By Dr Mohsen Saleh
Israel has a negotiating strategy that is designed to prolong the negotiations allowing more time for the construction of facts on the ground, putting it in a position to impose its will on "final status" talks. In fact, the strategy can be broken down into ten distinct strategies, summarised thus:
The Israeli negotiating strategy is based on "conflict management", not "conflict resolution", which seeks to weaken opponents bit by bit until they are convinced that the only option for a solution is that which is made available by Israel; hence the prolonged negotiation process. As a result, Israel dismisses the international conference approach to find a comprehensive settlement and has refused to reveal its "trump cards", adopting instead a step by step policy. This breaks agreements into separate tracks, and fragments them further into stages.
Israel has benefited from its democratic system that serves mainly its Jewish citizens. Making good use of scientific institutions and research centres, as well as strategic and political experience, it manages the negotiating process with great professionalism, drawing on the power it has and the opportunities available.
The Zionist state has also benefited from the following:
a) The lack of parity in the balance of power in favour of Israel, which controls the land and people's lives, and has the military capability to defeat all of the Arab armies combined.
b) Strong international influence through the world Zionist movement, with its ability to influence decision-making in the West, particularly the United States.
c) Obvious divisions and weakness in the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim world.
d) Poor negotiating skills and management by the Palestinians, with their lack of experience, political vision and strategy, along with internal divisions, which Israel and its allies exploit to their advantage.
The Ten Strategies
1. There is, deliberately, a lack of official initiatives that could determine the form of a final agreement, leaving the field open to statements made by politicians, intellectuals and military leaders, without any official commitment. Hence, there are dozens of initiatives and ideas put forward, most of which are looking at Israel's problems, not those of the Palestinians. Most of these initiatives involve the introduction of some form of Palestinian government over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which is more about autonomy than an independent state.
Since the project of Yigal Allon emerged one month after the 1967 war, which suggested some form of autonomy for the Palestinians, it has became the basis for most Israeli projects that have followed.
Officially, the Israelis favour talking about what they reject, rather than what they will accept. For a long time Israel has had a mantra of "No" repeated regularly by politicians and officials, and adopted by most Israeli citizens:
i) No to the return of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians; "Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel".
ii) No to the return of Palestinian refugees to their land occupied by Israel in 1948.
iii) No to the removal of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
iv) No to a Palestinian state that is completely independent with complete control over its land and borders.
2) Keep the negotiating process going as long as possible, avoiding "final status" talks, while also avoiding reaching a dead end, which might force Palestinians to conclude that they have no option but resistance to reach an agreement. The Israelis want "negotiations" to have a permanent presence in the arena, pushing the Palestinian and Arab negotiators to pursue the "carrot" of peace and giving themselves time to build more facts on the ground.
3) The Israelis welcome Arab and Palestinian initiatives, taking whatever concessions they have as acquired rights, then building upon them to demand new initiatives to achieve new concessions.
Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian and Arab negoiators focus on initiatives for resolving the conflict. The Israelis seek only to manage it. The Palestinians and Arabs operate within a state of weakness and fragmentation and face a lot of external pressure, including calls to be realistic. They have, therefore, often included ever new concessions in their initiatives in order to make them attractive to the Israelis, who promptly welcome the concessions and demand more.
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was created in 1964 with the aim of liberating all of Palestine occupied in 1948 (the state of Israel). In 1968 the PLO adopted the idea of one democratic state for all, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, including immigrants and the Zionist settlers. Furthermore, in 1974 the PLO adopted a ten-point programme to establish a state on any part of Palestine that is freed or from which Israelis "withdraw". By 1988 it had adopted the resolution of partitioning Palestine, and agreed to UN Resolution 242, which deals with the cause of Palestine as an issue of refugees; it renounced "terrorism" and attended the Madrid Conference in 1991 and signed the "self-rule" agreement in Oslo in 1993.
The Arab regimes have moved from the elimination of Israel to removal of the effects of the 1967 war, and the approval of the Rogers initiative in 1970, and then to the initiative of the Fez summit 1982, and finally the Arab initiative of 2002. Israel has simply moved into more and more Palestinian land.
4) Informal negotiations are encouraged between unofficial Israeli parties or those with little influence on policy-making and officials on the Palestinian side who are linked to the decision-making process, in order to get concessions in advance from the Palestinians without any hint of Israeli commitment in return. This happened with the understandings of Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas in 1995, and the Geneva Act in 2003.
