Back to the negotiating table?

Jan 12, 2012

Back to the negotiating table?

Update from AIJAC

January 12, 2012
Number 01/12 #02

The last two weeks have seen two meetings in Amman Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, in what are being called “preparatory talks”, but are the first direct public contacts between the two sides since 2010. (Some more details on the latest rounds of talks are reported here, here and here.)

A good backgrounder from BICOM on both the significance of the talks and the political factors influencing them is first up. It puts the meetings in the context of the Quartet efforts to restart talks and significant pressure on the Palestinian side to renew negotiations, and discusses what is known about the contents of the two meetings. It also offers some informed speculation about what might come next, including a debate within the Israeli government about some new confidence-building measures. For all the information one needs to gain a good understanding of what is going on with these talks, CLICK HERE.

Next up, peace process expert David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has a look at both Palestinian and Israeli political debates likely to affect where things go from here. He stresses that no-one expects a breakthrough to a final peace, but the Palestinian Authority is divided between those wanting to focus on nation and institution-building, hopefully with some Israeli assistance, and those who believe that the PA needs to maintain a defiant stance against Israel to insulate themselves from the upheavals of the Arab Spring. He also notes debates within the Israeli government about whether non-territorial confidence-building measures should be offered even without any hope that they can lead to a peace breakthrough. For this important discussion in full of the debates within both parties, CLICK HERE. Former Middle East mediator and senior advisor to President Obama Dennis Ross makes the case for a focus on such confidence-building measures.

Finally, Israel journalist Elliot Jager examines both the rhetoric and the reality that has characterised the ostensible unity reached between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in late December.  Jager notes that there are now essentially two Palestines, looks at the separate histories of Fatah and Hamas, and notes that, despite the unity deal, there are continuing signs of their complete distrust for one another. He goes on to conclude that the unity deal, far from providing Israel with a peace partner, actually “intensified the intransigence, fanaticism, and obduracy” being exhibited by the Palestinian side. For the rest of his argument, CLICK HERE. Also AIJAC’s Sharyn Mittelman explains why there are very good reasons for scepticism over claims that Hamas has agreed to “moderate”, while Israeli intelligence analyst Jonathan Halevi explains that Hamas plans to use the unity deal to take over the PLO.

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    BICOM Analysis: Back to the table? Israeli-Palestinian preparatory talks


    Key points

    • Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Amman, Jordan on Monday, 9 January, for the second time in as many weeks, with the aim of restarting substantive negotiations on the peace process.
    • These talks are the result of sustained international pressure on the Palestinians to enter direct talks without their preconditions first being met.
    • The fate of the current round of talks looks likely to depend on whether the Palestinians can be persuaded to sign up for a longer-term process and put the brakes on their UN membership bid and the Palestinian unity agreement.


    Lead Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molcho met with his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erekat in Amman yesterday for the second time in as many weeks, with the aim of restarting direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. These are the first direct contacts between the parties since the breakdown of peace talks in September 2010. Whilst both sides have downplayed expectations of real progress, neither wants to take the blame for the failure of this latest attempt to restart negotiations. With one eye on the Quartet (comprised of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russian Federation), and the other on their domestic audiences, are Israelis and Palestinians on the brink of substantive talks?

    Why are these talks happening now?

    These meetings are the result of sustained international pressure on the Palestinians to enter direct talks without their preconditions first being met. The Palestinians demand a complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction, including in East Jerusalem, and explicit Israeli acceptance of 1967 lines as the basis for territorial negotiations.

    Israel would like talks without preconditions, as was the case under previous rounds of negotiations. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did appear to implicitly accept US President Barack Obama’s call to use 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations when speaking at the UN in September 2011, he has not made this explicit. The Israeli government has not been willing to revisit the possibility of a settlement freeze since Israel’s ten month moratorium on new construction expired in September 2010.

    When the Quartet met on 23 September 2011, it set out a new timetable for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. After more than a year of failed attempts to bring the sides together, the new timetable called for a preparatory meeting within a month, ‘comprehensive proposals on territory and security’ within three months, and ‘substantial progress’ within six months.

