Has Palestinian Maneuvering Revived Peace Talks?

Lia Tarachansky and Shir Hever interview journalist Daoud Kuttab on how Mahmoud Abbas’ maneuvering may have led to talks extending

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SHIR HEVER, POLITICAL ECONOMIST AND ANALYST: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Shir Hever in Germany.

LIA TARACHANSKY, ISRAEL-PALESTINE CORRESPONDENT: And I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.

HEVER: And today we want to talk about the recent developments in the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority in Israel and the possible breakdown of the conversations.

TARACHANSKY: So in the last two weeks, we’ve sort of entered a crisis in these negotiations mediated by the United States. The crisis began when it became very clear that Israel is going to renege on its /lʌst/ commitment to release the last of the four batches of prisoners. This is a batch of 26 prisoners, of which 14 are Israeli citizens of Israel, prisoners that have been in Israeli jails since the early 1990s. And when it became clear that Israel is going to renege on this, the Palestinian Authority used the moment and signed 14 out of over 60 UN conventions. The U.S. special envoy, Martin Indyk, met with the two sides this week three times in just five days. And just on Friday we finally reached a point where it looks like we’re going to get back to the negotiations table. The negotiations were supposed to expire at the end of April, and it looks like both sides will commit to 9 to twelve more months. And part of the agreement is that Israel will indeed go forward with the release of the prisoners, and then the Palestinians won’t use the conventions that they signed to hold Israel accountable for any potential war crimes.

Some of the other things that happened is that on Wednesday the Israeli prime minister announced sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and also decided to withhold $100 million, which Israel collects as taxes on behalf of the PA–part of the Oslo agreements. As a result, Mahmoud Abbas then went to the Arab League and got the Arab League to sponsor these same $100 million so that the PA did not lose any ground. He never cut security ties. So, while this whole political game is going on, the Palestinian Authority continues to enforce the occupation on the ground on behalf of Israel.

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JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: The prisoners were due on the 29th, which was this Saturday. I am not going to get into the who/why/what/when/how of why we’re where we are today. We’re where we are today, and the important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward.

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JOURNALIST: After they weren’t released, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, nothing really major happened. Palestinians didn’t take any action. On Tuesday, the new Gilo announcement, settlement or construction announcement was made. It wasn’t until the next day, Wednesday, when we were in Brussels, that President Abbas came out and said that he was going to sign on to these UN conventions.

JEN PSAKI, SPOKESPERSON, U.S. STATE DEPT: Mhm. [snip] His view is that there were unhelpful steps by both sides.

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HEVER: What is actually the significance of the Palestinian Authority signing these 14 international conventions?

TARACHANSKY: I want to take a moment here and actually list some of the treaties that the Palestinians joined. So, of course, the four Geneva Conventions, including the convention on the rules of war and occupations. They signed the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention against Torture, and another accord against corruption.

HEVER: Yeah. So, actually, these conventions themselves are internal in nature. They mean that the Palestinian government is making a sort of commitment to treat its own people better.

TARACHANSKY: The way the Palestinian Authority’s presenting it is that they have four batches of these conventions, overall 60 conventions, that they’re going to sign as a stronghold in the negotiations.

So we’ve spoken to Daoud Kuttab, who’s a journalist with Al-Monitor. He’s been covering the negotiations for many years now.

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TARACHANSKY: In one of your pieces, you said that the signing of the UN treaties is a brilliant political maneuver on Abbas’s behalf that’s been received with a lot of pride. Can you talk about that?

DAOUD KUTTAB, JOURNALIST, AL MONITOR: Yes. The fact that Israelis reneged on releasing some of the prisoners gave, basically, Mahmoud Abbas an opportunity to multitask, I call it, that basically he could eat and chew and walk at the same time. In other words, he can still say the negotiations are on, and at the same time he could join some important international treaties. And so that, I think, was clever maneuvering.

Abbas is under a lot of pressure not to extend the peace talks because they will go nowhere, and the settlement activities–settlements had actually doubled in the time that the talks have been going on. Fifty Palestinians were killed in the time the talks have been going on. So there was a lot of pressure on Mahmoud Abbas by his own colleagues in the PLO movements, in his own Fatah movement, not to extend the talks. So he had to act and listen to his own constituency.

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HEVER: Well, the interesting thing here is that even though these conventions apply internally, both Israel and the United States are taking this very harshly. And Israel has responded to the Palestinian signing of these conventions with sanctions. And that’s a very interesting development, considering the fact that Palestinians under occupation have almost no leverage, no power of their own, and yet in this round they seem to have won.

