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Abbas' Negotiation Dilemmas

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Update from AIJAC

February 4, 2010
Number 02/10 #01

This Update features some new analysis of the position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - negotiations about negotiations, one might say - continue, and Abbas ostensibly refuses to countenance negotiations unless several Palestinian conditions are met.

First up is a backgrounder from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) looking at Abbas' dilemmas, and the pressure on him, in some detail. BICOM looks at the reasons for Abbas' reluctance to commence talks, despite the fact that in the long-term, this can only damage his Fatah party and the secular nationalist Palestinian camp. The backgrounder reports that Abbas is under pressure, both from the US and Arab governments, to at least accede to a US request for "proximity talks", whereby negotiating teams would be in nearby rooms and have a non face-to-face exchange facilitated by US mediators, with an answer from Abbas expected this week. For the rest of the details,  CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Aluf Benn of Haaretz had some interesting insights into the views of Israeli leaders - including PM Netanyahu and Defence Minister Barak -  about the peace process.

Next up, Khaled Abu Toameh, the highly connected Palestinian Affairs reporter from the Jerusalem Post, assembles some evidence that Abbas is looking for a way for the talks to resume, despite the conditions he has put on such talks. He quotes an aide to Abbas saying that Abbas wants to resume negotiations, but does not want it to appear he succumbed to pressure, as well as some recent statements which seem to indicate a softening of Abbas' previous conditions for the talks to resume. He also reports that Abbas is intrigued by some recent American proposals on Israeli concessions that he could be given for resuming talks. For Abu Toameh's full report, CLICK HERE.

Finally, the always insightful Professor Barry Rubin has a look at a the recently leaked text of a new Charter for the Fatah movement that emerged from that organisation's General Congress last August.  His conclusions from that examination are pessimistic and he notes that in addition to retaining a lot of rhetoric about revolution and violent liberation, the Charter's one apparent concession to the peace process - the omission of direct denunciations of Israel, Zionism and Jews compared to previous editions - seems to be cancelled by a clause which makes those editions still valid and operative. Rubin also points to the organisational structure of Fatah and the power rejectionist elements retain to block a peace deal. For all of Rubin's analysis of the new Charter, CLICK HERE.

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Abbas's dilemmas in returning to negotiations

BICOM Analysis, 02/02/2010

Key Points
  • PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not yet given an official response on the US proposal of 'proximity talks' between the sides. The PA has pledged to give an answer on this question on Thursday.
  • Abbas and those around him believe that 'backing down' from insistence on a complete settlement freeze before direct negotiations can re-commence will have a detrimental effect on the PA's public standing among the Palestinians.
  • The West Bank is enjoying stability and growth with Hamas held in check. Meanwhile, the lack of the peace process is building international pressure on Israel. Furthermore, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip would reject any return to negotiations and seek to depict it as a 'sell-out' by the PA. These factors, along with a belief in the PA leadership that talks will not bear fruit, are disincentives for the PA leadership to enter talks.
  • These factors notwithstanding, the ongoing maintenance of the status quo is not in the long term interests of either the Fatah dominated PA or Israel. Abbas has made his policy the pursuit of national goals through negotiation with Israel and the international community. Without a process, his own platform, and his relations with the international community, are undermined. Abbas is coming under increasing pressure from the US and Egypt among others to enter into a negotiating process.
Introduction

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas reiterated this week his current refusal to resume direct negotiations with Israel. The Palestinian position is that Israel must declare a complete moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for three moths in order for negotiations to re-commence. Abbas's latest reiteration of this position comes in the wake of the PA leader's reported clash with Egypt over his refusal to soften the demand for a complete settlement freeze as a condition for talks. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to give an answer on Thursday to the US proposal of 'proximity talks' between the sides.

Abbas's stance is leading to a shake-up in Arab diplomacy with regard to the Palestinian issue. Egypt is understood to be angry and frustrated with the PA's position, and is seeking, together with the US, to induce Abbas to agree, if not to direct negotiations, at least to the US proposal of 'proximity talks.' Abbas, meanwhile, was reported to have asked Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz to intervene in order to find a way out from the Egyptian pressure.

The Palestinian Authority's stance on negotiations


PA Chairman Abbas and those around him believe that for Abbas to be seen as 'backing down' from insistence on a complete settlement freeze before negotiations can re-commence would have a very detrimental effect on his public standing among the Palestinian public. There is little optimism within the Palestinian camp that a negotiating process with the current Israeli government will lead to a successful outcome. Their widespread belief is that Israel wants negotiations but have no intention of bringing them to a successful conclusion. Given the current state of Palestinian politics, the PA leadership fears that it will be branded by its opponents as a dupe of the US and Israel if it enters into talks on this basis.

