By Bilal Al-Hassan
Palestinian acceptance of direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions is in effect a return to square one in the process of political settlement between the two parties. The point of departure is, undoubtedly, the Oslo agreement signed in 1993. Seventeen years of negotiations starting from the Oslo agreement have returned things to zero. The only factor that is new on this occasion is that the negotiations are open and not secret, and that the American side which monitored the Oslo negotiations from afar, is now closely overseeing the Washington negotiations, this time with a magnifying lens.
The similarity between the two "negotiations" does not stop at the return to square one. There are other comparable points that are important to identify.
The first of these similarities is the existence of a cabal of undeclared persons, conducting the negotiations behind the scenes. In the Oslo negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas led this group, and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Alaa), was the one traveling and carrying in secret reports on the process it unfolded. Along with Mahmoud Abbas, there were other people such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, who were consulted, although not needed. The same thing is repeated now, as Mahmoud Abbas oversees the negotiations himself, while Yasser Abed Rabbo sits next to him. The only difference in this setting is that the two men are not asking themselves: What have we done? What have we achieved in 17 years? Why did we return to the starting point? The answer is of course well known, but the capitulators and powerless do not have an answer!
The second comparison is that the negotiations are carried out on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Seventeen years ago the PLO was used as a cover and camouflage; thus Yasser Arafat came out of a meeting of its Executive Committee which was convened to discuss the Oslo agreement (and did not decide on it) and went straight to a private meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway and signed a «document recognizing the right of Israel to exist – the so-called letters of mutual recognition». He later returned to the meeting with no one knowing what happened. Today, the same thing is repeated and the PLO is used as a cover to legitimize the decision to participate in the new negotiations. But what the Palestinian negotiator is getting is a forged legitimacy. A call for a meeting of the Executive Committee of the PLO, which is a committee made up of 18 people, was made, but only nine of them attended the meeting which did not complete the quorum needed to convene, and which in turn means that the meeting was illegal. Yet, they proceeded to work and debate when it transpired that those who agreed to negotiations were only five people, while four opposed it, who are representatives of four organizations allied with Fatah, and with Mahmoud Abbas. Despite all this, a statement was issued saying that the PLO's Executive Committee had met, discussed and agreed to enter into direct negotiations without preconditions. Hence the similarity between the forgery of 1993 and today, albeit with a slight variation and that is on the previous occasion it was done in secret last and now it is done in public!
The third element of similarity is that the Oslo agreement divided the Palestinian people at the time into two categories: supporters of the Oslo agreement and opponents. This constituted a serious division at that time, because the PLO had previously succeeded in uniting the political position of the Palestinian people (on the basis of armed struggle and the Palestinian National Charter). With the Oslo agreement, however, the united position of the people was shattered and the Palestinian street split into two camps. It later reunited after it became evident that negotiating process was an «absurd» exercise. Today, the Palestinian public is divided on the question of participating in the Washington negotiations with opponents here and supporters there. But the mood is different as only a minority stand with the supporters and a clear majority are opposed. If Mahmoud Abbas had ever succeeded in creating a cover for himself, represented in the leftist Palestinian factions such as the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, he has certainly lost this cover now. Both the PFLP and the DFLP have announced that they oppose participating in the negotiations. Mahmoud Abbas now stands alone in the confrontation with his own Fatah movement in Ramallah. If the PLO was defined as an organization uniting all factions in one political approach, it is now seen by all as the organization of the Ramallah based Fatah.
The fourth element of similarity between the Oslo negotiations and the negotiations in Washington is that the Oslo agreement was a strange kind of agreement – an agreement on nothing. It was an agreement to allow the Palestinian leadership to enter «Gaza and Jericho first» in order to begin the negotiations for self-rule. Thus, President Hafez al-Assad – may God have mercy on him – hit the nail on the head when he said: «What is this agreement?…! Each point in it needs a new agreement! ». Therefore negotiation and debate around this agreement continued for 17 years, until it reached point zero and back to the starting point to begin new negotiations, as if nothing had happened during those long years!
The key figures during that stage, among them Dr Nabil Shaath, head of the negotiation, used to say that the autonomy agreement, which constitutes the basis of the Oslo agreement, is based on 90 per cent of the land, and that negotiations with Israel will revolve around the remaining 10 per cent, which includes the settlements and the territory of Israeli military camps. Then came the bitter truth where the autonomy was based on only 22 per cent of the territory of the West Bank, and Israel remained in control of all that remained, taking control of the entire West Bank in 2002 under the leadership of Sharon!
Now the same narrative is repeated. The Palestinian negotiator says he is going to negotiations in order to seek the establishment of a Palestinian state during one year only. But the Israelis say different things and talk about a temporary Palestinian state. The Americans also say something else, and are looking with Israel for a formula for continuing Israeli settlement activity (within the settlements) which will satisfy the Palestinians at the same time…! Hence they sent their expert, Dennis Ross himself, to address this issue. This is a difficult equation, and the ones who know how to put it together are only three persons: the Israeli official, who imposes his conditions; the U.S. official, who hastens to support those requirements and the Palestinian official who is powerless, and who is always asked to endorse what is planned, so he stands in his office with his adviser, Yasser Abed Rabbo, hitting the palms of his hands, and asking himself: What should I do?! What's in my hands?! Can I confront America?! Then comes the answer of capitulation, with the recommendation and «legitimacy» of the Executive Committee of the PLO, even with the ratio of 5 members out of a total of 18 members!
Bilal Al-Hassan is a Palestinian author and writer
Source: Al Sharq Al Awsat
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.