TARACHANSKY: Yeah, and I think that this portrays Israel as very weak, because what is the unspoken thing here? In the end of the day, if the Palestinians sign their own convention and are able as a actual state to go to the International Criminal Court, there’s a whole onslaught of things that they can bring to the ICC to actually hold Israeli leaders accountable for various war crimes, including but not just the last major war in Gaza in 2009.

HEVER: And here the United States has also exposed its own cards in a very clear way when they refuse to say that it is Israel which broke its commitment to release Palestinian prisoners and that was the moment which broke the negotiations. But instead the United States is saying, well, both sides are to blame, and they’re not happy with the Palestinians actually committing to implementing international law.

TARACHANSKY: I wanted to take a minute and talk about how these moves are being covered in the Israeli press. If we take, for example, Haaretz, the main headline in the weekend edition is an article by Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury. And here they lay out something that has become very obvious, which is that the process is more about the process than it is about the peace. And just to quote here one of the things that they talk about clearly is that the Palestinians are very determined that if they’re going back to the negotiations table, the purpose of that is to get an actual agreement with concrete resolutions. And the purpose on the Israeli side is to continue the process of negotiations for the sake of continuing the negotiations.

The portrayal of this sort of break in the negotiations as some kind of crisis in the game is misleading, because I think that the crisis is the game. There’s no way that the two sides could have returned to the negotiations table without some kind of crisis. I think this would have collapsed the PA, and on the Israeli side it would seem like just a continuation of more of the same without any kind of yardstick along the way.

Now what’s interesting in this Yediot Ahronoth, which is the most read newspaper in Israel, the main article covering the so-called crisis in the negotiations finishes with this demand from Jerusalem, from Israel, of the Palestinians to commit–that the Palestinians commit to not use any of the UN conventions that they signed to hold Israel accountable.

HEVER: So this begs the question, why aren’t the Palestinians playing along with this? And here maybe we can hear something from Daoud Kuttab again.

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TARACHANSKY: In your assessment, do you believe that Abbas actually saw these negotiations as a good-faith process to reach an actual agreement?

KUTTAB: I do. I do think he has entered and I do think he’s serious about the negotiations. But, obviously, you know, he will–as he said himself, he will not sign anything and he will not give up everything just to sign a peace of paper. So I’ll give you an example. Last February, he invited 300 Israeli students, and he made a very strong statement basically diluting the right of return. He basically said, we don’t plan to flood Israel with refugees. And this was a courageous statement made by a Palestinian leader who himself is a refugee and who understands that there’s a lot of Palestinians who demand and insist on the right of return. So I don’t think he would have made that kind of a public compromise if he wasn’t interested in peace talks.

HEVER: Another way to look at this is that because Abbas is, anyway, close to retirement and probably not going to stay in a political role for very long is that he has very little to lose. And at this point he can continue the negotiations on the off chance that something good will happen from them, but if it doesn’t, at least he lost nothing.

But in the meantime, the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not getting any better.

TARACHANSKY: On the Israeli side, we’ve seen maneuvers from the far-right parties over the last three weeks to basically bring the government to a collapse into elections. So about two weeks ago, Minister Uri Ariel threatened to leave the coalition. After that, we’ve seen Lieberman suggesting that the next prime minister of Israel might be speaking Russian, referring to himself, of course. And even the head of the opposition has already supported the idea of early elections. Then, late on Thursday, Naftali Bennett, the head of the biggest party in Netanyahu’s coalition, said that if Israel actually upholds its end of the deal and releases the last batch of prisoners, his party’s going to leave the coalition. In the case that he does, I think it’s very safe to assume that the Labor Party will join the main coalition as they’ve done every step of the way, joining the powerful coalition, quote-unquote, for the sake of peace.

Now, if Netanyahu succeeds to somehow replace Bennett’s party with the Labor Party, he will be forming a even stronger coalition, right? Now he has 68 seats. With Labour he would have 71.

HEVER: I think a lot of these politicians are thinking about the year 2000 or the Second Intifada between 2004, where negotiations have collapsed under the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak from the Labor Party. And after the collapse of the negotiations, the Israeli coalition fell, there was another election, and a much more right-wing government was elected, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

TARACHANSKY: It’s not just the internal issues. Basically, today Israel is much more isolated and the boycott movement is far stronger.

HEVER: But at the same time, while the Israeli coalition is maybe at risk of collapsing, the Palestinian Authority itself, the institution, might be dismantled as well.

TARACHANSKY: And what would happen if they do that is that basically all responsibility for the civil administration in the occupied Palestinian territories, at least in the West Bank, would default to Israel as the occupying power.

Thank you very much for joining us in yet another chapter of these conversations. I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.

HEVER: And I’m Shir Hever in Germany. And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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