basis of the talks. According to a report in Haaretz, this was accepted by the Palestinians for two reasons: Netanyahu’s movement on the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel and secondly

Kerry’s threat that Abbas would be blamed for the failure to renew the talks, leading to cuts in the U.S. funding of the PA, seemed to convince Abbas to agree to renew talks without reaching agreement on all topics.

Does the failure for Israeli officials to accept the 67 lines as a basis for negotiation show how intransigent they are? The 1967 lines should be the basis for negotiations and, as is commonly said, ‘everyone agrees’ that with modifications, it will be the future border. But I’m not sure this speaks to Israeli intransigence for two reasons. Firstly, prior to this round of negotiations, Netanyahu’s position was known to the Palestinians. His position has been derided as rejectionist but the sources for such a claim are outdated: he not only accepts the ’67 lines, but is close to previous Israeli offers. In 2010, Palestinian news outlet Firas Press reported that Netanyahu had communicated that he was willing to withdraw from 90% of the West Bank. In fact, the majority of discussions that Ehud Barak undertook during that time was devoted to finding ideal security arrangements.[1]

But it’s not just this report that makes me think there is no need for explicit reference to the ‘67 lines. Netanyahu’s 90% position seems to have been an opening. In 2012, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu’s envoy Molho offered exactly the same thing, if not more. Haaretz noted that his position was “similar, if not identical to that which was presented by Tzipi Livni during the negotiations that took place in 2008.” (Note too that goes beyond Likud public position of ending the occupation of 86% of the West Bank). Yasser Abed Raboo had a separate line of communication with Netanyahu during the same period. According to Abed Raboo, Bibi was willing start negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines (Likud sources confirmed this in December 2013). As if to underscore the general point I’m making (i.e., that Netanyahu is not as rejectionist as commonly portrayed), Abed Raboo stated the following:

Netanyahu literally jumped up. ‘You were born in Jaffa?’ he asked. And he looked at me and said, “I promise you that after all this is over, I’ll allow you to return to live in Jaffa.’

Even on the issue of Jerusalem, which Bibi seems more intransigent on, the current round of negotiations have shown how flexible he is compared to the general perception of him. Around January 2014,  Palestinian sources stated that ‘Kerry had suggested a new formulation for Jerusalem, under which it would be termed the capital of both states without a clear definition of East Jerusalem’s outlines, that Netanyahu had “apparently” agreed to this, and that the Palestinians had rejected it.’ This should not be surprising, a Haaretz poll found that the majority of Likud voters support the Clinton Perametres.

Secondly, Israel’s electoral system has had a negative effect on the Israeli leader’s (past and present) ability to state their positions publically. Bennett, the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, stated that he would not be part of a government that negotiated on the basis of the 1967 lines. It goes without saying that Avigdor Liberman has the same position. To ask Netanyahu to publically declare his position (as confirmed above) would lead to the downfall of his coalition. In essence, a public rejection of the ’67 lines does not represent Bibi’s position and we can easily explain it.

Aside from the 1967 lines issue, there were several reports that Israeli officials had committed to a partial settlement freeze. But this was a slight of hand: Netanyahu agreed with Kerry that he would approve no more than 1,000 homes in existing settlement blocs within the first two months of negotiations. The reason this is a slight of hand is because there has “almost never been a year in which more than 1,000 housing units were built under government auspices in the settlements.” A Palestinian source confirmed that “Israel will be able to pursue construction... in exchange for the prisoners' release” – although, as explained below, this was only in relation to the settlement blocs. I will return to the issue of prisoner releases below.

This is a good point to talk about what settlements generally mean for the peace process. Pro-Israel supporters often like to say that there have been no new settlements since the 1990s (although Netanyahu has actually established 3-4 new settlements). By this they mean that the territory that is included in the boundaries of settlement blocs have not expanded. Pro-Palestinian supporters, however, point to the increase in housing units within those boundaries and population increases. The truth lies somewhere in the middle: the latter view doesn’t take into account that the total land that is actually covered by settlements is roughly 2% by most accounts (though this does not take into account the surrounding infrastructure to said settlements which will require up to 5%).

But the former, Pro-Israel view does not take into account three things. First, the appropriation of Palestinian private property. Second, it does not take into account illegal activity undertaken by private individuals. This is an even more pressing concern given the official policy of the Netanyahu government to acquiesce to facts on the ground where the land is “State Land” (see paragraph 4 of the Israeli government’s response to a Peace Now petition).

