Think Progress on preconditions for negotiations

A recent piece on the ThinkProgress blog offers a very critical take on the views expressed by US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) about the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Graham had declared in a Fox News interview that he would like the US to “tell the Iranians, no negotiations, stop enriching, open up the site on the bottom of the mountain, a secret site. Then we will talk about lifting sanctions. You are not going to get to enrich uranium any more, period.”

Ali Gharib, national security reporter for ThinkProgress, characterized this as a “curious take on what it means to negotiate” and argued: “Graham’s position prompts one to ask: What’s the alternative to negotiations, since Graham is proposing pre-conditions that Iran would never meet?”

It is not clear if this is always Gharib’s view when it comes to preconditions for negotiations. A few days before he posted the piece on Graham, he wrote about the EU condemnation of Israel’s settlement policies. While he also noted that Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas had “rebuffed” Israeli offers for talks without preconditions and was insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze, he didn’t highlight the continued Palestinian insistence on preconditions as particularly problematic. Indeed, since the piece concluded by noting that the “international community and the U.S. consider the settlements ‘illegitimate’” and that there had been many calls for “halting settlement activity,” the implication was that the Palestinian insistence on preconditions was ultimately justified.

The persistent obsession with the barely two percent of West Bank territory taken up by Israeli building beyond the so-called “Green Line” since 1967 has long been skillfully fed by the Palestinians and their supporters, who understand very well that the myth of the “ever-growing settlements” is an easy sell to audiences around the world eager to blame Israel for the lack of a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By contrast, there is precious little interest in the fact that ever since former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was left without a response to his far-reaching proposals in 2008, the Palestinians have done everything possible to avoid the resumption of negotiations. Insisting on preconditions has been part of their strategy.

Blogger Michael Koplow has an interesting post on this subject – even though his title “The Pitfalls of Preconditions” already indicates that he starts from the assumption that the Palestinians actually do want to negotiate. Koplow argues that the Palestinian “preconditions gambit” is a “negotiating mistake” and he points out:

“the Palestinian Authority committed the crucial mistake of setting preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. As every first year law student required to read the seminal negotiation treatise Getting To Yes can tell you, setting preconditions to negotiating is a tactic that almost always fails. The book’s very first lesson is not to bargain over positions as it is inefficient, damages the relationship between parties, and leads to bad agreements. Tactics such as setting preconditions and refusing to negotiate until they are met are fated to backfire if the objective is to reach an agreement, as the other side is likely to dig in and paint the refusal to negotiate as evidence of bad faith. Over time, the party setting the preconditions will become hostage to the perception that it has no interest in reaching a deal, and will then be forced to maintain its principled position even when events on the ground put it at a disadvantage or give up credibility and leverage by dropping its demand entirely. In short, setting preconditions before agreeing to negotiate an agreement is rarely going to be a winning strategy.”

However, at the end of his post, Koplow notes:

“The question is whether the PA actually wants to have serious negotiations at this point in time or is just looking to win a p.r. battle with Israel. If it’s the latter, then setting preconditions makes sense since it highlights Israeli settlement activity […] If the objective is to actually negotiate though, Abbas and Erekat need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start.”

It is noteworthy in this context that by now, the list of Palestinian preconditions includes not only another freeze on construction in the territories Israel captured in 1967, but also the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the official recognition of the pre-1967 lines as basis for negotiations, implying their acceptance as a legitimate de-facto border.

Taken together with the repeated Palestinian rejections of serious offers to enable them to establish a state, this growing list of preconditions points to the conclusion that it’s not the Palestinians who “need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start” – it’s the politicians and pundits who lazily ignore every indication that the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in a negotiated two-state solution which would require them to give up on the fantasy of a “right of return.”

12 responses to “Think Progress on preconditions for negotiations

  1. Thanks for the smart spotlight on this ongoing and unnerving abuse of language.
    Still, I have doubts about the usefulness of such critique of political discourse based on logic alone. As you demonstrated, argumentations of this kind don’t exist for their intellectual merit alone. The revelation of the shallow reasoning could be put to good use to sharpen our perception of the antagonisms on a somewhat deeper level. Both, the insistence on preconditions and on their absence, are based on political considerations that cannot be appreciated adequately by reference to a textbook of “proper” negotiations. Let’s not underestimate the intelligence of all the parties involved. Rather, could it be the case, that on one hand the US administration and the Iranians currently share a common interest in postponing the “real” confrontation, and on the other hand, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government share an interest in continuing the status quo? I believe these hypotheses could be substantiated without any reliance on Middle Eastern “narratives” or conspiration theories.

