Tag Archives: settlements

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.”

The ever-growing settlements

Last week, James Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), published a post entitled “The Politics of Palestine.” It’s the usual lament about the endless oppression inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel (and its US supporters), and of course, there is the inevitable reference to the “ever-growing settlements” that make the Palestinians feel “increasingly squeezed.”

The fact that Zogby can rightly assume that even people who have only the foggiest idea about the Middle East will think that these “ever-growing settlements” are a major obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict illustrates perfectly how divorced from reality much of the commentary and debate on this subject really are.

As Zogby knows full well, the “ever-growing settlements” haven’t grown for many years.

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat acknowledged as much publicly when he stated in an interview last November that “despite Israel’s continual policy of ‘occupation and settlement building,’ an aerial photograph provided by European sources shows that settlements have been built on approximately 1.1% of the West Bank.”

Even before, this was no secret – though there were definitely attempts to conceal this fact: a news report from mid-2010 was featured in Ha’aretz with a headline announcing that “Israeli settlements control 42 percent of West Bank;” the subheader highlighted the claim that “21 per cent of the settlements’ built up areas lie on private Palestinian land,” but the report itself finally acknowledged that “the settlements’ built-up area is just one per cent of the territory.”

Years earlier, a report published in January 2003 documented that settlement watchdog groups like Peace Now and B’tselem estimated that the settlements were taking up between 1.4-1.7 percent of the West Bank. The report also pointed out that

“since their establishment nearly three decades ago, settlements have been the cause celebre of critics seeking to attribute the persistence of the conflict to Israeli policy. The criticism falls into two categories: moral/political arguments that settlements are ‘obstacles to peace,’ and legal claims that settlements are illegitimate or a violation of international norms. The pervasiveness of these claims masks the fact that, upon closer scrutiny, they are false, and they hide the true source of grievances and ideological fervor that fuel this conflict.”

When Saeb Erekat acknowledged last fall that just 1.1 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory had been gobbled up in some forty years of relentless Israeli settlement expansion, Evelyn Gordon asked at Commentary’s Contentions blog: “So if settlements cover only 1.1 percent of the West Bank, why does the entire West deem them the main obstacle to peace?” Answering her own question, she argued:

“Because admitting that settlements aren’t the main obstacle to peace would force it [i.e. the West] to confront an unpalatable truth: that the real obstacle to peace is Palestinian unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in any borders.

It’s not that evidence of this has ever been lacking. In July, for instance, a poll found that 66 percent of Palestinians view the two-state solution as a mere stepping-stone to Israel’s eradication. Last month, a whopping 89.8 percent of Palestinian respondents in another poll said they opposed waiving the “right of return” – their demand to eradicate the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with five million descendants of refugees – “even if [that means] no peace deal would be concluded.”

Similarly revealing is the fact that in the very same interview in which Erekat admitted that the settlements take up just 1.1 percent of the West Bank, he also acknowledged “that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had offered a final peace settlement that would include territorial concession equivalent to the entire West Bank, the return of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the West Bank,* and the division of Jerusalem.” Yet, Palestinian President Abbas explained in an interview with the Washington Post in May 2009 that he had not accepted Olmert’s proposals because the “gaps were wide.”

In this context it is also noteworthy that at the outset of the negotiations, Abbas had explicitly stated that the Palestinians were open to adjustments of the 1967 lines as long as they would end up with an equivalent of the “6,205 square kilometers” of territory that made up the Jordanian-ruled West Bank and the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip before the Six-Day-War in 1967. But when Olmert presented an offer that fulfilled these demands, Abbas still felt justified to claim that the “gaps were wide.”

Needless to say, none of this prevented the Palestinians and their supporters to continue repeating the popular mantra about the devastating impact of the “ever-growing settlements.” But anybody really interested in peace would have to address the problems of the ever-growing Palestinian “refugee” population consisting of millions of Palestinians who nurture the fantasy that they can claim a “right of return” to the places their grandparents left when the Arab states failed in their attempt to undo Israel’s establishment in 1948.

[*Note: since the return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank would be something decided by the Palestinians, Erekat presumably meant Olmert’s offer to accept some Palestinian refugees into Israel]

UPDATE:

At The Atlantic, Zvika Krieger has been debating with Robert Wright whether a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still possible. Krieger, who argues against Wright’s contention that it is “too late” because of the settlements, has outlined some of the long-known options for a border, and he has also provided an interesting post with some less well-known information about various plans and initiatives to deal with the challenges involved in moving up to 100 000 settlers out of the territories that would become part of a Palestinian state. Both of Krieger’s posts include a number of informative links; of particular interest is perhaps the website of the organization Blue White Future, which tries to work for creating conditions conducive to a two-state solution even in the absence of negotiations.