Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Israel and Palestine - keeping it secret

How annoyed they are, those left out of the loop, those not privy to the intensive negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry with a favoured few from the Israeli and Palestinian camps, which have led to the announced resumption of peace talks – negotiations necessarily, and most wisely, kept entirely secret.

The annoyance is widespread. Prominent Palestinian Authority (PA) figures like Nabil Amr immediately declared their “frustration” at the fact that President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed to recommence peace discussions with Israel without letting the world know the ins and outs of what he has conceded – or, indeed, what might have been conceded to him – to reach this accord. It is too soon for groups within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to start accusing Abbas of “betraying the Palestinian cause” – though doubtless the accusation will be levelled in due course – but several, ignorant of the agreement reached for restarting talks, have already criticised the PA for doing so.

Hassan Khraisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, knowing nothing but suspecting the worst, accused Abbas of abandoning his previous preconditions for resuming talks – recognition of the pre-1967 lines and a full freeze on settlement construction – in return for “bribes,” including the release of a number of prisoners, economic benefits and work permits for Palestinians. In the opinion of Mohamed Dahlan, a leading Fatah operative and political foe of Abbas, the PA president has committed “political suicide” by agreeing to return to the talks with Israel. “Political suicide” is only a step or two away from “assassination”, and Abbas, no doubt well aware of this, has taken care to cover his back as much as possible by obtaining the agreement of the Arab League to the renewed peace talks.

Inevitably wilder extremists within the divided Palestinian camp, like Hamas and the Salafi jihadists, have condemned the resumption of the peace process root and branch. Yusef Rizka, political adviser to the Hamas prime minister, said reinstituting negotiations under US and Israeli terms was tantamount to “treason” – assuming, with absolutely no grounds for doing so, that Abbas had given everything and gained nothing.

Another Hamas official, Salah Bardaweel, declared that the resumption of the negotiations unconditionally and under Kerry’s terms – although he had no grounds on which to base either assertion – was designed to “liquidate the Palestinian cause in return for secondary privileges for Palestinian Authority leaders.”

Meanwhile, clearly determined to maintain the veil of secrecy over the give and take that has led to the resumption of talks, Abbas’s office issued a statement on July 20 authorising only two officials to speak on behalf of the PA and PLO: Nabil Abu Rudaineh, Abbas’s spokesman, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the PLO. Neither has revealed any details of the agreement, but Rabbo has emphasised that much has still to be clarified before Abbas takes his seat at the table.

The annoyance at being kept in the dark is not confined to the Palestinian side. In Israel officials have been instructed to refrain from commenting on the Palestinian claims, or on any details regarding the resumption of talks, and this is not to the liking of some prominent figures. The fact that the negotiations and their outcome is “shrouded in fog” is frustrating for the media, too, but the Americans are clearly keen on keeping a tight lid on this early bargaining.

There will be problems enough if substantive talks do eventually get under way, for their objective will be the “two-state solution”, and vital elements within the Israeli coalition, like Bayit Yehudi, parts of Likud, and Yisrael Beytenu, are currently opposed to a peace agreement on these lines.

They may be somewhat placated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s assurance, given on Sunday 21 July at a cabinet meeting held at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, that before any agreement hammered out between Israel and the PA is signed and sealed. it would be the subject of a national referendum.

The details of the formula which Kerry brokered in order to bring the two sides together remain intentionally unspecified. As Kerry said: “the best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private… Any speculation or reports you may read in the media are conjecture, because the people who know the facts are not talking about them."

Wise words, for any attempt to conduct delicate negotiations in the full glare of public scrutiny is doomed from the start. Privacy is the essential pre-requisite for the ticklish business of step-by-step compromise leading to an outcome that both sides can live with and, more to the point, sell to their respective constituencies.

It is at this latter hurdle that Abbas may stumble. Unlike the situation in Israel, where every nuance of a possible peace deal is discussed ad nauseam, Abbas has not done enough to prepare his party, his government or his people for a scenario in which he negotiates a deal with Israel which yields somewhat less than the full package of Palestinian demands. Yet that is the nature of negotiation – give a little, take a little, but end up with the bulk of what you are seeking. The Palestinians have trembled on the brink of just such a situation at least twice before – Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000, to say nothing of the near Olmert-Abbas accord in 2008. On each occasion the Palestinians have wavered – and retreated, in the face of a vociferous and uncompromising rejectionism from within their own ranks.

So it is a precarious tightrope on which Abbas has now taken a tentative step. Secrecy is essential if negotiations are to be successfully conducted, but when leading figures, the media and the public are kept out of the picture, they cannot be expected to develop a stake in the process and the outcome. If Abbas hopes to carry the majority of his people with him, he will have to enthuse them at some point about the enterprise on which he has embarked.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 23 July 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 25 July 2013:

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