Palestinian leadership coming back to the negotiating table?


As the Israeli Government’s target date of July 1 to begin extending sovereignty to parts of the West Bank in line with the US Trump Administration’s peace plan came and went, the Palestinian Authority has reportedly agreed to resume direct peace negotiations with Israel, at least in principle.

The French media wire service AFP reports that a proposal recently sent from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the international peacemaking Quartet on the Middle East, the US, Russia, EU, and UN, says that the PA is, “ready to resume direct bilateral negotiations where they stopped,” in 2014.

However, peace negotiations in 2013-2014 were initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry and were mediated by American diplomats, without Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sitting across the table from each other. The most recent direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a two-state resolution took place from 2007-2008 between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas and their representatives.

While the exact lands that Netanyahu intends to apply sovereignty to and the timeline of doing so remain uncertain, it certainly appears that the threat of action has drawn the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh declared on June 9 that the PA had drafted a counterproposal to the US-led plan but did not provide details on when the Palestinians would resume peace negotiations.

Furthermore, the PA stated that the counterproposal would immediately be withdrawn if Israel annexed any part of the West Bank.

Moreover, Hussein al-Sheik, a close advisor to President Abbas, told the New York Times on June 8, “I am telling the Israelis, if this situation continues, you will have to take full responsibility as an occupying power. It could go back to like it was before Oslo.”

As explained by Ahron Shapiro last month, the PA hopes to pressure Israel to refrain from the extension of sovereignty by threatening to dismantle the PA and require Israel to reinstall military control over the entire West Bank.

The specific details of the letter were not revealed until this week by AFP.

In the letter, the PA claims that “No one has as much interest as the Palestinians in reaching a peace agreement and no one has as much to lose as the Palestinians in the absence of peace.” Yet PA President Abbas decided to cut all ties with Israel after he pre-emptively rejected the US peace plan without speaking to US Administration negotiators or even reading the plan.

The PA plan submitted to the Quartet also reportedly said “We are ready to have our state with a limited number of weapons and a powerful police force to uphold law and order,” accompanied by an International organisation such as NATO, to oversee compliance of any future peace treaty, managed by the UN.

The counterproposal also stated that any peace agreement could include “minor border changes that will have been mutually agreed, based on the borders of June 4, 1967,” the day before the Six-Day War.

One possible fly in the ointment of the new ostensible Palestinian willingness to negotiate is the phrase about resuming negotiations “where they left off”. Israel is not likely to agree to any precondition that it promise to put back on the table the US-brokered offer that was being discussed in 2014. Thus, if the Palestinians make this a precondition for resuming talks, this will effectively scupper any hope of returning to negotiations.

While the details of the Trump peace plan have been contested by many, advocates of the plan and supporters of an expansion of sovereignty can certainly now argue that it has been effective in bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after over a decade of stalling and avoiding direct talks.

It is now up to international supporters of Israeli-Palestinian peace to follow through on this opportunity by urging the Palestinians to make good on the reputed willingness to return to negotiations and sit down with their Israeli counterparts as soon as possible, without preconditions.

If they do, we know the Israelis are ready to sit down with them. Just last Sunday, Israeli PM Netanyahu told a visiting delegation “Israel is ready for negotiations, I am ready for negotiations and believe that many Arab states hope we will enter such negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Jack Gross is currently serving as an American Jewish Committee Goldman Fellow with AIJAC.