Israeli-Palestinian talks have been a triumph of form over content

Faisal al-Yafai
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The deal of the century is only the start of the process. Every few years, there is a new proposed peace deal or a new attempt at negotiations in the long-running and seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Each time, in addition to the detail of the proposals, there is also the political calculation of negotiations: the optics of how the deal is presented, who is perceived to win and who to lose, and how each side should deal with the public reception to the plan. Call it political poker. And in the carefully scrutinized conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, this game of poker is one of the least studied aspects.

Understanding the tactics both sides have used starts with understanding their limitations.

For the Palestinian side, the negotiating table is institutionally tilted against them, because they are not in control of their own territory, their own borders or even their own economy.

It is also tilted because of the Israeli state’s close military and political relationship with the United States, which the Palestinians don’t have, which means American politicians are always better informed and more sensitive towards Israeli positions than Palestinian ones.

In theory, that could be a positive, along the lines of “Nixon going to China” – that just as only a committed anti-communist president could open up the United States to China without arousing suspicions, so it would take a staunchly pro-Israeli American president to finally persuade Israeli politicians to make painful compromises. In practice, that has not happened.

If the Israelis have US institutional power on their side, the Palestinians have sought to counter this by courting global public opinion. The Palestinians have been very good at internationalizing the conflict, at making a resolution of the conflict one people around the world feel they have a stake in.

Although, in truth, Palestinians inside the occupied territories have been rather less good at telling their story than Palestinians abroad, in general global public opinion, confirmed in survey after survey, is firmly on the Palestinian side, seeing Israel as the obstacle to a resolution.

It is in the spaces between these two poles that most of the negotiation has taken place, with views on a resolution to the conflict shifting between security for Israel and justice for the Palestinians.

Two examples highlight how that works in practice.

The Camp David summit of 2000 was the last time those two external elements – American political power and global public opinion – coalesced behind a particular deal. Because of that, it has been vitally important for the perception of the peace process that blame for the failure of the summit is allocated. Numerous books have been written in the two decades since to try to blame the Israeli or the Palestinian side, because it is essential to the political game of poker that one side is seen to be unreasonable.

Where the Palestinian side did miss an opportunity in 2000 was to believe that the summit and the later declaration of the Clinton accords, general guidelines for how a two-state solution could be negotiated, had settled the parameters of the conflict, and that any future negotiations would be conducted within that framework.

In fact what happened was that a new century brought a new American president and a new Israeli prime minister, neither of whom sought peace based on the Clinton accords. The September 11th, 2001 attacks ushered in a new securitized era. The incremental negotiations of the 1990s were washed away.

A year later, Israeli leaders also missed an opportunity for a peace deal, when they rejected the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The proposal by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah remains the most far-reaching deal the international community has offered the Israelis.

But crucially it was also the last time the understandings of the Camp David era formed the basis of a deal. It was a clear attempt to draw a line under the conflict, without endless negotiations.

The fallout from the rejection of the API led directly to the founding of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to punish Israel for the occupation.

The growth of the BDS campaign has taken power away from both Tel Aviv and Ramallah, shifting a final acceptance of any deal from players on the ground to broader public opinion. It did not seem that way initially, but it is a deeply consequential shift: any deal that is accepted by Israeli and Palestinian leaders will now need to be accepted by an amorphous group of campaigners, groups and institutions around the world. In the same way as the anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, BDS shifted responsibility for justice on to the wider world.

Those same negotiation tactics and considerations are now at play with Donald Trump’s new deal. Israelis, Palestinians and their supporters now face the question of whether to engage and to what degree.

Suspecting that the deal would be unfair to them, the Palestinian leadership boycotted the discussions. Even supporters of the Palestinians, in the Arab world and beyond, are unsure how to respond to the deal. Supporting it is difficult when the Palestinians have rejected it so overtly, and when the leadership wasn’t involved. But for others, the optics of outright rejection are bad, and they believe the deal ought to form the basis for some negotiation, to see if there is at least a foundation for future talks.

These tactical considerations are still playing out, hence why there is so much public discussion about what the negotiating position should be, and less about the detail of the proposals.

The words on the page are one thing; how both sides respond to them is what will ultimately decide the deal’s fate.


Faisal al-Yafai is an award-winning journalist, essayist and playwright. He has been an investigative journalist for The Guardian in London and a documentary journalist for the BBC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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