    Israel favours direct talks without preconditions, whereas the Palestinians continue to demand that their preconditions be met before negotiating face-to-face with Israel. In the meantime, the Palestinians have deposited proposals on borders and security with the Quartet.

    On 26 October, the Quartet issued a new statement highlighting that the parties had agreed ‘to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months in the context of our shared commitment to the objective of direct negotiations leading toward an agreement by the end of 2012.’

    There is a battle of interpretations over these vaguely worded and inconsistent Quartet statements. The Palestinians claim that Israel has until 26 January to table a position on borders and security, after which they say they will resume unilateral efforts to secure recognition at the UN. Israel argues that the Quartet requires them to table formal positions only after three months of direct negotiations.

    It took two months longer than planned from the original September Quartet statement just to get to the first preliminary meeting, in Amman on 3 January. Israeli officials contend, therefore, that the deadlines should be moved back.

    The decision of the Palestinians to come to these meetings in Amman, which they are unwilling to describe as negotiations, is the result of pressure from Europe, the US and Arab states. They are being held in Amman at the invitation of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who has begun to take a more active role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs in recent months. His visit to Ramallah in November 2011 was the first in a decade, and indicates that he sees the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as key to maintaining the stability of his own kingdom.

    What is happening in the talks?

    Both sides are being extremely tight-lipped about the precise content of the talks, with the only official comments being the briefest of statements from the Jordanian moderators. However, some details have emerged.

    In the first meeting, in the presence of Quartet representatives, the negotiators showed each other position papers from previous rounds of talks. Erekat brought a Palestinian position to the table that has been in circulation since the 2008 Annapolis talks. The paper describes a minimal land swap of around 1.9%. Any Israeli government would require a significantly larger land swap to incorporate more of the West Bank settlements into Israel. Molcho refused to take away a copy of the plan when President Obama’s special envoy George Mitchell tried to restart talks in late 2010. However, according to Israeli sources, this time Molcho did take the map.

    Israel has brought general principles to the table, rather than specific proposals. This is in the form of a 21-point document which reportedly sets out Israel’s thinking on the whole range of final status issues, including refugees and Jerusalem. In the 9 January meeting, held without the presence of Quartet representatives, the Palestinians reportedly gave a response to this document, criticising it as too vague.

    Having responded to international pressure to go to the table without first achieving their demands of a settlement freeze and an explicit commitment to 1967 borders as a baseline, the Palestinians are likely to feel that the onus is now on Israel to present some concrete proposals. Since Israel’s position is that all issues should be discussed in direct, bilateral talks without preconditions, Molcho is unlikely to show Israel’s hand before the Palestinians agree to a sustained and substantive series of negotiations.

    For Netanyahu, building up to specific proposals through a longer-term process of bilateral discussions is preferable. The Israeli government considers the question of territory bound up with other issues, including security arrangements, particularly in the Jordan Valley. In the past, Netanyahu has been reluctant to discuss detailed maps without prior security assurances.

    Talking about specific borders or percentages of land also poses a very high domestic political risk for Netanyahu. If offers made in closed-door talks were to be made public prematurely, his political opponents on the right would use them to attack him, particularly if they do not result in any significant breakthrough.

    Although recent polling confirms that most Israelis still believe that a negotiated agreement leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is the best option, there is little faith within Israel in the Palestinian partner. PM Netanyahu has a stable government coalition, and there is little public expectation on him to deliver significant progress.

    What happens next?

    There are further meetings to come in this process, and according to the US State Department, the contacts will continue at least for the ‘next couple of weeks.’ Israeli sources quoted in the media say that the Palestinians have committed to the Jordanians to continue the process until the end of January.

    However, the Palestinians seem keen to turn 26 January into a critical date, after which they can declare the failure of talks due to Israeli bad faith, withdraw from the process and return to seeking recognition unilaterally at the UN. This date relates to the Quartet’s 26 October statement calling for the sides to present positions on borders and security within three months. Having already presented ‘comprehensive proposals’ on borders and security, the Palestinians may feel that they are in a strong position to blame Israel for the failure of the talks.

