A Fresh Approach to Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Following Abbas’ Threat to Step Down

By Etan Schwartz
Staff Writer
November 15, 2009

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced in a televised speech last week that he would not seek re-election. The announcement took many by surprise and demonstrated how quickly his political position had fallen. Abbas’ announcement was the result of a number of incidents that progressively weakened his standing among Palestinians.

When President Obama first came into office, part of his plan to jumpstart the Middle East peace process was to pressure Israel into freezing all settlement building over the 1967 Green Line. Dovetailing on his Cairo speech and outreach campaign to the Muslim world, Obama publicized the demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. Though he had been negotiating with the Olmert government in Israel for the past year without preconditions, Abbas saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate that the Palestinian Authority could, through the diplomatic process, deliver a tangible benefit to the Palestinians. Therefore, he soon announced that an Israeli settlement freeze would have to occur before he would return to the negotiating table.

Netanyahu informed Obama that implementing a settlement freeze would result in a coalition crisis. For a right-wing government which had been elected largely as a result of continued Hamas rocket-fire following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, such a move could possibly result in its downfall. A political crisis in Israel would have further complicated Obama’s diplomatic push and so he sought to push a three-way meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas at the UN, while deemphasizing his earlier demands. Heavy U.S. pressure caused Abbas to reluctantly agree. In the process, Abbas drew fire from his political rivals claiming that he was backing down on his pledge, providing Netanyahu with a photo-op without getting anything in return. A debacle over the Goldstone report followed and heavy U.S. pressure was applied for Abbas to support a move to delay action on the report, which cost him heavily in Palestinian public opinion.

The last straw came when Hilary Clinton announced in Jerusalem that an Israeli offer of restricting settlement growth but not halting it altogether was “unprecedented.” Abbas sensed that the Americans were beginning to shift their position in favor of Israel, believing that negotiations should commence immediately without any preconditions on settlements. Having publicly announced his demand for a settlement freeze prior to negotiations and already in a precarious political position, Abbas could not reverse course and felt betrayed. Obama had raised expectations of Israeli concessions and then failed to meet them, leaving Abbas looking like a recalcitrant leader if he did not negotiate and a disappointment among the Palestinians if he backed off. Thus, Abbas’ threat of resignation was a necessary move to regain an image of independence and strength among his public.

A number of analysts have suggested a possible resolution to the current impasse. Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute have proposed that coming to official understandings on the border of a future Palestinian state may be a solution.

Many do not realize that 75 percent of Israeli settlers are concentrated on 5 percent of the West Bank, largely adjacent to Israel proper. Most Palestinian negotiators have acknowledged that the majority of Israeli settlers will actually be incorporated into Israel in any final peace agreement. The difficulty of uprooting hundreds of thousands of people over 3 to 5 percent of the West Bank can be avoided by adjusting the border so that an equivalent mass of land west of the Green Line can be incorporated into the Palestinian state. Therefore, the freezing of the bulk of these settlements, while a powerful symbolic gesture for the Palestinians, would not actually affect a final Palestinian state. If Israel and the Palestinians can come to a formal understanding of the future Israel-Palestine border, Israel can begin to evacuate the settlements in areas not slated to be part of Israel while continuing to build in the areas that will eventually be incorporated into Israel proper.

The Israelis are wary of another withdrawal. The last time they unilaterally pulled out from Gaza, it led to rocket fire from a strengthened Hamas. However, in the context of a formal understanding with Abbas, a dismantling of settlements would strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which is currently cooperating with the Israelis on implementing law and order in the West Bank.

For their part, the Palestinians have always been wary of an interim Palestinian state, thinking it would allow Israel to solve their security and demographic problem while uncomfortable concessions on thorny issues like refugees and Jerusalem get pushed aside. However, an interim agreement on borders would not be an interim state and would still allow for Abbas to claim tangible benefits from the diplomatic process. The parties should seriously consider this possibility for jumpstarting the diplomatic process.

Disclaimer: This photo is being used under licensing by creative commons. The original source can be found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8302058.stm. If you have any questions about its use, please contact the editor-in-chief at iar@gwu.edu.

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