Diplomacy: Treading water in a raging river

Concerns about what the PA will do at the UN have morphed into what the PA will do if Israel does not present ‘comprehensive’ proposals.

Abbas meets Mashaal in Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hams/Handout)
Abbas meets Mashaal in Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Al Hams/Handout)
The end of January is now the new September.
Remember September, that month of our collective fears; that month when the Palestinian Authority was taking its statehood bid to the United Nations? September was the month Defense Minister Ehud Barak predicted would unleash a diplomatic tsunami and the month during which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the Palestinians were planning “the worst violence and spilling of blood that we have ever seen.”
Yet September came and went and the tsunami didn’t materialize; the third intifada didn’t break out.
And now since that particular bullet was dodged, all eyes are on the end of January.
January 26, to be exact: the end of the 90-day period the Quartet – comprised of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN – gave Israel and the Palestinians to come up with “comprehensive proposals on territory and security.”
Senior officials representing the Quartet, along with the Quartet’s envoy Tony Blair, came to Jerusalem on October 26 for separate talks with representatives of the parties to see how they were moving along on restarting direct negotiations. This visit was a followup to a Quartet meeting held at the UN on September 23 that laid down yet another new path toward jumpstarting the long-stalled direct talks. That Quartet meeting was held the same day PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was applying for UN statehood.
Under the Quartet’s plan, the Palestinians and the Israelis were to meet directly within 30 days (by October 23) to agree to an agenda and method of negotiation.
At that meeting they were to agree that the objective was to come to an agreement by the end of 2012.
The Quartet, and this is important in understanding why January 26 is now looming so large, also said that it “expects the parties to come forward with comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security.”
So what happened? Well, predictably, both sides embraced the proposal, not wanting to be seen as the side saying no to the Quartet. Yet the Palestinians still clung to the demand that they would only talk if Israel stopped building beyond the Green Line, so that first meeting within 30 days to agree to an agenda never took place.
Instead, the Quartet representatives came to Jerusalem on October 26 to meet separately with the sides. After that meeting, they issued the following statement: “Both parties expressed their readiness to engage with the Quartet, on the basis of its statement of 23 September, to overcome the current obstacles and resume direct bilateral negotiations without delay or preconditions. The parties agreed with the Quartet to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months in the context of our shared commitment to the objective of direct negotiations leading toward an agreement by the end of 2012.”
And that’s where the trouble begins.
The Palestinians, reading that statement, saw in it what they wanted. They saw an opening to pursue a tactic of intensively involving the world in the diplomatic process.
The Palestinians wanted to leverage that statement to their favor, read it to mean that both sides were to come up independently with proposals on territory and security and give them to the arbiter – now the Quartet, no longer solely the US. The arbiter would look at the proposals and then decide.
This works well for the Palestinians because inside the Quartet – if all components are equal and one can make very sweeping generalizations – the composition is three voices supporting Palestinian positions (Russia, the UN and the EU) against one supporting Israel’s (the US).
Israel, on the other hand, read the October 26 statement, put it together with the statement from September 23 and – after consulting with Washington – came up with a different conclusion altogether.
Jerusalem didn't read the statement as a call for indepth proposals to be sent to a mediator, but rather for in-depth proposals to be put forward after 90 days of intense direct negotiations. You don't come up with proposals before the negotiations, but rather 90 days after they have started, this argument ran. Otherwise, why negotiate? Only in negotiations can Israel gauge what security guarantees it will get, which will then determine what territorial concessions it can make.
As a result of these different interpretations, this week the Palestinians made it known that they delivered to the Quartet a set of proposals and then complained loudly that Israel hadn’t reciprocated. And Israel, indeed, won’t be reciprocating. As one senior government official explained to the Post this week, Israel has absolutely no intention of going back to a new round of proximity talks with the Palestinians. If the Palestinians want to hear the Israeli proposal, they will have to sit face-to-face across from the Israelis.
Which sets January 26 as the new deadline. The Palestinians, according to assessments in Jerusalem, will wait until that date, and then when Israel does not respond to any new proposal, review their tactics.
Might they return to the UN? Might they resort to violence? Senior government officials said this week that it was anybody’s guess and that the Palestinians themselves were not yet sure about what their next tactical move might be.
The January 26 date has also served another purpose: it is largely responsible for the PA shelving its UN gambit, at least for the time being. And putting the UN moves on hold was the reason the government decided this week to free up the $100 million in PA tax funds that the government has held up since the beginning of the month.
Israel, according to senior government sources, was assured by key international interlocutors following the PA’s acceptance to UNESCO earlier this month – when Israel, in reaction, clamped the freeze on the funds – that the Palestinians had decided not to move forward at this time with trying to get various UN institutions to recognize it as a state.
The decision was made, according to information received in Jerusalem, based on two considerations.
First, the overall UN bid was not working as well as the Palestinians thought it would. The PA, according to this reasoning, realized they would not be able to muster the necessary nine votes in the Security Council to force a US veto and be able to paint the whole issue as one in which the entire world was clamoring for the UN to recognize a Palestinian state, with only Israel – and the US, which does its bidding – standing in the way. A great moral victory.
Secondly, after UNESCO voted to accept Palestine as a member state in early November, the Palestinians started to feel pushback from various different quarters.
Their whims, they were told, could severely cripple the UN system, since according to US legislation, any of the UN’s 17 specialized agencies that voted to include Palestine as a member state would – like UNESCO – face the automatic cutoff of US funds.
This is not a prospect relished by organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, which in 2010 received 25 percent of its budget from the US; the International Labor Organization, which that same year received 23% of its money from Washington; the World Health Organization (23%); or the World Meteorological Organization (21%).
Nor was the US, which under the Obama administration places a premium on multilateralism and a value on the UN, keen on seeing this issue chip away at the UN system.
And the Palestinians, according to senior sources in Jerusalem, made a decision not to go head-to-head with the US over the issue.
In early November the Palestinians relayed the message that they were pulling back from their UN moves, something Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said this week was the prime reason for his decision to release the PA tax funds. But, he warned, the PA was doing this temporarily.
That temporary respite could – conceivably – come up again on January 26 when, as a result of Israel’s refusal to provide comprehensive proposals without engaging the Palestinians in direct negotiations, the PA might again return to the UN path.
Quartet statements are carefully drafted and worded documents that – through the use of language – often artfully try to let each side see in it what it wants. This is charitably referred to as “creative ambiguity.”
In this case it is the diplomatic equivalent of “kicking the can down the road.”
Although this approach is ultimately a dangerous game, because at some point the ambiguity will have to be clarified and decisions made – in the meantime it has bought more time. And it has bought time at a sensitive moment when neither Israel, the US, the EU, nor the PA want to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue blow up. Not at a time when Egypt is turning toward political Islam, when Syria is exploding, when Iran remains a huge question mark, when US President Barack Obama stands in the starting blocks of the 2012 election and when the EU is peering into an economic abyss.
With all these events swirling around, it is indeed a good time to kick the Israeli-Palestinian can down the road. The Quartet – with creative ambiguity and new deadlines – has succeeded in doing this since September, creating a perception of motion even though only the most naïve believe it will lead to any real movement. This is a moment of motion without movement, otherwise known as treading water.
But before scoffing or being completely dismissive, consider that treading water in a rushing, raging river is no mean achievement – and far better than drowning.