    For the Palestinians, the return to talks is only one of a number of issues on their political agenda. The strategy of applying for Palestinian membership to the UN and its associated bodies has strong support on the Palestinian street. This popular support is particularly important for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the context of Fatah and Hamas’s faltering progress towards a unity agreement, which could lead to Palestinian elections this year.

    However, abandoning the talks is not without significant risk for the Palestinians. They may be vulnerable to the charge that they have not fully committed to the process themselves, since they appear unwilling to enter into any formal, sustained process of talks with Israel whilst their preconditions are not met.

    According to a report in Haaretz on 10 January, Israel is considering confidence-building gestures, such as freeing Palestinian prisoners and expanding the PA’s control in additional West Bank territories, in return for a Palestinian agreement to continue the talks.

    Pressing ahead with the UN membership bid would cause significant friction with the US and Israel, thereby endangering the PA’s sources of funding. Were Abbas to form a unity government including Hamas, this would also risk strong opposition from Israel and the international community. The recent call of Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal for non-violent struggle was rejected by the movement’s Gaza-based leadership. Overall, the movement looks a long way from meeting the Quartet demands to renounce violence, uphold existing agreements and recognise Israel. Hamas also demands the replacement of PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has very strong support in Western capitals.

    The fate of the current round of talks looks likely to depend on whether the PA leadership can be persuaded to sign up for a longer-term process and put the brakes on their UN membership bid and the Palestinian unity agreement. Otherwise, the Quartet’s time frame is likely to expire without delivering any kind of breakthrough.

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    Differences Within Parties — Not Just Between Them

    By David Makovsky

    Jerusalem Post, January 11, 2012

    After 16 months of no negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Amman last week and again this week. Yet, the question remains whether these talks represent a new opening or if they are merely a tactical instrument for each side to perpetuate recriminations?

    If it is only about tactics, these talks will enable the Palestinians to rebut the Israeli claim regarding the Quartet’s 90-day clock for both sides to present a map on borders and security because there are no direct meetings between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other hand, should the Palestinians walk away from the table, this will enable the Israelis to repeat what they have always said, namely that the Palestinians’ refusal to stay at the negotiating table is the source of the impasse.

    The idea of talks having only tactical value or something more meaningful depends on a deeper question. At the core, there are internal policy debates within both Israeli and Palestinian policy circles on the value of making any concessions to each other when each side is absolutely certain that no territorial breakthrough will occur during 2012. These quiet domestic debates occur within Palestinian and Israeli policy circles, and not just between them.

    Whatever their differences, all sides have agreed upon two points: there will be no territorial breakthrough during an American election year, and the debates are for policymakers since the publics remain skeptical of the other side’s sincerity for peace.

    The debates have therefore shifted toward discussing measures that can be taken in the absence of a territorial breakthrough. On the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has publicly championed the idea that the best means of building a Palestinian state is to continue institution-building efforts on the ground in the West Bank that show steady progress towards this goal. Such measures range from increased Palestinian economic access in the West Bank, increasing Palestinian police stations outside of Palestinian urban areas to eliminating IDF incursions in Area A, which Hamas has continuously cited as proof the occupation continues despite Palestinian security cooperation with Israel.

    The other side of the Palestinian policy debate, associated with Abbas’s foreign policy negotiating team, argues the best way to insulate the Palestinian Authority from the wrath of the Arab Awakening is through continued defiance of Israel. The school of thought believes it may be able to persuade PA President Mahmoud Abbas that his domestic popularity reached an all-time high following his bid for UN statehood in September, and this path of resistance will help to obscure his close association with the unpopular Hosni Mubarak. Moreover, this school will probably seek to persuade Abbas that diplomatic defiance of Israel will also help Fatah to compete with Hamas after it becomes clear that Fatah lacks a strong candidate for the May elections, especially given the political boost that Hamas may get from the current Islamist electoral wave in the Arab world.

