By Aziz Abu Sarah
A year ago, the Palestinians encountered unprecedented change in the U.S. and international community toward the Palestinian issue, as the international community noticeably increased pressure on the Israeli government to freeze settlements and accept the principle of a two-state solution for final settlement. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to evade the pressure by throwing the ball into the Palestinian court, demanding that the Palestinians return to direct negotiations.
The Palestinian side rejected the demand for direct negotiations, citing a lack of progress in indirect negotiations and the absence of any trust building with the Israeli side. This decision led the international community to exercise pressure on the Palestinians, and interpret their decision as a lack of interest in negotiations. Netanyahu took this opportunity to present himself as a peace seeker and renew his allegations that there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
The Palestinians’ fear of direct negotiations with Netanyahu comes from painful memories and experiences that Palestinian negotiators have repeatedly gone through. Such negotiations normally began with never ending talks, and ended with the Palestinians being blamed after every round of unsuccessful negotiations.
The Palestinians also have not forgotten the results of direct negotiations with Netanyahu in his first premiership in the nineties.
However, the international community has gone through many changes and is different today, and therefore we must be aware of how these changes may affect Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
There are voices in the Palestinian community which insist that engaging in direct talks would weaken the Palestinian position, and therefore we should reject the demand for negotiations. However, the opposite is true. Nothing weakens the Palestinians more than appearing to oppose negotiations, leaving them open to be labeled obstructionists of the peace process.
On the other hand, entering into direct negotiations with the Israelis could strengthen the Palestinian position. Last year Palestinians succeeded in winning the confidence and trust of the international community by demonstrating their ability to build infrastructure and institutions for the future Palestinian state. The Palestinians have also been able to foster strong international support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the near future by highlighting the deteriorating conditions on the ground that could lead to the death of the unborn Palestinian state.
Moreover, the current U.S. administration is more sympathetic to Palestinian suffering and more attentive to their hopes than any other U.S. administration in the past. President Obama announced that he would like to see a Palestinian state before the end of his term, which expires in two and a half years. He demonstrated his commitment by choosing George Mitchell to serve as the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, a former U.S. senator known for fairness and directness in facilitating negotiations and for his experience in dealing with complicated negotiations, such as those in Northern Ireland.
Perhaps one of the most important changes in the current U.S. administration is their willingness to confront the Israeli government publicly. Several times over the past year, the administration has challenged Israel on the construction of settlements, which the former U.S. administration avoided.
For the first time ever, the Palestinians have a possible advantage over their Israeli counterparts in negotiations. While the current Israeli government has been unable to provide any serious offers for a final settlement, it seems that the Palestinians are ready to offer a comprehensive settlement for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As result, the Palestinians must initiate by presenting their offer, rather than waiting for an Israeli offer. This will throw the ball back in the Israeli court and put Netanyahu in a position to reveal whether he is serious about reaching an agreement. Also, engaging in direct negotiations before the end of the partial settlement freeze may give Palestinians leverage to pressure Israel to continue the freeze. Rejecting the direct negations, however, would give Netanyahu an excuse to resume building settlements.
That said, the return to direct negotiations must avoid past mistakes. It is important that negotiations be tied to a clear framework and timetable. The passage of time without any progress in the peace process will only kill a two state solution. We can take Netanyahu’s recent statement about the possibility of achieving a peace agreement within one year as a timetable for the declaration of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinian decision to return to direct negotiations with Israeli should not happen as a result of international pressure. Instead, the Palestinian side should make a diplomatic and strategic decision to enter direct negotiations, with the knowledge that it is in the best interest of the Palestinian people.