Thirdly, it does not take into account that the Netanyahu government has been adding “neighbourhoods” to existing settlement blocs. These “neighbourhoods” were originally built in contravention of Israeli law and were promised to be removed. They have now been, outrageously, retrospectively legalised by adding them to settlement blocs. Importantly, these cannot seriously said to be within the boundaries of existing blocs. To give one example of how the Pro-Israel view seriously understates the issue of settlements: in 2012, the Israelis approved the establishment of a new settlement (i.e., not within an existing bloc or boundary) of Rechalim. Rechalim was an illegal outpost which successive Israeli governments vowed to take down. As if to make a further mockery of the Israeli legal system and Palestinian claims, the boundaries of this new settlement were changed to include another outpost, Nofei Nehemia (built contrary to Israeli law) which is located two kilometres from Rechalim.

It is these kind of new settlement approvals that increase that 2% figure. Moreover, it is these type of settlements that seem to have violated the agreement to return to the current negotiations. As stated above, Bibi agreed to limit construction to 1,000 units within the existing settlements (a meaningless limit). But he also seems to have agreed to limited construction outside of the settlement blocs – and Israel violated this proviso:

While objecting, discussion of plans [of construction within settlement blocs] was part of the understandings that led to the renewal of the peace talks, along with the issue of the prisoners. The declaration of construction plans in secluded settlements, however caught the Palestinians by surprise. Netanyahu told U.S. officials that he, too, was surprised by the approval of the plan, but the Palestinians reject this as an excuse (Haaretz)

Senior Israeli and American officials said that Kerry told the Israeli premier that some of the tenders being published contravened agreements between the sides to curb construction over the course of the nine-month negotiations period (Haaretz)

All the above leads me to the following general conclusions: Israeli settlements are infringing on the ’67 lines and it is wrong to downplay the impact of the settlements by focusing purely on existing boundaries. It is why I agree with my government’s and the USG’s view that they pose an obstacle to a peace agreement. But they do not provide an excuse for the Palestinians to refuse to negotiate: these settlement expansions beyond current boundaries occur over an extremely long period of time (i.e., long periods of time are required to increase the aforementioned 2% figure).[2] Moreover, the Israeli commitment to peace is not linked to a commitment to end settlement activity. Norman Finkelstein of all people pointed out that

Even on the record of settlements, as Dr. Ben-Ami well knows, the record of Rabin was worse in terms of settlement expansion than the record of Yitzhak Shamir, and a fact he leaves out in the book, the record of Barak on housing startups in the Occupied Territories... was worse than the record of Netanyahu [in the 1990s]. It’s a paradox... the worst record is the record of Labour, not Likud.

Nobody seriously believes that Shamir was more committed to peace than Rabin. And nobody seriously believes that Netanyahu was more serious about peace in the 1990s than Barak. Even the settlement freeze accepted by Netanyahu in 2010 was barely a “freeze”: there was a 16% reduction in the number of housing units being constructed in the period. The reason for this was (i) exemption for 600 units and (ii) a 90% increase in approvals prior to the freeze being implemented (which were unaffected by the freeze). The Palestinians knew there wasn't a settlement freeze but a “slow down” – and yet chose to negotiate. Abbas has negotiated in private several times without settlement freezes even when Israel breached an agreement as in this round[3] (I have mentioned a few private negotiations above). In fact Palestinian sources accepted the lack of a freeze was “not a reason to call off the talks” in 2010. Thus, settlements have little to do with Israeli desire for peace or Palestinian desire for peace. But that doesn’t mean they are not a long term obstacle to peace.

Clutching at straws

The original plan was to have a 9 month timetable which would resolve the final status issues. The details of how this plan failed are not particularly interesting: there was a debate for a long time about whether the Jordan Valley would be subject to Israeli control (Bibi’s position), international supervision (Livni’s position) or Palestinian control (Abbas’ position) – see this Times of Israel report for a summary. In the course of the negotiations however, several positions held by the parties have come out. Israel’s Channel 2 leaked the following:

The Palestinian Authority demands that any land swap with Israel as part of a peace deal not exceed 1.9 percent of the West Bank... that it may sign agreements with other states without Israeli intervention; that Israel release all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons; and that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted the right to choose to live in Israel or the Palestinian territories as part of a final agreement [contrary to what Abbas said here]

Around December 2013, Kerry presented a security proposal to both sides: it said that Israel would remain in the Jordan Valley for 10 years. There was a Channel 10 report that stated it also included land swaps and a cap on Palestinian refugees but this doesn’t seem to be particularly credible. The Palestinians rejected this. Netanyahu also offered to cede most of West Bank – including the territory with settlements on it in exchange for a long term lease of the land with payment. The Palestinians rejected this.