    Furthermore, this school is seen as viewing Palestinian defiance as virtually cost-free internationally. The popular unaccommodating image of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes him an easy target, and both the Europeans and Arabs often assume that he is therefore the cause of any impasse.

    On the Israeli side, the policy debate in 2012 will center on whether there is any value in yielding to Palestinian demands on non-territorial issues if a full peace deal is out of reach. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman identifies strongly with this view.

    A contrasting view comes from key parts of the Israeli defense establishment, which views the threat of a nuclear Iran as strong motivation for credible progress between Israel and the Palestinians. Three points make up this line of reasoning: first, that progress between Israel and the Palestinians could eventually lead to negotiations that would help to insulate the PA against any Arab Awakening revolts. Second, progress on the peace process front could allow Israel to focus more of its policymaking efforts on combating the Iran nuclear threat. Third, progress with the Palestinians could only benefit Israel as it seeks to reach out to various regional Arabs on the Iranian issue, and as it seeks to salvage its relationship with the Egyptian military — seen by Israel as key to preserving the bilateral peace treaty.

    One might add a fourth reason as well. Any progress by Netanyahu in 2012 would serve to counter the prevalent notion that only US pressure can spur Israeli steps towards peace. Paralysis in 2012 would only strengthen this argument, which is certainly not in Netanyahu’s interest.

    Some ministers and officials close to Netanyahu suggest Israel could accept progress on the ground if the Palestinians provide a quid pro quo. In other words, only if the Palestinians suspend their diplomatic efforts at the UN and other international agencies will they win any reciprocal Israeli action. It is this tradeoff that could pit the different sides of the Palestinian debate: those favoring progress on the ground versus those who want to wage a diplomatic defiant approach against Israel at the UN and elsewhere.

    The current concern for the peace process is not what will or will not happen this week in Amman, but rather how policy debates in Jerusalem and Ramallah will shape a year of zero expectations. On the more optimistic note, when there are no expectations, they can be easily exceeded. On the less hopeful note, zero expectations, however, does not mean zero consequences. Given the current turmoil in the region, 2012 could be a very consequential year.

    David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute

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    Two Palestines, Complete

    By Elliot Jager

    Jewish Ideas Daily, January 11, 2012

    Some saw history in the making. With jubilation and fanfare Fatah and Hamas agreed last spring in Cairo to form an interim technocratic administration, hold parliamentary and presidential elections by May 2012 and, ultimately, to establish a national unity government. What’s more, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal announced that his movement intended to adopt the strategy of “popular resistance.” The announcement was received as “historic” by Haaretz: “Palestine” would soon have a unified government pushing for peace while, in the view of the newspaper, Israel’s “belligerent” army and government would continue to bury itself in a “foxhole.” Now, after squandering the better part of four years refusing to come to the negotiating table, Fatah officials have consented to hold exploratory talks and exchange position papers with Israeli officials at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry in Amman.

    How are we to understand this seemingly promising triad: Palestinian unity, Hamas flexibility, and a renewed Fatah commitment to genuine peacemaking? 

    A good place to begin is by examining what distinguishes the two Palestinian camps. Fatah, which means “conquest” or “victory,” was founded in the 1950s well before Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza. While vaguely nationalist in orientation, Fatah never placed ideology at its forefront, focusing instead on “armed struggle.” Since 1993, it professes to have abandoned annihilating Israel as its raison d’être, though its “militants” did engage in terrorism during the second intifada (2000–2005).

    Hamas came into existence in 1987 (during the first intifada) as a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It considers “Palestine” an Islamic trust and is inalterably opposed to the existence of Israel. For tactical purposes Hamas too has flirted with its own form of moderation, sometimes advocating a temporary truce or hudna with Israel and lately claiming to have embraced “popular struggle”—meaning violent protests without the use of firearms in conjunction with ongoing political efforts in the pursuit of Israel’s destruction. In any case, Hamas steadfastly adheres to its “right” to utilize terror as circumstances dictate.

