Palestinians Can Rectify Negotiating Weakness

Striking in this whole process is the almost total absence of initiatives by the Palestinian leadership, and the necessary mobilization of the three critical support communities that can help advance the Palestinian diplomatic position.

Much analysis and posturing take place these days about the “framework accord” that the United States government will soon put on the table as its conception of a fair, comprehensive and permanent peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. A bilateral negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians has been transformed, with Washington’s active role, into a three-way process in which each side is deciding its own moves, anticipating what the others will do, and thinking ahead about what they would do in the wake of the tabling, success or failure of the framework accord.

There is uncertainty about the positions and room for maneuver for all three parties. The sense I get from talking to interested and informed Americans in the United States is that this administration in Washington is more determined than ever to push hard to achieve a permanent peace agreement, despite the many known obstacles in the way. There is a sense among many Middle East observers here in the United States that a combination of issues makes this a potentially propitious moment for serious American mediation and perhaps for some pressure on both parties. These issues include the Barack Obama-John Kerry determination to succeed; a sense that a majority of Americans, including American Jews, support the Obama-Kerry approach; several recent incidents when the Obama administration pushed back positions advocated by the Israeli government and its lobby forces in Washington; confidence in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ability to carry Israelis with him on the path he chooses to follow; the generally accommodating posture of the Palestinians led by President Mahmoud Abbas; and, regional circumstances, including the Arab uprisings, the fear of spreading Salafist-takfiri groups, progress on an agreement with Iran, growing European pressures on the Israeli occupation-colonization of Arab lands, and a renewed ability to work with Russia on diplomatic issues.

The details of the American framework proposals will soon clarify whether the Obama administration’s activism could propel Israelis and Palestinians into an agreement, with incentives and arm-twisting on both sides. The anticipated diplomatic moves by Israelis and Palestinians remain unclear, however. Most diplomatic and political movement in recent decades has been defined by Israeli initiatives and demands that have forced the Palestinians into responding, mostly by rejecting Israeli demands (recognizing Israel as a “Jewish state”) or accepting them with modifications (Israeli and foreign troops in the Jordan Valley for a transitional period).

Striking in this whole process is the almost total absence of initiatives by the Palestinian leadership, and the necessary mobilization of the three critical support communities that can help advance the Palestinian diplomatic position: the scattered Palestinians themselves across the region and the world, the Arab states that remain broadly supportive of Palestinian rights, and the significant international support for the Palestinian cause—especially since the Palestinians accepted the principle of a two-state solution that anticipates coexistence with Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This lack of proactive Palestinian diplomacy is especially troubling in view of the general weakness of the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, whose efficacy and legitimacy are both very thin these days. It is also problematic in any negotiations, because the two other sides—the United States and Israel—operate from a position of strong democratic legitimacy within their own societies.

Many reasons explain this dilemma for the Palestinian leadership, but a critical one is the almost total lack of consultation and coordination with ordinary Palestinians who are scattered around the world in four main communities: those inside Israel, those in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Palestinians in refugee camps around the Middle East, and the several million who live around the region and the world but enjoy citizenship and the corresponding opportunities for work and personal advancement. So the decisions that President Mahmoud Abbas makes in the fateful diplomatic process now underway may only reflect his personal views and those of a few advisers whose legitimacy as representatives of the Palestinian people is equally thin.

If these negotiations fail to achieve a historic breakthrough, what will the three principal sides do? What are their options and fallback positions? Americans and Israelis can answer such questions more confidently than Palestinians can, thanks mainly to their strengths as countries and their democratic and consultative political systems.

The Palestinian leadership therefore would be wise to launch a massive and serious consultation process by which Palestinians in their four main demographic and geographic groupings could have an opportunity to do three important things that are missing today: provide input into the negotiations that would clarify Palestinians needs, proposals and bottom lines; strengthen the negotiating posture of Abbas and his team by affirming their legitimate representation of all Palestinians, which is not the case now; and, create a series of alternatives and fallback positions that the Palestinians could implement should the current talks collapse.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global