It was around this time that talk of a “framework deal” rather than a final status agreement became the U.S aim for negotiations (see here and here). This would provide a framework for future talks after the 9months were up. The Palestinians didn’t react well to this change, Abed Raboo said

The Palestinian side will not even look at a worthless piece of paper, a framework agreement, which contains general principles for later negotiations, when the two sides have already been negotiating for months and years

Kerry’s framework seems to have changed several times – he tried to include the new formulation of Jerusalem stated above (accepted by Netanyahu, rejected by the Palestinians) – but the final version seems to have been:

The ‘Kerry Plan,’ likely to be unveiled soon, is expected to call for an end to the conflict and all claims, following a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (based on the 1967 lines), with unprecedented security arrangements in the strategic Jordan Valley. The Israeli withdrawal will not include certain settlement blocs, but Israel will compensate the Palestinians for them with Israeli territory. It will call for the Palestinians to have a capital in Arab East Jerusalem and for Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It will not include any right of return for Palestinian refugees into Israel proper

The Palestinians confirmed that these were the terms. I.e., its exactly what ‘everyone thinks’ the final solution will look like. It’s extremely similar to the Clinton Parameters, the Olmert offer and Netanyahu’s positions quoted above. Netanyahu, for his part, was “searching for a way to tell Kerry "yes," while somehow keeping his coalition intact” according to Likud members who spoke to him. He essentially accepted the Kerry Plan in private but not in public (see here). The Palestinians rejected the framework agreement.

Whats really interesting is the reasons given for the refusal. The Times of Israel had a comprehensive set of quotes from Palestinian officials on the matter – which included assertions that the framework agreement was vague. There is, however, one factor which makes these talks futile and irrelevant. So far I have merely noted that the Palestinians have rejected several proposals put before them. I have not sought to evaluate whether each rejection was right or not (in fact, I think the idea of ‘leasing land’ is an impractical idea). But there is one thing which I think everyone involved will consider a categorically incorrect position to take – something that makes the current negotiations useless.  According to multiple sources

Abbas rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refused to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and their descendants... And finally, he refused to commit to an “end of conflict,” under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian demands of Israel

John Kerry has said that “its a mistake for some people to be raising [recognition of Israel as a Jewish state] again and again as the critical decider of their attitude toward the possibility of a state, and peace.” I have sympathy with this view – but only if the peace agreement is an agreement which puts an end to all further claims. In such a situation, the fact that Israel is a Jewish state is a reality which no one can contest. Abbas is refusing to accept – in a framework agreement (!) – that an eventual peace agreement will mean an end to all claims. The PA has said that he is not interested in an interim agreement – but this precisely what any agreement without an end to all clams would be.

The irrelevance of the prisoner release and ‘diplomatic warfare’

In the weeks that followed, Israeli officials focused on Abbas’ rejection of recognition of Israel as a Jewish state ignoring the issue of an end to all claims. In any event, the conversation seems to have quickly changed to Israel’s final prisoner release. Israel was due to release the last batch of prisoners on March 29 – a release that U.S officials assured the Palestinians would happen but which Israel refused to carry out. At the very start of the negotiations, Israel officials stated that prisoners would “would go free in phases, depending on the progress of the talks” (something that Bibi stated publically). This does not seem to be the way U.S and Palestinian officials took the agreement as they both said Israel as violating the agreement to return to negotiations.

Another bone of contention between the two sides was whether Israeli Arabs would be included in the prisoner release. Israeli officials from the very start stated that Israeli Arabs were not included as part of the deal. Unlike the contested claims above, I am not sure whether Israeli Arabs were intended to be part of the deal. But Israel’s refusal to release any of the final batch of prisoners should make this a relatively minor point. There are two points to make in relation to the prisoner release. First, Israel offered to release the prisoners in exchange for a continuation of talks. Palestinian officials said that this was “a policy of blackmail [by] linking its agreement to releasing the fourth batch of prisoners with the Palestinians accepting to extend the negotiations.”

