Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Peace Talks: Secrets and Lies

Any trusting souls hoping for a positive outcome to the recent peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and believing that both parties were acting in good faith, have been cruelly deceived.  Recently revealed documents show that, well before the talks reached their disastrous conclusion, all the discussions about two states, borders, refugees and Jerusalem were masking a secret, and quite different, agenda of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

            Within the internal structures of the PA, Erekat heads the Negotiations Affairs Department, a body set up in 1994 to implement one of the many Interim Agreements reached between Israel and the PLO.  Taking over as head of the organization in 2003, Erekat has used the post to build up what has been termed “a sizable, self-perpetuating and self-aggrandizing empire.”          

            The suspicion has long been that Erekat, as the PA’s chief negotiator for more than twenty years, has been operating to an agenda far removed from whatever may have been before him on the many peace tables he has sat around.  During that time he has become well versed in laying grievances, charges and accusations at Israel’s door and, whenever events seem to move towards compromise and a possible accord, equally versed in resigning in high dudgeon.   On his own admission he has resigned from the post of chief negotiator no less than nine times – and reversed his decision on each occasion. 

Erekat is on the record as saying: “Whoever is able to reach an agreement to solve this conflict will be the most important figure in the region after Jesus Christ.”  That comment is a perceptive observation.  For he knew then, and he has recently demonstrated again, that a solution to the conflict requires the Palestinian cause to abandon more than it either wishes, or is realistically able, to do. 

For example to acknowledge that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people – one of the stumbling blocks in the recent talks would be for the Palestinians to discard the aspiration, held equally by Fatah and Hamas, of an eventual Palestine “from the River to the Sea” – that is, the eventual elimination of Israel.    Hamas openly advocates the “armed struggle” in pursuit of this aim; Fatah, although pursuing a “softly, softly” approach, has never ceased lauding as heroes those responsible for indiscriminate acts of terror against Israelis, and from providing lavish financial support to the families of those jailed for such acts. 

When Mahmoud Abbas seemed to imply in a TV interview in 2012  that he had abandoned his right of return to his original family home in Safed, he aroused a hornet’s nest of protest within the PA.  The “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to properties abandoned during the 1948 or 1967 conflicts, even down to the fourth or fifth generations, remains non-negotiable as far as hard-line Palestinian opinion is concerned.  To accept a compromise on that would require a sea-change in how the government, the media and the education system inculcate the general public with the Palestinian narrative.  Yet if compromise is necessary on any issue, this is the issue. Indeed, during the course of past peace negotiations, proposals for dealing with it have been made, and apparently accepted – though the Palestinian negotiating teams, headed by Saeb Erekat, have invariably balked at the last minute, knowing that compromise of any sort is not acceptable to the hard-liners waiting in the political wings.

In 2000-2001 Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered to withdraw from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank in exchange for peace. Yasser Arafat rejected that offer and initiated an intifada that left thousands dead. In 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert offered an even better deal that included equal land swaps, under which the Palestinians would obtain part of Israel in exchange for territory in the West Bank. Once more, the Palestinians, having discussed the matter down to the finest detail, did not accept. 

            Again in the most recent round of talks, whatever was offered clearly failed to sway the Palestinian side, but this time the explanation has been revealed.  The reason, it now appears, is because Saeb Erekat planned to use the negotiations mainly as a means to obtain the release from Israeli jails of some 100 convicted  terrorists ­ a step agreed by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu as a sweetener to bring the PA to the table in the first place.  Erekat then proposed abandoning the peace process and reverting unilaterally to the “international route” – namely, seeking UN recognition for Palestinian statehood and the isolation of Israel.

Even before Kerry could present his bridging proposals in March 2014, Erekat had written an official PLO strategy document, designated “Study Paper No 15” of his Negotiations Affairs Department.  The 65-page document sets out a strategy for achieving Palestinian sovereignty within the 1967 boundaries, by-passing the then on-going peace discussions.  Among the recommendations are that the PA “put forward requests for accession to international institutions, protocols and conventions, and specifically the four Geneva Conventions,” and  move towards “reconciliation and the strengthening of Palestinian national unity... with the Hamas and Jihad movements in election of a new State of Palestine Executive Committee.”

Abbas, now emboldened to implement the PA’s long-term strategy, has subsequently acted on both – steps towards obtaining international recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state without having to make concessions.  Erekat’s document sets out detailed  proposals aimed at achieving Palestinian sovereignty through by-passing peace talks with Israel altogether.  He envisages a wholesale mobilisation of international opinion in support of the Palestinian position, and in opposition to Israel.

Israel’s national security chief, Yossi Cohen, is reported to have written to the White House, the EU and numerous ambassadors on April 22, attaching Erekat’s policy paper.  In his letter he points to the fact that Erekat’s paper was written nearly a month before the PA president unilaterally signed 15 international conventions.  At the time, Abbas claimed he did so in response to Israel’s refusal to honour its commitment to release the final round of prisoners.  In fact, said Cohen, Erekat had clearly planned the manoeuvre weeks before – timing that, according to Cohen, demonstrates that the Palestinian leadership never intended to follow the peace talks through.

Erekat’s document, said Cohen, proves that Palestinian policymakers had recommended to Abbas a strategy of unilateral moves “outside of the agreed negotiation framework” nearly two months before the April 29 deadline for the completion of the talks. So, when Obama met Abbas at the White House in March to discuss progress in the peace negotiations, the PA president was already bent on torpedoing the talks and following a unilateral course.

 “The document,” wrote Cohen, “serves as damning evidence of bad faith on the part of the Palestinian side.”

The facts seem to bear him out.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 5 June 2014:

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