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Ten Israeli Negotiating Strategies

Al Ahram weekly

Monday 25 جمادى الأولى 1431, by Mohsen Saleh

All the versions of this article:

  • English

Israel has a negotiating strategy that is designed to prolong the negotiations, allowing more time for the construction of facts on the ground and putting it in a position to impose its will on the "final-status" talks. In fact, the strategy can be broken down into 10 distinct sub-strategies, done in the article that follows.

Overall, the Israeli strategy is based on conflict management, not conflict resolution, and it seeks to weaken its opponents bit by bit until they are convinced that the only option for a solution is the one made available by Israel — hence Israel’s prolonged negotiation process.

As a result, Israel dismisses the international conference approach to finding a comprehensive settlement, and it has always refused to reveal its trump cards, instead adopting a step-by-step policy in negotiations. This policy breaks agreements into separate tracks and then fragments them further into stages.

Israel has also benefited from its democratic system, which mostly serves only its Jewish citizens. Making good use of its scientific institutions and research centres, as well as its strategic and political experience, it manages the negotiating process with great professionalism, drawing on its power and the opportunities that are available to it.

Israel has benefited from a lack of parity in the balance of power in its favour, since it controls the land and people’s lives and has the military capability to defeat all the Arab armies combined. It has benefited from its strong international influence through the world Jewish and Zionist movements and its ability to influence decision-making in the West, particularly in the United States.

Moreover, Israel has been able to exploit divisions and weaknesses in the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim world. It has also been able to exploit poor negotiating skills and management by the Palestinians, who lack experience, political vision and overall strategy and suffer from internal divisions that Israel and its allies are able to exploit to their advantage.

The first of Israel’s 10 negotiating strategies means that there is always a deliberate 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 have been dozens of initiatives and ideas put forward, most of which regard Israel’s problems and not those of the Palestinians. Most of these initiatives have involved the introduction of some form of Palestinian government over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, all of which are more about autonomy than about an independent state.

Ever since the project of Yigal Allon emerged one month after the 1967 war that suggested some form of autonomy for the Palestinians, projects of this sort have become the basis for most of what has followed.

Officially, the Israelis favour talking about what they reject, rather than what they will accept. For a long time, Israel has repeated a mantra of "no" reiterated by politicians and officials and adopted by most Israeli citizens. This has meant no to the return of East Jerusalem to the Palestinians, since in Israel’s view "Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel." It has also meant no to the return of Palestinian refugees to their land, occupied by Israel in 1948.

It has meant no to the removal of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and no to a Palestinian state that is completely independent with complete control over its land and borders.

Israel’s second strategy is to keep the negotiating process going as long as possible, avoiding final-status talks while also avoiding reaching a dead end, which might force the Palestinians to conclude that they have no option but resistance in order to reach an agreement. The Israelis want "negotiations" to be going on permanently, pushing the Palestinian and Arab negotiators to pursue the carrot of peace while giving themselves the time to build more facts on the ground.

A third Israeli negotiating strategy means welcoming Arab and Palestinian initiatives, taking whatever concessions they include as acquired rights and then building upon them in order to demand new initiatives to achieve new concessions.

Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian and Arab negotiators focus on initiatives for resolving the conflict, while the Israelis seek only to manage it. The Palestinians and Arabs operate in a state of weakness and fragmentation, and they face a lot of external pressure, including calls to be "realistic".

They have, therefore, often included new concessions in their initiatives in order to make them more attractive to the Israelis, who then promptly welcome the concessions and demand more.

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), for example, was created in 1964 with the aim of liberating all of Palestine occupied in 1948. However, in 1968 the PLO adopted the idea of one democratic state for all, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, including immigrants and the occupying Israeli settlers.

Furthermore, in 1974 the PLO adopted a 10-point programme to establish a state on any part of Palestine that is free or from which Israelis agree to "withdraw". By 1988, it had adopted the resolution to partition Palestine and agreed to UN Resolution 242, which deals with the issue of refugees. It had also renounced "terrorism", and it attended the Madrid Conference in 1991 and signed the "self-rule" agreement in Oslo in 1993.