My own view is that this is not blackmail but a justifiable position: no state should hand over violent individuals in exchange for no benefit. This is so even accepting that there is a reasonable case that the exchange was part of the agreement. Israel was merely asking for further negotiations – in fact, Palestinian sources said Israel was willing to offer up 400 more prisoners for an extension of 6 months. There was a clear Israeli fear that that the “PA would back out of peace talks once the fourth round of convicts were released.” This was not an unjustified fear. Abbas ruled out an extension of talks prior to the prisoner release affair stating that “We need to focus on the remaining time and not think about pro-longing the talks.” Saeb Erekat also ruled out the possibility of an extension prior to the prisoner release issue. Added to this the refusal to countenance an end to the conflict, Israel made the right decision.

Second, the U.S appears to have tried to salvage the talks by including the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. It would also include the release of several hundred Palestinian prisoners, family reunifications and a settlement freeze (which would likely be as useless as the last settlement freeze). I can’t put how illogical this is better than Michael Kaplow:

That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release.

I can’t see why the U.S offered this: Israel was willing to continue the talks and give over further prisoners. As best as I can tell, Israel did not request this but was offered it to “sweeten the deal.” Not to be outdone on illogical decision-making by the U.S, Abbas for his part refused to talk about extensions so long as the prisoners were not released. The PA then started a process of applying to join 15 different international organisations/treaties. The Palestinians said they no longer felt bound by their pledge to avoid “diplomatic warfare” (quite frankly a ridiculous, somewhat Orwellian phrase) because of Israel’s refusal to release the last batch of prisoners.

Israel reacted badly: it has sanctioned the PA financially; it has stopped all cooperation outside of security matters and asked the Palestinians to revoke the 15 applications. This is a hysterical reaction from the Israelis; there is simply no need for it. Sure, it violates terms of Oslo and it violates the agreement to return to negotiations but it really doesn’t matter: this is about peace between peoples, not a time for trivialities. As Grant Rumley points out in Foreign Policy:

Among the organizations and conventions that the Palestinians applied to join, none of them represents a serious threat to Israel. Almost all of them are not even directly linked to the United Nations. Rather, they're a series of conventions and articles, such as the 4th Geneva Convention, treaties on the rights of the child, and a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women.

I have made clear above that the refusal to handover the last batch of prisoners was justified because it would lead to Israel releasing violent individuals for no benefit; Palestinian intransigence in negotiations and a refusal to agree to an extension would make it an act of self-harm. But even if you disagree with me on this point, it should be noted that the plan to apply to international organisations predated the prisoner issue. Erekat prepared a list of recommendations for Abbas – including to “immediately” apply to said organisations – prior to and without reference to the prisoner release. This matters to the failure of the talks but not to peace (see below for the distinction).

The Blame Game

A distinction between the talks, further new talks going forward and peace should be made. The party to blame for the failure of one does not necessarily have the blame for the other. To start with the failure of the talks, it is clear that each side can very easily mould the facts to their own liking. The Palestinians could say that the agreement had been violated by Israel twice: first when they approved of non-bloc settlements and then when they refused to handover the final batch of prisoners. U.S officials apparently share this view. John Kerry said just as much noting that after the failure of the final prisoner release and the new tenders for construction in Gilo, “poof” – talks over (although see here and here for denials that this is what he meant).

My own view has been given above: despite disagreeing with the settlements, they cannot be blamed for the failure of any talks (past or present) and I think Israel was right in refusing to hand over the last batch without a pledge to continue negotiations. More particularly, I think the newly issued construction tenders weren’t particularly important to failure of the talks and to peace generally because Gilo will be part of Israel proper. As Jefferey Goldberg stated back in 2011, this is one of the things that “everyone — the Americans, the Palestinians and the Israelis — knows.” You don’t have to take his word for it, Erekat offered Gilo to Israel in 2008 (see p.5).