The Palestinian side are said to be unhappy with the parameters for the negotiations as outlined by Secretary of State Clinton following the announcement of the Israeli ten month moratorium on construction in the settlements. They were dissatisfied with her assertion that any agreement will 'reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.' According to Palestinian sources, Abbas is seeking commitments from the US on the issue of final borders and land swaps before talks commence.

In addition to the substantive issues that the PA has with the parameters and prior requirements for a return to negotiations, a number of broader reasons may be discerned for their reluctance to renew talks.

Firstly, the present situation on the West Bank is stable. With restrictions on movement in the West Bank greatly reduced, the Palestinians are experiencing economic growth. Security stability and the successful deployment of newly trained Palestinian security forces have laid the groundwork for the very visible improvement in daily life for the Palestinians over the last 18 months. With the help of the new security forces, the PA has successfully suppressed activity by the rival Hamas movement in the West Bank. For as long as the status quo holds, there is no threat to PA control of the area. Again, since Palestinian reconciliation talks have broken down, new elections are not on the horizon. As such, there is no immediate sense of urgency to renew talks, particularly since the PA leadership is convinced that such talks will not bear fruit.

It is worth noting in this regard that for the PA, the absence of negotiations does not mean a freeze in the political situation. Rather, the PA leadership pays close attention to the difficulties faced by Israel in international forums, particularly following Operation Cast Lead and the issuing of the Goldstone Report. Israel fears that the PA prefers to wait, assuming that international pressure will continues to grow on Israel, thereby strengthening their position.

In addition, the failure of the Palestinians to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas acts as a further disincentive to returning to negotiations. The Hamas regime in Gaza would undoubtedly seek to paint any renewed negotiations as representing a sell-out of the Palestinian interest, and would declare that it would not regard itself as bound by any agreement signed by the Palestinian Authority. The PA is in any case vulnerable to charges of 'collaboration' with the enemy, given the anti-Israeli and anti-American tilt of Palestinian public opinion. In the absence of any current ability to either tempt or coerce Hamas to abandon its independent rule in Gaza, the PA prefers not to make itself vulnerable to Hamas criticism. The PA also has no desire to make obvious the enduring schism in Palestinian politics, which it still hopes to resolve.

However, whilst there are strong reasons for Abbas to avoid a return to negotiations, there is strong countervailing pressure for him to compromise on his stance. Palestinian analysts note that ongoing maintenance of the status quo is not in the long term interests of Fatah and the Palestinian secular nationalist camp. Abbas has made his policy the pursuit of national goals through negotiation with Israel and the international community. Without a peace process, his own platform, and his relations with the international community, is ultimately undermined.

There is evidence that the growing international pressure is having an impact on Abbas. It was reported last week that Abbas is seeking Saudi mediation in order to resolve the current tense relations with Egypt which the Palestinian stance on negotiations has caused.

The latest US proposal is for indirect talks, meaning that the US would mediate between the sides, which would proceed to direct contacts between junior officials if progress warranted this. Abbas has said that he will respond by Thursday to the US proposal.

Conclusion
It is easy to understand the difficulties faced by Mahmoud Abbas. To an extent he has been a casualty of the initial over ambition of the current US Administration on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Nevertheless, progress between Israelis and Palestinians can only come about as a result of direct talks, or failing that, proximity talks. The PA Chairman is no doubt correct that his standing could suffer if he is seen to enter talks which would then founder. But the status quo is not indefinitely sustainable in the absence of a political process. In spite of the PA's wishes, the international community is not going to force Israel to conform to the entirety of the Palestinian negotiating position as a precondition for restarting talks. As such, it is in the shared interest of Israel and the PA, to find a way toward at least indirect negotiations in the near future.


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Analysis: Helping Abbas climb down the high tree

By KHALED ABU TOAMEH

Jerusalem Post, 02/02/2010    

PA president wants to resume talks, but "doesn’t want it to look as if he has succumbed to the pressure,” says Ramallah official.
 
If anyone sought proof that President Mahmoud Abbas was planning to return to the negotiating table with Israel in the near future, it was provided by the results of “public opinion” polls published in the past few days by a number of Fatah-controlled media outlets and an interview he gave to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The polls are seen by many Palestinians as an attempt to prepare local public opinion for the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will soon resume the stalled peace talks with Israel.