    Under pressure from the Bush administration, the Palestinian Authority held elections in 2006 which were won by Hamas. The Islamists had quite credibly accused Fatah of corruption in its administration of the PA and tarred them as kowtowing to Israel. In victory the Islamists refused to meet international demands to recognize Israel, honor agreements signed between the PLO and Israel, and to end terrorism.  In March 2007, suspecting that Fatah was about to make a U.S.-supported putsch for Gaza, Hamas struck first, defeating Fatah and ousting its gunmen from the Strip. Fatah was left in control of the PA in the West Bank; Hamas solidified its hold on Gaza.

    Since then, when Arab countries are not playing the Palestinian camps against one other, they have sought to reconcile them. Most recently the post-Mubarak military rulers of Egypt brought Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and Mashaal together in Cairo.

    But for all the talk of unity, Hamas banned Fatah supporters in Gaza from celebrating its 47th anniversary in December and Fatah did not bother to tell Hamas it had plans to meet with Israel in Amman earlier this month. Hamas interpreted this affront as a blow to “national reconciliation.” At the same time, the PLO expressed exasperation that Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh did not coordinate his recent tour of the Mideast with local PLO legations.

    After senior PLO figure Nabil Shaath visited Gaza earlier this month, he returned to Ramallah to announce that the two “Palestines” were poised to set up a joint technocratic administration within weeks. Yet immediately afterwards Hamas barred other Fatah representatives from entering the Strip for reconciliation talks, presumably as an expression of Islamist displeasure over the Amman meetings. The banned officials complained of being humiliated at the Hamas checkpoint connecting Egypt and the Palestinian statelet. Hamas countered by accusing Fatah envoy Sakher Bseisso of blasphemy. Abbas himself remains persona non grata in Gaza; even public screening of his September 2011 announcement of the Palestinians’ UN membership bid is forbidden.

    Palestinian unity is not the only chimera.  Plainly, from an Israeli viewpoint, a shift in Hamas’ creed away from doctrinaire bellicosity would be desirable.  For even if Fatah (which dominates the PLO) were sincere about wanting peace with Israel it could not legitimately act independent of Hamas.  As a supposed concession to Abbas, Mashaal publicly embraced (with provisos) the PLO’s ceasefire with Israel along with its political onslaught at the UN. However, Hamas is itself divided between the “inside” leadership based in Gaza and “outsiders” such as Mashaal who until recently were headquartered in Damascus; it’s also split inside Gaza between the “military” branch led by Ahmed al-Jabari and political leaders such as Haniyeh. All this explains why Mashaal’s excruciatingly-hedged comparative moderation was received by the party’s senior theoretician in Gaza, Mahmoud al-Zahar, with disdain. Hamas, he hissed, would continue its “armed resistance.”

    Since Palestinian unity is as much a fantasy as Hamas moderation, it is too bad that, on top of it all, even Fatah isn’t wholly committed to peace. It is pushing the UN to create a Palestinian state without recognizing Israel as a Jewish state—using “continued settlement building” as its pretense. (Of course, the settlement issue would become moot were Abbas willing to negotiate permanent boundaries.)

    Moreover, Abbas has taken no steps to psychologically prepare his people for the painful compromises entailed in any peace agreement. Instead, his mantra is that “peace” will provide the Palestinian refugees and their descendants—by the millions—with the right to “return” to a truncated Israel, one that will have withdrawn to the indefensible 1949 armistice lines. Rather than preach reconciliation, Abbas tells his people that Israel is a “colonial” power, that it has besieged Jerusalem (as if the city had ever been the capital of any people but the Jews), and that it capriciously murders Palestinian innocents. His recent UN address did not contain one good word for Israelis and had nothing to say about coexistence.

    The truth is that Fatah’s own fidelity to the Oslo Accords is wobbly, characterized further by its willingness to pave the way for Hamas and Islamic Jihad to join the PLO without their committing to keeping its international obligations. While Abbas is personally scrupulous in opposing “armed struggle,” he has enabled the glorification of terrorism within the polity he directs.

    The Fatah-Hamas schism has only intensified the intransigence, fanaticism, and obduracy that have long characterized the Palestinian polity. Two “Palestines” do not equal one partner for Israel in building a viable two-state solution.

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