Going forward, talks are currently ongoing and so things could change. But at the moment, the failure to restart talks can be laid on both sides. Israel must stop asking for the withdrawal of the 15 applications – simply because the Palestinians are probably right in saying that they couldn’t revoke them even if they wanted to. But I can’t help in saying that the Palestinians still share a much bigger share of the blame for the failure to get talks going again. They have imposed 7 new preconditions before talks can be entered into.[4] Ma’an reported these conditions:

1. To receive a written letter from Israel's premier recognizing the Palestinian borders of 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital. [The PA publically stated that it wanted the borders drawn before agreeing to an extension of talks]
2. The release of Palestinian prisoners who former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to free including Marwan Barghouthi, Ahmad Saadat, and Fuad Shweiki.
3. Implementing a border-crossing agreement and lifting the siege on Gaza.
4. The return of exiles deported in the 2002 Bethlehem siege.
5. Stopping settlement activity in Jerusalem, and opening closed institutions in Jerusalem.
6. Allowing the reunification of 15,000 Palestinians with their families.
7. Israel refraining from entering areas under Palestinian Authority control for arrests or killings, and granting the PA some control over Area C.

None of these conditions are acceptable: the first essentially gives up all territorial claims without allowing for land swaps that are realistically going to be part of the agreement; the second condition actually includes a list of 1,200 prisoners – a high number which includes high profile individuals etc etc. In essence, the list of demands makes Israel’s insistence on the 15 applications irrelevant. To emphasise: these are preconditions not starting points for a negotiation.

The reason I wish to make a distinction between talks and peace is because the former can be ended on the basis of one of the trivial reasons given above (be it settlements that everyone knows will be part of Israel or the 15 insignificant applications) – whereas the failure of peace is about the actors and their positions. This was point well made by Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior Palestinian negotiator, who told the New York Times:

Some of you might be under the impression that the differences between us and the Israelis have to do with the prisoner release or the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state... We have big differences with the Israelis on refugees, on Jerusalem, on borders, and on the Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley... The gap between us and the Israelis has been growing and not narrowing. No one should be left under the impression that we have an opportunity that we are losing.

Again, my own view was given above: if there is no end to the conflict, the parties are negotiating over details of an interim agreement, they are not negotiating over a peace agreement. I think Netanyahu’s positions (those he gives in private – to Palestinians) are amenable to a peace agreement. This is not because Bibi is sincere: he has been forced into his position by the Israeli public, political opposition and the United States. There is still hope but as Jackson Delhi wrote in the Washington Post

Almost every positive development in Israeli-Palestinian relations has happened outside the “peace process.” Israelis accepted Palestinian statehood because they realized their country could not keep the West Bank and remain both Jewish and democratic. Palestinians abandoned violence because it failed to end the occupation and was far more costly to Palestinians than to Israelis. Security cooperation works in the West Bank because Israel and the Palestinian authority share an interest in combating Islamic extremists.

The solution lies in fully utilising the Palestinian public – this requires transparent governance, institutions and new elections. As I have pointed out over and over again: the Palestinian people reject Hamas’ means and ends and favour a peace agreement. Until then, their leaders will not respond to their wishes: an end to the conflict.

Update (12/08/2014):

Yedioth Account

Since I have written this post, there have been three different accounts published. Many have chosen the account that fits with their ideological preferences rather than, as I have, based it on account of mostly Palestinian officials during the talks. The new accounts are all valuable in some way but it is my contention that they do not significantly change the account given here. I was not going to write about these new accounts because it should be obvious that they are not based on as many sources as the account above. But the reliance by some on these new accounts has persuaded me of the need to respond.

The first account that came out after the talks ended was published in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth by the veteran journalist Nahum Barnea. The account is based on U.S officials who state that
There are a lot of reasons for the peace effort's failure, but people in Israel shouldn't ignore the bitter truth - the primary sabotage came from the settlements... [A]nnouncements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas' ability to show flexibility. He lost his trust in the talks. The worst part was when Netanyahu said Abbas had agreed to a deal of prisoners for settlement construction.
This account is riddled with inaccuracies. The most important one is that settlement construction was allowed as part of the agreement at the start of the talks: I quote several officials, U.S, Israeli and Palestinian, confirming that construction in the blocs was allowed. A Palestinian official explicitly confirms that construction was allowed to continue in exchange for the prisoner release. It is not for nothing that Netanyahu can confidently and mostly rightly state that "We built exactly what we said we would build in every one of the tranches" (see also here).