One poll went as far as claiming that 65 percent of the Palestinians living under Hamas in the Gaza Strip support the resumption of the talks and believes in peace with Israel.

In the interview with the Guardian, Abbas hinted that he was inclined to accept the latest proposals from the US regarding the resumption of negotiations with Israel. Abandoning its previous demand for a total and unlimited cessation of settlement construction, Abbas said a three-month suspension would be sufficient to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat explained that Abbas’s new stance stemmed from his conviction that the Israelis and Palestinians would be able to reach agreement on all final-status issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, water, settlements and borders, within three months.

The assessment that Abbas would agree to the resumption of the talks was reinforced on Monday when the PA president announced, following a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said that the Palestinians would return to the negotiating table if Israel “halted settlement construction” and accepted the 2003 road map for peace in the Middle East.

Abbas did not repeat his earlier condition for a complete and unlimited cessation of construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Nor did he repeat his previous demand that the international community recognise the June 4, 1967, boundaries as the future borders of a Palestinian state.

Since Israel has already suspended settlement construction in the West Bank and has no objections to the road map, Abbas will have no problem justifying a decision to resume the talks.

Later this week, he is scheduled to give his final response to the latest “ideas” presented by US Middle East envoy George Mitchell regarding the revival of the peace talks.

PA officials have described Mitchell’s proposals as “positive,” saying they could pave the way for Abbas to start his descent from the tall tree he had climbed when he set a series of conditions for returning to the negotiating table.

According to the officials, the latest American “ideas” include placing additional territories in the West Bank under the exclusive control of the PA, the release of Fatah prisoners from Israeli jails and halting IDF “incursions” into PA-controlled communities.

The officials said that Abbas was under heavy pressure from the Europeans, Americans and some Arab countries to accept Mitchell’s proposals and resume the peace talks with Israel.

“The president wants to resume the peace negotiations, but he doesn’t want it to look as if he has succumbed to the pressure,” said one official in Ramallah. “The resumption of the peace talks needs to be done gradually and one idea is to begin with low-level or indirect talks between the two sides.”


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Scoop: Fatah's New Charter Shows Why Peace Won't Happen

By Barry Rubin

Rubin Report, Posted: 30 Jan 2010 10:47 PM PST

Many people seem to think that the Israel-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli conflict or the “peace process” is the world’s most important issue. So who's going to determine whether it gets resolved or not? No, not President Barak Obama; no, not Israel’s prime minister; no, not Palestinian Authority (PA) “president” Mahmoud Abbas or Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

That choice is in the hands of Fatah, which controls the PA and rules the West Bank. Only if and when Fatah decides that it wants a two-state solution and a real end of the conflict based on compromise will that be possible. So the fact that Fatah has issued a new charter seems to be a matter of great importance.

Yet up until now nobody has noticed that such a charter emerged from the August 2009 Fatah General Congress. The document was translated by the U.S. government and has just been leaked by Secrecy News. You are now reading the first analysis of this charter.

Secrecy News remarks: “The document is not particularly conciliatory in tone or content. It is a call to revolution, confrontation with the enemy, and the liberation of Palestine, ‘free and Arab.’" But then the newsletter continues:

“But what is perhaps most significant is what is not in the document. The original Fatah charter (or constitution) from the 1960s embraced `the world-wide struggle against Zionism,’ denied Jewish historical or religious ties to the land, and called for the `eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.’ None of that language is carried over into the new charter, which manages not to mention Israel, Zionism, or Jews at all.”

Now here’s an important lesson for you. When a radical group is portrayed as moderate based on some position it supposedly has taken or some statement made there has to be a catch somewhere. Here’s the tip-off in this case, a single sentence in the new charter:

“This internal charter has been adopted within the framework of adherence to the provisions of the Basic Charter.”

In other words, every detail of the original charter still holds; nothing is repealed, no error admitted, no explicit change of course accepted.

Of course, Fatah has changed a lot from the 1960s. It is less focused on violence (though that doesn’t mean it has renounced terrorism necessarily), less explicitly militant in its demands, more willing to deal in a cooperative manner with Israel. Neither genuine moderation nor remaining intransigence should be exaggerated. On practical day-to-day matters, Israel can work with Fatah and needs to ensure that Hamas doesn't overthrow it. At present Fatah leaders understand well that a return to large-scale violence is against their interests. But make a comprehensive peace agreement? Not going to happen.