In the talks between of Beilin and Abbas the Palestinians gave concessions on the right of return of refugees to the land occupied in 1948, and agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state, the survival of many Israeli settlements and the Palestinian capital to be in Jerusalem in an area like the village of Abu Dis. The Geneva Act introduced similar concessions on refugees, settlements, a demilitarized Palestinian state and Jerusalem.
What is important is that the Palestinian side offered crucial concessions at an early stage, including some that could not be disclosed to the Palestinian people. The Israelis regard such concessions as precedents on which to build and rights which they have acquired. Even though these understandings are not binding to the parties, it is clear that the Israelis use such concessions in subsequent initiatives.
Observers today note that the Israelis act as if they have finished with the issue of the refugees' return, the settlement blocs and the demilitarized state with incomplete sovereignty, and now just have to resolve the future of Jerusalem.
5) "Dirty" tactics against the Palestinians – putting intense pressure on the negotiators to give way and accept an imposed solution – include the siege of Gaza, assassinations and arrests, land confiscation, house demolitions, closures, the wall, barriers, settlement building, the Judaisation process, checkpoints, delaying the implementation of agreements, and so on. All are intended to terrorise and weaken the resolve of the Palestinian people.
These conditions make the alleviation of any suffering look like a major gain, and the cessation of illegal acts by Israel – such as settlement building, for example – look like a major concession. The application of legal rights becomes something to be negotiated.
6) Israel seeks to remove Palestinian pressure points, such as separating their joint negotiations from the so-called Arab track and pushing the PLO to renounce "terrorism" (actually lawful resistance to the illegal occupation of their land), forcing it by default to confront those Palestinians for whom resistance remained a legitimate way to challenge the occupation. At the same time, there was no set date for the ending of the negotiations, and no reference point to bind Israel such as the United Nations and its resolutions. Nor did any agreement call for Israel to stop settlement activity, land confiscation and the Judaisation of Jerusalem while negotiations were being held. Thus, issues are linked to the "generosity" of Israel and whatever crumbs it wishes to throw from the table.
7) In order to prevent the Arabs from working as one strong bloc, different "tracks" are created to divide Israel's opposition and strengthen the Israeli position. So Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, for example, negotiate in isolation from each other, just as Israel is seeking to separate Lebanon and Syria.
8) No intervention of any outside party – the UN, USA or Europe, for example is to be tolerated if it does not fit with Israeli interests. This way Israel gets to decide what is discussed and what to give with no external pressure whatsoever pushing it to commit to anything. In Oslo there was no independent reference point that could bind Israel to end the negotiations within a specific timeframe. After the agreement, the United Nations was no longer the international umbrella managing the conflict. UN resolutions concerning Palestinian rights to self-determination and so on are no longer the reference points to be invoked in discussions. The United States continued to play the role of the sponsor of the "peace process", while the United Nations, Europe, Russia and others left the process of negotiations to the results of bilateral talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.
9) Israel divides negotiations into a myriad of details making it difficult to move forward on any one without absolute agreement on all. This ties up dozens of negotiators for hundreds of hours in bilateral, multilateral and international meetings. The result is that for Palestinians to obtain even the most basic of their legal rights appears to be a hugely significant victory and a painful Israeli concession. The problem with Oslo is that it sought to deal with too many details before agreeing on basic principles and desired outcomes. The same is true of negotiations from 1993-1999, in Cairo, Taba, Wye River and Sharm el-Sheikh. First it was Gaza Jericho, then the division of the West Bank into areas "A", "B" and "C", with special status for the city of Hebron; and then designing special tracks for settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and the borders. Then came the fragmentation of the already small pieces. On the settlement issue, there are settlement blocs, there are "legal" settlements, there are random and security settlements, there are those already annexed to Israel in East Jerusalem, and there are others that will be annexed behind the wall, and so on.
10) Buying time and evading the obligations of the agreement process. The Israelis have devoted themselves to avoiding any set dates for final status talks; nothing escapes from their procrastination and delaying tactics. Even when dates have been set – for the establishment of a Palestinian state first by 1998 and then by 2005 – the deadlines have been missed. All the while, of course, settlement building continues and more Palestinian land is taken by Israel, and the Palestinian Authority is pressured to fulfil all of its obligations, usually for the benefit of Israel, not the Palestinian people.
Thus, the Israeli strategy is designed to prolong the negotiations while continuing to create new facts on the ground. In the end, the Palestinians would be left with no means to influence the process and with nothing to negotiate except the limited options dictated by Israel.
Dr Mohsen M. Saleh is the General Manager of Al Zaytouna Centre for Studies & Consultations in Beirut, Lebanon
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.