What makes this such a gross inaccuracy is the precise details of the breakdown:
Kerry realized an agreement would not be reached. He tried to at least get an agreement on both sides to continue the talks. The Palestinians demanded the prisoners Kerry promised them, including Israeli-Arab murderers. Netanyahu demanded something in return. Kerry persuaded Obama to give him Pollard. And then came the Housing and Construction Ministry's announcement of building tenders for more than 700 housing units in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. Abbas lost interest. He turned to the reconciliation talks with Hamas and to the question of who would inherit his mantle.
It was tenders for settlement building in Gilo that made Abbas lose interest. Does anyone seriously believe this? There are four reasons this is unconvincing. First, because of the aforementioned fact that settlement construction in the blocs was agreed to. Second, the Palestinians planned to leave the talks which should bring into question settlements as a cause of breakdown, and more particularly, Gilo settlements as a cause of breakdown. As Haaretz noted:
Attached to the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Haaretz, is a 65-page document that chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat submitted to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 9, three weeks before Israel was to release the final batch of Palestinian prisoners. In it, Erekat proposed a strategy for the PA during the final month of negotiations and after April 29, when the talks were originally scheduled to end before their premature collapse... Erekat recommended... informing the U.S. and Europe that the Palestinians wouldn’t extend the talks beyond April 29, demanding that Israel nevertheless release the final batch of prisoners, intensifying efforts to reconcile with Hamas.. The document also shows that the Palestinians planned in advance to take unilateral steps in defiance of the commitment they made when the talks were launched in July 2013
I would ask readers to note when this letter was written as it confirms the Palestinians had no intention of renewing talks. The date is March 9th. When were the Gilo settlement tenders announced? April 1st. Third, as noted above, Gilo is going to be part of Israel under any deal - a fact that is accepted by Erekat. Electronic Intifada noted this point but failed to make any connection and thus missed in the inconsistency. Fourth, if the reason for the breakdown in the talks was because of settlement building, it is clear that Israel offered a partial settlement freeze to renew the talks (see also here and here). Anyone who puts their faith into this highly inaccurate account is ignoring all of these four reasons and also the account given above based on copious sources.

At this point, it is also worth reiterating two points. First, that Israel wanted to extend the talks and the only reason for the refusal to release the last batch of prisoners was Abbas' inability to agree to an extension by placing the list of preconditions above. Second, for reasons I explained in the main body of the text, I consider settlement building outside of the blocs (and sometimes within) an obstacle to peace whilst still not being a reason for Palestinians to abandon negotiations. It's also worth looking at Israeli construction during the period of the negotiations. Peace Now came out with the following statistics:
Tenders were issued for 4,868 new homes over the pre-1967 lines during the nine-month negotiating process... In addition, the Civil Administration advanced plans for 8,938 new housings units over the Green Line... only 27% of the plans advanced for new settler homes were in the settlement blocs, which Israel believes would remain part of its state in any final status agreement with the Palestinians. The bulk of the plans, 73%, were for Jewish communities outside those areas
But the Peace Now figures are somewhat misleading. Tenders and plans are not the same as actual construction. In fact, it's been noted that Peace Now's definition of  "approvals" includes several stages that relate to the same proposed housing unit (i.e, a single housing unit has 8 approvals). What happens when we look at actual construction in the West Bank? As an op-ed in the Washington Post noted
The critical figure to monitor is the number of Israeli houses built outside such blocs in areas intended for the future state of Palestine. What the CBS data tell us on that question is that only 908 units were built last year in Israeli townships of 10,000 residents or fewer. And most of those units were built in settlement towns that are part of the major blocs. Units built in areas that would become part of Palestine number in the hundreds — and likely in the low hundreds. Given that about 90,000 Israelis live in the West Bank outside the blocs, that is approximately the rate of natural growth... In fact, what the much-cited CBS data reveal is that Netanyahu’s track record on this issue is more restrained than that of Ehud Barak, the last Labor Party prime minister, whose government approved three times more new houses in small settlements in 2000 than Netanyahu did last year.
That last sentence should echo exactly what I said above: 'nobody seriously believes that Netanyahu was more serious about peace in the 1990s than Barak.' I can now say it again with a slight amendment: nobody can seriously believe that Netanyahu is more serious about peace in 2010 than Barak was in the 1990s - despite the latter building more settlements. This would also explain why Netanyahu had to explain himself before a group of settlers stating "he suspended construction in West Bank settlements because of American pressure." There are some minor points in this account which are also wrong (refuted in my account) but they are not significant enough to warrant further discussion.

