Diplomacy: Return to sender

Why is no one in the PA upper echelon, except Saeb Erekat, willing to meet the Israeli prime minister?

Netanyahu, Fayyad 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem and Reuters)
Netanyahu, Fayyad 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem and Reuters)
Talk about an anti-climax.
For weeks, people speculated about a Palestinian Authority letter that Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was expected to deliver personally to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. This was to be followed by a letter in response that Netanyahu’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, would deliver some days later to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Granted this was not the historic September 9, 1993, exchange of letters between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, in which Arafat wrote that the PLO accepted Israel’s right to live in peace and security and Rabin wrote that Israel recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people.
No, this was expected to be an exchange of letters on a less grandiose scale, with the tone of the letters not conciliatory but rather combative. A lot has happened – and changed for the worse – since September 9, 1993.
But still. After more than three years of Palestinian refusal to enter into negotiations with Israel until Jerusalem meets its conditions, something Netanyahu has said he would not to do, this was something. Not much, but something.
Truth be told, this letter-delivering ceremony did not create much buzz abroad among an international community preoccupied with Iran and Syria, and apparently suffering from Middle East peace process fatigue. “Dueling letters, a new stage in Middle East diplomacy,” is not too dramatic a headline.
So the one element to lend any weight at all to the letter-delivery ceremony was the scheduled meeting between Netanyahu and Fayyad.
Strangely enough, according to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, the two men had never met. This was to be their first-ever head-to-head chat, as well as the first high-level meeting between Israelis and Palestinians since Abbas broke off a brief period of talks in September 2010.
And then – poof – even that little tidbit of drama evaporated when Fayyad decided not to come to the meeting. Instead, the letter – whose contents were speculated upon, and leaked out, for weeks in advance – was delivered by none other than Saeb Erekat.
Israeli governments come and go, even Arafat dies and Abbas takes his place, but Erekat is always, always there – the eternal “negotiator” at this game for more than 20 years.
As a result of Fayyad's absence, Erekat delivered the letter along with the head of Palestinian intelligence, Gen. Majad Faraj. And instead of the story being about the meeting, it inevitably became about why Fayyad decided not to show.
The reason the Palestinians gave for the lastminute change was that Fayyad did not want to meet Netanyahu on Palestinian “Prisoner Day.”
Although there might be something to that – a photograph with Netanyahu on a day set aside in the PA to show solidarity with prisoners in Israeli jails is not a recipe for rising prospects on the Palestinian street – but didn't Fayyad realize this beforehand? Was he not in possession of a calendar?
Rather, Fayyad’s no-show says much about the overall status of the diplomatic process.
In the Arab world today, including in the streets of Ramallah and Jenin, meeting with this Israeli government, perhaps any Israeli government, is not something that is going to win a lot of credit points among the public.
If you meet and negotiate, you are going to have to concede… at least something. But that does not go over well.
Look at the Palestinian Papers – the so-called Palileaks – from January 2011, and the degree to which Abbas and the PA leadership were skewered then for being seen in those records of negotiations with Israel as displaying a willingness to cede Gilo and Ramot(!), and even hinting that perhaps not all the descendants of Palestinian refugees will be “returning home.”
As a result of those leaks, Erekat actually had to resign as chief PLO negotiator, only to be reincarnated – the man of Teflon that he is – as merely a Palestinian negotiator.
What is important to realize about the Palestinian Papers leaked and tendentiously packaged by Al Jazeera and The Guardian – is that they were leaked before the Arab Spring, before Hosni Mubarak lost power in Egypt, and when he was still able to give legitimacy to Palestinians talking to Israelis.
Even then, however, the Palestinian leadership was raked over the coals for talking with then foreign minister Tzipi Lvini. And today? When talks will not be with Livni the “moderate,” but with Netanyahu the “hardliner?” Today, when there is no Egypt to give legitimacy to the talks?
Fayyad’s refusal to meet Netanyahu is telling – he apparently didn’t want to do Abbas’s dirty work. And, indeed, in the current atmosphere, meeting with Netanyahu is considered dirty work. That, after all, is why Abbas didn’t want to deliver the letter to the prime minister himself.
This bespeaks a troubling mentality now on the march in the region, a mentality that disdains conciliation with Israel and instead lionizes confrontation.
This is a mentality that is not new, and can be traced back decades. Consider the case of Anwar Sadat, the assassinated president of Egypt who, in return for signing a peace treaty, regained the entire Sinai Peninsula, down to the last grain of Taba sand; won a Nobel Peace Prize; and ensured that Egypt would receive billions of dollars of badly-needed US aid for years.
And how was Sadat thanked? With a rain of bullets fired by Islamic fundamentalists now poised – in one incarnation or another – to take control of Egypt.
So much for the conciliator. And the confrontationist? What of his fate?
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, gave nothing to Israel. No recognition, no handshakes, nothing but trouble. In return he received nothing – not the Golan Heights nor any kudos from the world. Yet he was so celebrated in the Arab world for his resistance to Israel that his son, his hand-picked successor, can butcher his own people as millions of Arabs around the region look on unresponsively. Where is Hamas’s outcry? Hezbollah’s? The PA’s?
No, in the Middle East – old and new – he who resists Israel is lionized; it is the conciliator who is ostracized.
Which, obviously, puts Abbas in a bind. He recognizes that the winning ticket now – especially now in the changing Middle East – is definitely not to be seen as someone who offers concessions to Israel as part of negotiations.
But how to resist? Abbas, to his credit, seems to have indeed ditched terrorism as a tactic, convinced it is bad for his people and their attempts to reach their goals.
Instead, he has embraced diplomatic confrontation. Defiance is popular, and his way of defiance is to abandon the track of negotiations that means compromise and conciliation in favor of another track: confrontation and coercion. Confront Israel diplomatically in the hope that the world will step in and coerce the Jewish state into doing what the Palestinians want.
Abbas’s decision not to meet Netanyahu, but instead to send a confrontational letter via a courier, is an act of defiance, of resistance. The courier’s decision to “call in sick” himself only doubly amplifies that confrontational stance.
And in the meantime nothing moves. A little motion – little gestures sending out a sign to the world that the sides are somehow still engaged, even if only through pen on paper – but no movement whatsoever.
Watching the events unfold this week, one is also left with the distinct feeling that the Palestinians are waiting – waiting for a change of government in Israel, waiting until after the elections in the US. Regarding waiting for a government change here, Musa Keilani, a former Jordanian ambassador and chief editor of Amman’s Al Urdun weekly, advised in a Jordan Times piece for the Palestinians to do just that.
“There is no hope of fruitful negotiations as long as the present coalition remains in power in Israel, since it is unable to take any realistic measures for peace with the Palestinians,” Keilani wrote. “Therefore, it would be wise if the Palestinians would wait for the next general elections in Israel and see whether there is any change in the coalition structure that will allow serious negotiations to be launched.”
One Israeli official, however, said it wasn’t just new elections in Israel the Palestinians were waiting for, but rather for elections in the US in November, believing that if US President Barack Obama wins another term, he will be freer to take the gloves off and “coerce” Israel.
The problem with that is twofold. First, Obama might not win. Secondly, even if he does there is no guarantee he will dance to the Palestinians’ tune, nor be able to get Israel to dance to his own.
It is said that Arafat rejected the generous parameters president Bill Clinton laid out just before leaving office in 2001 because of an assumption the Palestinians would get a better deal from George W. Bush – the son, after all, of George H.W. Bush. But Arafat was wrong. This is something the Palestinians should consider when adopting a policy of waiting. If this week is any indication, however, it seems they are not.