Analysis: Diplomatic theater, not diplomacy

True diplomacy would be if PA President Abbas would meet Netanyahu himself, give him letter with Palestinian positions.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Tuesday for the first time ever, diplomatic theater – rather than true diplomacy – will be on display.
True diplomacy would be if PA President Mahmoud Abbas would meet Netanyahu himself and give him a letter stating the Palestinian negotiating positions.
Israel could then respond a week later with Netanyahu going to Abbas and presenting him with a letter spelling out Israel’s positions. Those two letters could then form the starting positions from which the two sides would start, and the goal of the negotiations would be to narrow the gaps – such is diplomacy.
Diplomatic theater, however, is when one side presents a letter laying out preconditions that the other side has rejected a thousand times in the past, knowing full well that they will reject them again this time as well. That is not diplomacy, but rather diplomacy as show.
The various drafts that have emerged of Abbas’s much discussed letter to Netanyahu indicated that the document – whether worded antagonistically or toned down a bit – will be little more than an ultimatum.
The Palestinians will lay down their narrative, and then say that they will enter negotiations only if Israel stops all settlement construction, accepts the pre-1967 lines as the baseline of talks, and frees Palestinian prisoners jailed before the signing of the Oslo accords.
If Israel does not accept those conditions, the letter is expected to say, then – depending on which draft of the letter will be the one ultimately handed over – the PA will go back to the UN seeking unilateral statehood recognition, or throw all responsibilities in the West Bank back on Israel, or dissolve itself. This does not represent the opening position of negotiations, but rather an either/or proposition. Either accept the terms – terms the Palestinians have set out for months and which Israel has rejected – or drastic steps will be taken.
The question that arises, however, is why go through the motion of presenting a letter. If the Palestinians are essentially going to say the same thing in their letter that they have said for the last three years in avoiding negotiations with Netanyahu, then why bother with the whole letter business in the first place?
The answer is simple: Theatrical effect.
Since the PA’s gambit for unilateral statehood recognition failed at the UN in September, two things have happened: the Palestinians have fallen off the world’s radar screen, replaced by Syria and Iran; and they have been under pressure to enter negotiations. The pressure has not only come from the US, but also from the EU and the Quartet.
Indeed, the Quartet just last week called for a return to negotiations.
What the Palestinians need to do is both get back on the world’s agenda and demonstrate to the international community that they really do want to negotiate, but that it is Israel and its settlement construction that is holding up the process. With the Fayyad meeting the Palestinians hope to both regain some of the world’s lost attention and also say, “Look, we went that extra step, we were even willing to meet Netanyahu and deliver him a letter, but he still refuses to negotiate.”
Blame him, not us is the theme the Palestinians hope the world will take away from Tuesday’s letter-giving exercise. The letter is a prop in this show.
Only fools, however, underestimate the importance of props. And Netanyahu, who routinely uses all kinds of props during his speeches to grab and keep attention, is no fool.
This is a prime minister who understands props. For instance at a press conference earlier this month to mark three years of his government, he drew a tree to grab attention – a prop. At his AIPAC speech in Washington last month he waved an exchange of letters from the World Jewish Congress to the US War Department during the Holocaust – a prop. And at the UN in 2010 he unfurled the original blueprints of Auschwitz to blast the UN for having invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak – another prop.
Netanyahu does not intend to be out-propped by the PA, and has already made clear that within days of receiving Abbas’s letter, he will write one himself to the Palestinian leader. He will not leave the Palestinian letter unanswered; he will not leave that field of play wide open for the Palestinians.
But after the dust has cleared from both missives, the sides at the end of the month will probably be pretty much at the same place that they are today: stalemated, with Abbas again waiting either for Netanyahu to fall (unlikely), or for US President Barack Obama to feel sufficiently empowered if he wins the elections in November to force Israel’s hand. In the meantime, Abbas will likely again try his hand at the UN and in various international forums, because even if the script is well worn and tired, somehow the diplomatic show must go on.