Haaretz Account

The second account to come out is from the Israeli left wing paper Haaretz written by Israel's leading diplomatic journalist Barak Ravid. This account essentially confirms my account. It is worth noting that there are those who will not only ignore all the documentary evidence given in my account, but have no knowledge whatsoever of the Haaretz version of events. It is also worth noting that the Haaretz account is also based on U.S officials so the decision to ignore it in lieu of the Yedioth account should be treated with suspicion. Here is a summary of Ravid's article:
..the bulk of the negotiations was carried out by means of almost daily video conferences with Netanyahu... Netanyahu softened his positions slowly but consistently, and showed seriousness and a readiness to make progress. [Netanyahu's positions can be summarised as follows]

    1. Borders: Netanyahu agreed for the first time to accept the principle that the negotiations will take place on the basis of the 1967 lines together with a territorial swap. The implication: readiness to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank in any peace agreement
    2. Security: The clause on this issue states that the Palestinian state will be demilitarized and that there will be an Israeli army presence along the Jordan River as part of a special security regime to be established in that area... Netanyahu, for his part, softened his opposition to the presence of international forces in the West Bank. He agreed to the presence of an international force as a supplementary and supportive means alongside the Israel Defense Forces
    3. Recognition of Jewish state: Here, too, Netanyahu showed greater flexibility in the course of the negotiations. A senior Israeli official noted that at one stage Netanyahu replaced the term “Jewish state” with the term “nation-state of the Jewish people.” The framework document declares that peace will prevail between “two nation-states.” Netanyahu also agreed to include two clarifications in the document in order to try to placate the Palestinians, who have strong objections regarding this issue. For the first time, it was emphasized that the equality of rights of the minorities in Israel will not be infringed in any peace agreement. The second, and more interesting, clarification stated that recognition of the existence of two nation-states will not be considered an attempt by one side to oblige the other to forgo its narrative or to adopt a different narrative
    4. Refugees: Two approaches were discernible in the Israeli negotiating team. Some of those involved put forward a rigid stance of principle that rejected any compromise...Nevertheless, in the end Israel agreed to show flexibility here as well, and to consider return of refugees on a case-by-case basis. Israel put forward an idea according to which a special mechanism would be established to which Palestinians could apply, and Israel would examine their requests on an individual or humanitarian basis and decide whether to accept them or not, according to its own sovereign judgment.
...the primary reason for the failure of the U.S. attempt to formulate a framework document lies in the sour relations between Netanyahu and Abbas and in the fact that no point of convergence was forged between their approaches
The Palestinian leader, who was unwell and in a foul mood when he arrived for the meeting, had the feeling that the Americans had pulled “a Dennis Ross” on him – referring to the veteran American diplomat who was known throughout all the years of the negotiations for his practice of first striking a deal with the Israelis and then selling it to the Palestinians as an American proposal. 
That last paragraph is the only significant difference between the Haaretzs and my account. In other respects, the account emphasises Bibi's flexibility and seriousness. It's at the point that I want to refute an utterly ignorant claim that is being made about Netanyahu. During the first few days of Operation Protective Edge, the Prime Minister stated that 
I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan 
This statement has been misinterpreted by an ignorant cabal of people. They think it means that Bibi no longer supports the two state solution. Not only does this ignore (1) Bibi's proposals prior to the last round of talks which would give up 90% of the West Bank; (2) the account given above and the Haaretz account which shows Bibi was serious about making peace and (3) it ignores what the statement actually says. To elaborate on that third point: it is clear from my account and the Haaretz account that Bibi does not want to give up IDF security control of the Jordan Valley for a period of time - and thats exactly what he means. The context of his statement makes this clear: given the rockets coming out of Gaza, we cannot allow a situation like that to arise in the West Bank - which is why he supports demilitarised Palestinian state with an IDF presence.  A further fact that people would have to ignore is that an Israeli official explicitly stated that the statement did not reflect a policy change to the Huffington Post

For those who are especially ignorant of Bibi's actions (hundreds of hours of negotiations, proposal after proposal of giving up the WB and his persistent flexibility), this statement shows what he "really" believed in the two state solution. In truth, his statement is perfectly consistent with the two state solution and his consistent positions about security in the West Bank and in that sense, does show what he "really" believes.  

