Apr 08 2006

Negotiation alternatives

Published by at 2:07 am under Articles

By Daoud Kuttab

Although it appears that the political stalemate continues on the Palestinian-Israeli front, a possible breakthrough seems closer than in the past. Various pieces of the puzzle appear to be falling into place following the Palestinian and Israeli elections.

Three interesting statements made within 24 hours after the announcement of the Israeli election exit polls can give us a glimpse at what may be lying ahead.

Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima Party netted the largest number of Knesset seats, made a peaceful overture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him to face-to-face negotiations aimed at producing peace. Abbas didn’t wait long, initiating a congratulatory phone call to the Israeli leader and agreeing to participate in meaningful negotiations that can be wrapped up within one year.

Within this same 24-hour cycle, the new Hamas prime minister, Ismael Haniyeh, made some positive peace overtures. Speaking to reporters after swearing in his government in front of Abbas, Haniyeh said his government is not opposed to the idea of Olmert and Abbas negotiating. “We will be happy to see what the president (Abbas) will offer us and will respond to it,” he said to the tens of TV cameras stationed outside the president’s office.

So here we have it. A newly elected centrist Israeli leader promises peace talks, an internationally acceptable Palestinian counterpart agrees, and the head of a popularly elected radical government gives the green light.

On the face of it, all these are good signs, but why isn’t anyone celebrating?

Behind Olmert’s call for face-to-face negotiations is his party’s unilateral plan that will decide how small the Palestinian state will be. Of course, Olmert talks about the permanent borders of Israel, but the question is simply what will be left for the Palestinians once Olmert negotiates, with Israelis and the US, how far the Israeli army will be pulled back.

One of the basic principles of negotiations (whether in politics or business) is the availability of credible alternatives. It can be expected that Olmert would rather dictate, than negotiate as an equal, with a Palestinian partner. At every stage of the talks, the Kadima leader will threaten to declare that there is no credible Palestinian partner (as has been the case ever since the last serious talks in Taba during the final days of the Barak government) and threaten to return to the unilateral mode a la Gaza.

Abbas’ negotiating abilities will be more curtailed than in the past. Just like during the Camp David II talks, the Palestinian negotiators will have little more than the ability to say no to whatever deal Olmert will offer.

One difference does exist now. The existence of the Islamic Hamas movement in the government and in the parliament means that the answers that Abbas will have to give to the negotiators will have to pass the test of the present government. The Hamas government has not yet recognised Israel, nor has it presented any credible political plan. But in various press interviews, senior Hamas leaders have suggested the idea of a public referendum if the issue of recognising Israel will have to be dealt with.

The key issue will continue to be how the Israelis will want to handle the upcoming talks. If they will act as they did so far, the real negotiations will be within Israel or between Israel and Washington.

In some ways, the threat of turning to the unilateral plan, by Olmert, and the threat of turning to Hamas, by Abbas, might be just the right formula to get the two parties to try and work for an acceptable solution. For the negotiations to work, however, a serious ceasefire agreement (or an understanding as the one with Hizbollah) needs to be followed by confidence-building measures and then serious talks, preferably away from the camera and press leaks.

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