“Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?”
So sings the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland, and a pretty apt metaphor it is for the Palestinian Authority’s indecision over the past two years about joining (and subsequently re-joining) the peace talks.
Back in January 2010, at the behest of newly-elected President Obama, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, imposed a 10-month freeze on construction in all West Bank settlements. The idea was to create a positive cooperative atmosphere in which peace negotiations might be fostered. For nine of those ten months PA President Mahmoud Abbas havered and wavered. From time to time he announced additional conditions as essential pre-requirements even for so-called “proximity” discussions (that is, negotiations using a third-party go-between). When the Arab League endorsed the proximity talks idea, however, these preconditions were unceremoniously dumped. So, with US special envoy George Mitchell as the convener, proximity talks indeed started in March 2010 as a precursor to full face-to-face discussions.
Following months of delicate negotiations, Abbas and Netanyahu sat down together in September 2010 for the first session of what was announced as discussions that would lead to a peace accord between the two parties within twelve months. Held in Washington under the auspices of the United States, the meeting was chaired by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. To provide cover for Mahmoud Abbas, who was exposing himself to the hostility of a considerable proportion of the Arab world, Egypt’s President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan had been persuaded to attend. Abbas was thus not facing Israel alone. Two major Arab nations were at his side, endorsing his decision to talk peace.
But by the time the parties had agreed to meet in person, too much of the precious ten-month construction moratorium had been used up. Netanyahu, heading a fragile coalition, was dependent on right-wing elements within his cabinet that were utterly opposed to any renewal of the freeze. President Abbas, on the other hand, now insisted that any extension of the direct peace talks was dependent on construction remaining frozen in the West Bank. This Netanyahu was unable to deliver, and the moratorium duly came to an end on the appointed day. The peace initiative followed soon afterwards – and Abbas and Netanyahu have not met from that day to this.
But since then Mahmoud Abbas − despite his attempt to outflank negotiations altogether last autumn, by unsuccessfully seeking United Nations recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state − has on several occasions pronounced himself perfectly willing to reopen negotiations, provided Israel meets certain conditions. These have been widened now to include a complete freeze on all settlement building in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and an acceptance by Israel of the pre-Six Day War boundaries as the basis for a new sovereign Palestinian state. Lurking in the background are also a demand for the “right of return” of some 4 million Palestinians, the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of a new state, and an outright refusal to acknowledge Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
In parallel, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly offered to reopen negotiations without preconditions of any sort. His offer is to put everything − all the outstanding issues between the parties − on the table.
The latest set of PA delaying tactics emerged after President Abbas met France’s new President, François Hollande, last Friday (8 June). In addition to the settlement freeze, President Abbas now added two further demands as the price Israel must pay for the PA to enter, not formal negotiations be it understood, but informal talks.
“We recently told them that if Israel agreed to free prisoners and allow us to re-arm the police, then we would again sit at the same table as Netanyahu,” said Abbas at a press conference in France, adding as qualification: “if Mr Netanyahu agrees, then we will establish a dialogue, but that doesn’t mean a negotiation.”
At the same press conference a few minutes later, the preconditions changed again.
“The ball is now in Netanyahu’s court,” said Abbas. “The moment he agrees to stop settlement construction and accepts the borders of the two states, we will go directly to the negotiations to discuss the remaining final-status issues.”
So what is it that will bring Abbas to the negotiating table – freeing prisoners, arming the PA police, accepting the borders of the two states, stopping settlement building? All – or some? And if some, which ones?
Incidentally, in response Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said: “Israel remains ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions.”
As for Israel’s continued building within settlements on the West Bank, following a peace accord the larger neighbourhoods, such as Gush Etzion, Pisgat Ze'ev and Modi'in Ilit, will − even according to quoted PA positions − almost certainly remain in Israeli hands. So whether building recommences in those areas or not can be of little practical concern to the Palestinian cause.
Take this thought one stage further. It is generally accepted that in the event of a final agreement, a range of smaller Israeli settlements will have to be evacuated and handed over to the new sovereign Palestine, just as settlements were evacuated when Israel withdrew from Gaza. Yes, there is going to be an almighty row inside Israel when, or if, that day arrives. But if it does, it will only have arrived following a referendum of the entire Israeli population, which will have voted in favour of whatever agreement has emerged from the final negotiations.
Given the democratic nature of the Israeli state, it can be taken for granted that a fair number of settlements would indeed be evacuated and handed over to the Palestinian Authority to be incorporated into the new Palestine. If that is so, one might ask, why are the Palestinians objecting all that vigorously to new building in these smaller settlements? After all, they might argue, the more construction the settlers undertake, the more will eventually fall into Palestinian hands when the hand-over deal takes place.
Of course, all the preconditions that Abbas can devise mean little to the rival Palestinian government in Gaza controlled by Hamas, the Islamist and terrorist entity viscerally opposed to any recognition of, let alone negotiations with, Israel. Hamas opposes Abbas’s acceptance of the two-state solution (since one of the two states would be Israel), just as it opposed the PA approach to the United Nations last year seeking recognition for a sovereign Palestinian state within the old 1967 boundaries. The corollary of a Palestine within the pre-Six Day War boundaries is an Israel outside them, and this is anathema to Hamas and its supporters − Iran, Hezbollah and Assad’s Syria. All attempts to effect a rapprochement between Hamas and its bitter rival, Fatah, which runs the PA, have proved fruitless, so whenever Abbas speaks, and whatever he says, he is representing only part of the Palestinian body politic. In short, a significant element of any future Palestinian state is not involved in any of the moves towards peace talks.
One precondition, therefore, rarely mentioned as essential for effective peace negotiations, is for PA President Abbas to resume full political and administrative control of Gaza. Someone might slip that into the list, next time around.