Civil Fights: Mahmoud Abbas's new rules of diplomacy

Civil Fights Mahmoud Ab

With so much attention understandably focused on the Palestinian Authority's efforts to get Israel prosecuted for so-called "war crimes" in Gaza, the other obstacle to renewed peace talks is receiving less scrutiny than it deserves. The PA's demand that talks with Binyamin Netanyahu resume from where they broke off under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, is nothing less than a demand to completely rewrite the principles of diplomacy. Were it accepted, countries would no longer be bound only by signed agreements. Instead, they would be bound by any offer ever made during negotiations, even if the offer were rejected by the other party. A brief recap: In September 2008, when he had already resigned as prime minister but not yet left office, Olmert made PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas a far-reaching offer. The offer, which Olmert and his advisors later detailed to various media outlets, and which Abbas confirmed to The Washington Post, gave the Palestinians even more than the 1996 Clinton plan, long considered the blueprint for any agreement. It included an Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, with territorial swaps to compensate for the remainder; international control over Jerusalem's holy sites, with Muslim countries holding three of the governing body's five seats; and a symbolic absorption by Israel of some 5,000 Palestinian refugees. It was backed by a detailed map of the proposed border. According to Israeli reports, Abbas wanted a copy of the map, and Olmert replied, "if you sign it, you can have it." Abbas requested a day to think it over and promised to return for another meeting the next day. But Abbas never returned; he never even called. Olmert remained in office for another six months, but throughout that time he heard nothing from Abbas. In February, he made one final effort, using US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an intermediary, but to no avail. Only in May 2009 did he finally learn - via Abbas's Washington Post interview - what the PA chairman thought of his offer: He rejected it, Abbas told the paper, because "the gaps were wide." Now, Abbas is demanding that the offer he rejected become the starting point for future negotiations. "There were maps prepared by both sides and proposals for territorial swaps, so we can't go back to square one," he told the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat last month. He has reiterated this position in discussions with American officials, vowing not to resume the talks unless it is accepted. In short, he is demanding that Israel be bound not by signed agreements, but by an offer to which he never even deigned to respond. Nor is he alone in this demand. Just last week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told his country's Armed Forces paper that it would be "unreasonable and unacceptable" for talks not to begin where they left off, while Jordan's King Abdullah II made similar comments to Haaretz. WERE THIS position actually accepted, the consequences for all diplomacy, worldwide, would be devastating. First, if negotiators fear that offered concessions will bind their governments even if no agreement is reached, they will be loath to offer such concessions, making it impossible ever to conclude any agreement. After all, no country wants to forfeit negotiating assets without receiving anything in exchange. Yet that is the meaning of Abbas's demand: Once a concession is offered, it remains on the table even if the other side offers nothing in exchange, and can thus no longer be traded for reciprocal concessions. Second, this eliminates a crucial tool that all negotiators and mediators use in trying to close deals: the threat that an offered concession will no longer be available tomorrow, so it is in the other party's interest to say yes today. Under the Abbas principle, any concession, once offered, would always be available, so saying yes is contrary to the other party's interest: It is better off waiting to see what additional concessions might be forthcoming. But beyond its consequences for diplomacy, this principle would also destroy a fundamental democratic right: the public's right to replace a government whose policies it opposes. A decisive majority of Israelis voted for parties opposed to Olmert's concessions precisely because they deemed his offer reckless. But should Abbas's demand be accepted, the policy Israel's majority rejected would nevertheless remain in force. In other words, voters would no longer have the right to change their country's foreign policy; they would be limited to replacing the personnel administering this policy. Granted, all democracies accept such limits in one particular case: Signed, ratified agreements - which require parliamentary or popular approval and apply to both sides - obligate subsequent governments regardless of those governments' views. But under the Abbas principle, any lone negotiator - even one who, like Olmert, had already been so repudiated that his own government compelled him to resign - would have the power to bind his country's future governments while imposing no reciprocal obligations on his interlocutors, merely by offering a concession that the other side rejected. Acceding to Abbas's demand would obviously sound the death knell for the peace process. Not only can Netanyahu's government not accept some of Olmert's concessions, but it would be deterred from offering any concessions of its own by the knowledge that these would be deemed binding even were no agreement reached. And Abbas would have no incentive to sign anything if he could instead keep pocketing concessions without offering anything in exchange. For this reason alone, one would have expected the West to unceremoniously reject this condition. Astoundingly, however, neither the US nor the European Union has yet done so publicly, nor is there any indication that they have even done so privately. Their silence becomes even more incomprehensible when one considers the destructive implications of this principle for both democracy and diplomacy in general. It would be a pity if brand-new Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama, who won precisely for striving "to strengthen international diplomacy" by preferring "dialogue and negotiations" as the means of resolving international conflicts should be the very person to render those tools utterly ineffective.