And yet offered an opportunity to become a parliamentary political party, a movement clearly dedicated to peaceful politicking and a diplomatic solution, despite massive Western financial subsidies and frequent expressions of support for a Palestinian state from President Barack Obama, Fatah has chosen to remain a revolutionary organization. Indeed, there is no word more used in this charter than “revolutionary.”

“Let us train ourselves to be patient and to face ordeals, bear calamities, sacrifice our souls, blood, time and effort,” says the charter. “All these are the weapons of revolutionaries.

"You must know that determination, patience, secrecy, confidentiality, adherence to the principles and goals of the revolution, keep us from stumbling and shorten the path to liberation.

"Go forward to revolution. Long live Palestine, free and Arab!”

At the same time, though, Fatah remains non-ideological. It sees itself as a broad nationalist movement, just as when Yasir Arafat founded it more than fifty years ago. Indeed, despite the challenge from Hamas, the word “Muslim” or “Islamic” is mentioned nowhere in the charter.

In structure, though, Fatah is still a revolutionary organization. Membership is secret; decisionmaking is supposedly based on the Marxist concept of “democratic centralism;” the Maoist phrase “criticism and self-criticism” is recommended; and the organizational structure is based on cells.

Yet while Fatah sounds like some Communist party or tightly disciplined revolutionary underground, the reality is quite different. Arafat set forth an institutional culture that has always been somewhat anarchical. Cadre are undisciplined and the command structure is anything but organized. When Hamas staged a coup in the Gaza Strip, Fatah simply collapsed and didn’t even put up much of a fight. Local bosses prevail; cadre do pretty much whatever they want; indiscipline and corruption is rife.

And so it is sort of a joke to read in Article 95 that members are enjoined to be, “Undertaking their tasks enthusiastically and sparing no effort in achieving the movement's objectives and principles; exerting strenuous efforts to enhance interaction with the masses and winning their respect and confidence.”

What is intriguing, however, is that there is a detailed discussion of transgressions of Fatah rules and punishments for doing so. Clearly, if members do anything the leaders don't like they are going to face severe penalties. Thus it is significant that no Fatah member has been ever disciplined for committing acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians or for making the most extremist statements. Indeed, it isn’t even clear that Fatah has the determination or ability to punish members for collaborating with Hamas against their own leaders.

But the most fascinating aspect of all is the definition of the movement’s structure. Overwhelming power is in the hands of a 23-member Central Committee, including control of Fatah’s military forces. As I have shown previously, the Central Committee elected at the same Congress which formulated this new charter is quite radical. There are few members ready for real peace with Israel. When it comes to making any big decision, Abbas and Fayyad are mere figureheads.

Beneath the Central Committee is an 80-member Revolutionary Committee and, as the next level, a 350-member General Council. The Central Committee chooses a fairly large portion o both groups. Indeed it also selects the Fatah members of the Palestine National Council (the PLO’s legislature); PLO Executive Committee, which rules the PLO; Palestinian Legislative Council (the PA’s legislature); and the PA itself.

What this means is that Abbas and Fayyad do not control the PA, nor can they make peace or even conduct serious give-and-take negotiations. The Central Committee is really in control and the Central Committee is overwhelmingly hardline--at least 16--roughly three-quarters--of the 23 are that way. They still hope to take over Israel and thus reject agreeing to resettle Palestinian refugees in a state of Palestine. Equally, they aren't ready to declare that a two-state solution is the end of the conflict.

Most of the hardliners are supporters of Abbas. But the main reason they back him is their conviction that Abbas is weak both in character and in political base. They want him to be leader because they know he doesn't threaten their power. Like the famous exchange between Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Vice-President Dan Quayle they can say: "I knew Yasir Arafat. I worked with Yasir Arafat. And Chairman Abbas, you are no Yasir Arafat."

He will not, he cannot, do anything they don't like. And one of the things Abbas has done to appease them has been to make Muhammad Ghaneim, perhaps the most hardline among all the committee members, his designaed successor.

These 23 committee members are in control of the fate of the Palestinians (except for Hamas’s considerable say in that matter) and the peace process. Due to their radicalism, there will be no peace or Palestinian state for many years. To find out more about who they are and why this is so, go here and here and especially here.

Why don’t more people study the details of Palestinian politics? For the same reason that they don’t want to look closely at how sausages are made. It’s too unpleasant. After doing so, one could never go on naively believing that peace is within reach.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan).


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