Prospects for negotiations

They're not as bleak as some may believe. On the face of it there are good signs, but why isn't anyone uncorking the champagne?

olmert abbas euromed 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert abbas euromed 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Despite the appearance of political stalemate on the Palestinian-Israeli front, a possible breakthrough seems closer than in the past. Various pieces of the puzzle appear to be falling in place following both the Palestinian and Israel elections. Three interesting statements were made within 24 hours of the Israeli elections and they give us a glimpse of what might be lying ahead. Ehud Olmert, whose Kadima Party netted the largest number of Knesset seats, made a peaceful overture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas calling for face to face negotiations aimed at producing peace. Abbas didn't wait long, initiating a congratulatory phone call to the Israeli leader and agreeing to participate in meaningful negotiations that can be wrapped up within on year. Within this same 24 hour cycle, the new Hamas prime minister Ishmael Haniyeh made some positive peace overtures. Speaking to reporters after swearing in his government in front of Abbas, Haniyeh said that his government is not opposed to the idea of Olmert and Abbas negotiating. We will be happy to see what the president (Abbas) will offer us and will respond to it, he said to the tens of TV cameras stationed outside the president's office. So here we have it. A newly elected centrist Israeli leader promises peace talks, an internationally acceptable Palestinian counterpart agrees and the head of popularly elected radical government gives a green light. On the face of it all these are good signs, but why isn't anyone uncorking the champagne (or a similar drink acceptable to devout Muslims)? BEHIND OLMERT'S call for face to face negotiations is his party's unilateral plan for deciding how small the Palestinian state should be. Of course, Olmert talks about the permanent borders of Israel, but in fact the problem is simply what will be left for Palestinians once Olmert negotiates among Israelis, and with the US, as to how far the Israeli army should be pulled back. One of the basic principles of negotiations (whether in politics or business) is the availability of credible alternatives. Olmert's promise to negotiate with a Palestinian partner will be closer to a diktat rather than a negotiation between equals. At every stage of the talks, the Kadima leader will threaten to declare the absence of a credible Palestinian partner (as has been the case ever since the last serious talks in Taba during the final days of Ehud Barak's government) and threaten to return to the unilateral mode ala Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas's negotiating abilities will be more curtailed than in the past. It is clear that once again the Palestinian negotiating power is mostly a negative one. Just like during the Camp David II talks, the Palestinian negotiators will have little more than the ability to say no to whatever deal Olmert might offer. One difference does exist now. The existence of the Islamic Hamas movement in the government and in the parliament will mean that the positions that Abbas presents will have to pass the test of the present Hamas-led government. It has not yet recognized Israel nor presented any credible political plan. But in various press interviews senior Hamas leaders have suggested the idea of a public referendum if the issue of recognizing Israel would have to be dealt with. The key issue will continue to be how the Israelis will want to handle the upcoming talks. If they will act as in the past, the real negotiations will be within Israel or between Israel and Washington. In many ways the threat of turning to the unilateral plan by Ehud Olmert and the threat of turning to Hamas by President Abbas might be just the right formula to get both parties to try and work for an acceptable solution. For the negotiations to work, however, a serious cease-fire agreement (or an understanding like the understanding with Hizbullah) is needed to be followed by confidence-building measures and then serious talks, preferably away from the camera and press leaks. The writer is founder and director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.