Did Arafat & Abbas ‘fail’ by rejecting previous offers?
Those of you who are purveyors of arguing either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will know what i mean when I say that it’s a frustrating and cyclical thing to get worked up in a lather over. From my perspective, I feel so many people on ‘the other side’ wheel out the same tried and tested arguments, many of which seem hopelessly inane.
One of the arguments that has always carried relatively more weight with me is the whole: “Arafat blew it in 2000 when Barak offered him a state and Abbas blew it when Olmert offered him a state, what can the Palestinians expect if their leaders are always walking away when a state is actually on the table, ready to be signed?”
A salient point. But before we judge Arafat and Abbas, we need to look at the conflict, or more specifically, the ‘peace process’ and the negotiating positions of the two parties. Are we treating them as equals? And if so, should we be? I contend that we should but clearly are not doing so.
Let’s look at it like this. From the position of a negotiating party, the Israeli Prime Minister, whoever he may be, is the elected leader of a sovereign state with clearly delineated borders, a considerable standing army with impressive military capabilities including nuclear arms, recognised by most of the international community and with an unshakeable superpower backer. The head of the Palestinian Authority is a man with no state, little by way of guns, little by way of international recognition, little by way of backing and, nowadays it seems, little by way of local credibility among his supposed constituents. Moreover, of the issue they are negotiating over, the West Bank and Gaza strip, the former is occupied and controlled entirely and the latter is blockaded, squeezed and also controlled entirely by the Israeli Prime Minister. What the hell are they even negotiating over?
Clearly, from the Israeli perspective, the offer of a Palestinian state stands for two main reasons, long-term peace and security and being ‘the right thing to do’. But the former doesn’t seem an urgent need now to Israelis. There is a smattering of rockets still being fired, suicide bombings have been dead in the water (pardon the pun) and recognition by Arab states seems sort of irrelevant when Israel has economic agreements if not fully-fledged normalised relations with most of them anyway. So, to put it simply, there isn’t very much in it for Israel but there’s a whole damn lot in it for the Palestinians.
Perhaps you may then note that this means even moreso that the Israeli PM is doing the Palestinians some sort of favour out of the “goodness of his own heart.” Perhaps that is the case, but if the negotiations are to be taken seriously we have to assume that both parties are equally serious about them. That’s how negotiations work, that’s what they are by definition.
So what of all these tabled offers from the Israeli side? Let’s face it, the Israelis are the only ones that can *make* offers. They hold all the cards and all the chips and all the odds and all the other gambling analogies. They occupy, they control, they settle and they hold power. The Palestinian PM can offer little but non-violence, and since violence from the Palestinians isn’t much of a threat right now anyway, and the violence that *is* a threat may well be about of the PM’s control, it’s not much of an offer.
How then are we to judge the Palestinians walking away from the table as a crime of the highest order? As I said, if we are to view the peace process as legitimate we have to assume both parties are serious, this means we have to take both parties demands seriously. The Palestinians want halt to settlement, right of return, East Jerusalem as a capital, and a land link between the West Bank and Gaza as minimums. While I personally believe that right of return is not feasible, it’s still a legitimate issue that demands serious attention. In a negotiation, if one side makes an offer that the other is not happy with, the other has the right to walk away from it, especially if the other has a very tenuous grip on representation of his population (part of the reason why the whole peace process is majorly flawed). In the 2000 offer, I saw little to no mention of a land link between Gaza and the West Bank, and I am not entirely sure how much of East Jerusalem the Palestinians were suppose to get. The refugee issue was also sort of brushed over. In the more recent and recently leaked offer from Olmert to Abbas, I saw no mention of East Jerusalem or the Right of Return also. Perhaps I’ve missed something, if so, let me know.
But it’s not actually important what the details of the two agreements were. Arafat or Abbas not agreeing to a proposal from the Israelis should not be seen as a failure by default. It is a negotiation, any unilateral offer made can be rejected and a counteroffer needs to be negotiated. That’s how negotiations work. While the lack of follow-up on both proposals is regrettable, and that is something we can criticise the leaders over, it is not something to crucify them over either. If the Israeli PMs in question were serious about their offers, or if indeed the more important issue of their constituencies and Knessets were serious, then these offers can be retabled. No facts have changed on the ground apart from increased Israeli settlement, intensified blockade on Gaza and diminished Palestinian violence, all facts that should not work against the Palestinian side in negotiations.
So in conclusion, let’s keep in mind the following fact: while it is obvious that the only side capable of making a legitimate offer (because it holds all the cards) is the Israeli side, for negotiations to work, both sides need to be seen as equal players. If the Palestinians were to make an offer that the Israelis rejected, would you consider that Israeli PM to be a failure? No. We need to stop viewing an Israeli offer for a Palestinian state as some kind of charity, it is ‘the right thing to do’, but it is not charity. There is something in it for both sides, even if it comes down to a moral question. A state for the Palestinians is their right, it is not a gift bestowed upon them by a benevolent Israeli politician. Until we view it this way, the peace process can never be taken seriously.
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