The New Republic Account

The New Republic account, written by Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon is based on talks with officials from both sides and the U.S. This is the only account that, like mine, does not simply take the word on a selection of officials from one or two of the three countries. Importantly, it confirms that settlement construction was going to continue to talks (thereby undermining the Yedioth account again). It also confirms much of what was said above:
By late January, the Americans believed that their strategy of patient engagement with Netanyahu was finally paying off. After months of painstaking negotiations over every word in the framework, the prime minister had accepted once-unthinkable language. On refugees, the document would promise monetary compensation to Palestinians displaced in Israel’s War of Independence (and, separately, to Jews who left their homes in the Arab world). It also stated clearly that “the Palestinian refugee problem” would be solved within the new Palestinian state. But, in a groundbreaking departure from Israeli policy and his previous statements, Netanyahu agreed to a mechanism whereby Israel—at its sole discretion—would admit some refugees on a humanitarian basis. 
The more dramatic Netanyahu concession, however, concerned borders. After decades of railing against any mention of the 1967 lines, Netanyahu accepted that “[t]he new secure and recognized border between Israel and Palestine will be negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutual agreed swaps.”
It should be noted that this account doesn't really reveal the full extent of Bibi's movement. It seems clear that what he proposed is not as generous as Olmert's - but when you consider that Abbas refused to accept the basic point that a peace agreement should constitute the end of the conflict, everything else just slips away as irrelevant. Equally important is the fact that there was a grand bargain for the extension of talks in which Israel would release not only the fourth batch of prisoners but a further 400 (Israel seems to have proposed this). Abbas refused and, as the account goes on to say,
Abbas continued working with Erekat on what he was calling “the Palestinian nuclear option.” He even put a timer on it: If Israel didn’t vote to release the fourth tranche by seven o’clock on the evening of April 1, Abbas would formally resume the U.N. bid
The Israelis continued to try to get a deal to extend talks with prisoner releases. As I explained above, Israel's reluctance to release terrorists unless there was an extension is perfectly understandable. With hindsight, its clear from the aforementioned letter that the Palestinians weren't serious about the talks. Here is how Livni tried to implore Erekat to take the deal:
Erekat’s phone rang. It was Livni. “OK,” she said, “so you had your little show [i.e, applying to for international treaties]. Now hold back the documents. We have a deal to extend the talks. The prisoners can go out in forty-eight hours, and then we can get to substance. Don’t destroy this.” Erekat told her that he was with the Americans and would have to call back. The following morning, he sent her a text message. “It’s a done deal,” he wrote. “We just handed in the documents.”
The New Republic account is nonetheless valuable for its anecdotes doted throughout. The one that I have seen quoted the most is the following:
After the meeting, the Palestinian negotiator [Erekat] saw Susan Rice—Abbas’s favorite member of the Obama administration—in the hall. “Susan,” he said, “I see we’ve yet to succeed in making it clear to you that we Palestinians aren’t stupid.” Rice couldn’t believe it. “You Palestinians,” she told him, “can never see the fucking big picture.” 
They really can't -  and the rest of us shouldn't join them in missing the fucking big picture.


[1] I have downloaded many of these articles so a direct link cannot be given but the articles were printed widely across the Palestinian press.

[2] Abbas seems to implicitly acknowledge this in an interview with the Washington Post: "It will take a couple of years," one official breezily predicted... he says, he will remain passive. "I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements," he said. "Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life."

[3] This seems to have been explicitly accepted by Abbas: “Abbas stopped short of saying that continued Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank destroys the peace process, as some Palestinians officials have suggested. “But we do say: the settlement policy must not be continued. The incursions into the Palestinian territories must not be continued....All this hinders the peace process and obstructs the way to solutions,” Abbas said. “All this is true. But we carry on nevertheless” (Times of Israel).

[4] Rather frustratingly, several media outlets reported that Abbas was willing to extend the negotiations in the headlines but when you read further into the reports you see vague statements that talks have to “be aimed at the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.” The seven conditions were not overridden by these vague statements and are entirely consistent with them. 

1 comment:

Joe in Australia said...

I don't think it's actually desirable to have peace negotiations unless both sides can agree that the result will be legitimate, dispositive, and authoritative.

The Palestinian Authority lacks electoral legitimacy even within the West Bank; it is certain that it has no ability to impose its will in Gaza. There is simply no question of it imposing its will on the Palestinian diaspora generally, despite the fact that their rights are currently subject to negotiation.

This being the case, the peace negotiations are not only futile, but the participants are acting in bad faith: the Palestinian negotiators will not agree to something that can only be used to harm their political and personal position; the Israelis want can only hope to show the emptiness of the Palestinian position; and the Americans can only hope to tide things over until the next election.