    • Thanks for your interesting comment, Marc. I think one can indeed make the case you make when you say both the US & Iran, and the PA & Israel could be seen as interested in keeping things just as they are for the time being — though personally, I see US & Israeli interests differently.

      But the main issue I was trying to get at is that with all the focus on the I/P conflict, there is percious little attention to the in my view very obvious rejection of negotiations by the PA, and there is even less attention to the evidence of the past decade or so that there is actually no imaginable negotiated 2state solution any Palestinian leader would be willing to sign on to, mainly because the Palestinians have been allowed for too long to persist in the mistaken belief that their claims of a “right of return” are a card they can really play in negotiations.
      So while the EU is always ready to issue another condemnation of the settlements, they are happily supporting UNRWA and their efforts to keep alive a “refugee identity”, thus fully supporting the cynical Arab policy of keeping generations of Palestinians in an artificial limbo in “refugee camps”. Indeed, even in territory fully controlled by the PA and Hamas, there are of course still “refugee camps” — and there is basically nobody serious taking issue with that, because it’s so much easier to pretend that if it wasn’t for Bibi — the first Israeli leader ever to freeze settlement construction, and the first Likud leader ever to publicly commit to a 2state solution — there could be peace and harmony in no time.
      In my view, every politician & pundit seriously interested in I/P peace should emphasize over & over again that the cynical refugee charade has to end and that the “refugees” have to be given full citizenship & rights in the countries they were born and that UNRWA will be dissolved.
      There can be no question that this issue is at least as big an obstacle to any I/P peace agreement as continued settlement construction — yet, it is barely ever mentioned.

  2. There appear to be two permanent and opposite challenges for any blogger/journalist especially for those dealing with the Middle East: on one hand to promote appreciation of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies, transcending polemics and official propaganda, and on the other hand to simplify and sharpen just those crucial issues where public opinion can and should influence decision makers.

    When you state what “any Palestinian leader would be willing to sign on to” (or not), you may be overestimating the role of “willing” in politics. I’d rather ask, as you also hint to this question, whether he is capable of achieving a practical consensus on this issue among his own supporters, while not losing power to the (radical) opposition at the same time. One could argue that since the PA is not a real democratic representative who is accountable to public criticism, the leader could just go ahead and sign, if he truly wished to do so. But what value would such a treaty have for Israel and how reliably or sustainably could it address its security concerns? Alternatively, could the necessary framework for a broad regional accord, addressing the problems of the Palestinian refugees be carved out in the current Middle Eastern context? Or, is the evolving political climate going to be more conducive in the near term? I fear the answer in both cases is no, and I assume both Abbas and Netanyahu know it too. Given that, how much of a lifeline does a relatively “pragmatic”, secular and west-leaning Arab leader have left? Therefore, should Israel not consider a plan B, except, of course, if it plans to transplant itself to Alaska, as someone has suggested…? Maybe settling the “West-Bank” is meant to be that plan B? If yes, how?

    • Lots of good (or rather important) questions — to which I don’t necessarily have an answer myself. Much has been written over the past year or so to find a new approach for resolving the I/P conflict; among the in my view more promising initiatives is this one:
      — though I do have some major reservations about some of their views. There is also the very important attempt to tackle the refugee issue, as e.g. promoted by MK Einat Wilf and a recent initiative by US Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) demanding that there should be a distinction between the original 1948 refugees and their descendants.

      I’ve also long felt that Israel’s perhaps greatest mistake was not to “give back” Gaza to Egypt and (most of) the West Bank to Jordan. Given recent regional developments, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stick with this view, but I also think that the fact that at least 2/3 of Jordan’s population are Palestinians has been swept under the carpet for too long — meaning: the right is factually right when they say that Jordan is Palestine, and the fact that the West Bank Palestinians have been deprived of their Jordanian citizenship in 1988 should perhaps be challenged more often, since it’s anyway questionable how long East Bank Jordanians will be able to hold on to their privileged status vis a vis the majority of Jordanian Palestinians.

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