For their part, the Arab regimes have moved in aim from the elimination of Israel to the removal of the effects of the 1967 war. They have moved from the approval of the Rogers Initiative in 1970, then to the initiative of the Fez Summit 1982, and finally to the Arab Initiative of 2002. Meanwhile, Israel has simply moved onto more and more Palestinian land.

Israel’s fourth strategy involves encouraging informal negotiations between unofficial Israeli parties, or between those with little influence on policymaking, and officials on the Palestinian side linked to the decision-making process, in order to get concessions from the Palestinians without any hint of Israeli commitments in return.

This happened with the understandings made by Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas in 1995 and in the Geneva Act in 2003. In the talks between Beilin and Abbas, the Palestinians made concessions on the right of return of refugees to land occupied in 1948, and agreed to a demilitarised Palestinian state, the existence of many Israeli settlements, and the Palestinian capital being in Jerusalem but in a village-like area. The Geneva Act introduced similar concessions on refugees, settlements, a demilitarised Palestinian state and Jerusalem.

What is important here is that the Palestinian side offered crucial concessions at an early stage, including some that could not be disclosed to the Palestinian people. However, the Israelis always regard such concessions as precedents on which to build and rights that they have acquired. Even though these understandings are not binding on the parties, it is clear that the Israelis use such concessions in subsequent initiatives.

Observers today note, for example, that the Israelis act as if they have finished with the issue of the return of the refugees, the settlements, and a demilitarised Palestinian state with incomplete sovereignty, and now just have to resolve the future of Jerusalem.

A fifth Israeli strategy involves using "dirty" tactics against the Palestinians, putting intense pressure on negotiators to give way and accept an imposed solution. These tactics have included 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 these are intended to terrorise and weaken the resolve of the Palestinian people.

Such tactics make the alleviation of suffering look like a major gain, and the cessation of illegal acts by Israel, such as settlement building, look like a major concession. The application of legal rights in turn becomes something to be negotiated.

A sixth Israel strategy is that Israel seeks to remove Palestinian points of pressure by separating Palestinian joint negotiations from the so-called Arab track and by pushing the PLO to renounce "terrorism" (actually lawful resistance to the illegal occupation of Palestinian land), forcing it by default to confront those Palestinians for whom resistance remains a legitimate way of challenging the occupation.

At the same time, no date is set for the end of the negotiations, and no reference point is agreed that could bind Israel, such as those in United Nations resolutions. Nor has any agreement called on Israel to stop its settlement activity, land confiscation and the Judaisation of Jerusalem while negotiations are being held. Thus, the issues are always linked to the "generosity" of Israel and whatever crumbs it wishes to throw from the table.

A seventh Israeli strategy holds that in order to prevent the Arabs from working as one strong bloc, different "tracks" have to be created in order to divide the opposition and strengthen Israel’s position. Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, for example, negotiate in isolation from each other, while Israel seeks to separate Lebanon and Syria.

Israel’s ninth strategy holds that the intervention of any outside party, whether the UN, the USA or Europe, will not be tolerated if it does not fit with Israeli interests. In this way Israel gets to decide what is discussed and what to give way on with no external pressure pushing it to commit to anything.

At the Oslo talks, there was no independent reference point that could bind Israel to ending the negotiations within a specific timeframe. After the agreement, the United Nations was no longer the international umbrella managing the conflict, and UN resolutions concerning Palestinian rights to self-determination are no longer references to be invoked in discussion.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to play the role of sponsor of the "peace process," while the United Nations, Europe, Russia and others have left the process of the negotiations to the results of bilateral talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel’s ninth strategy means that it divides the negotiations into myriad details, making it difficult to move forward on any one of them without agreement on all. This strategy ties up dozens of negotiators for hundreds of hours in bilateral, multilateral and international meetings. The result is that if the Palestinians obtain even the most basic of their legal rights, this appears as a hugely significant victory and a painful Israeli concession.

A problem at the Oslo meetings was that they sought to deal with too many details before agreeing on basic principles and desired outcomes. The same was true of negotiations held from 1993 to 1999 in Cairo, Taba, Wye River and Sharm El-Sheikh. First, the details concerned Gaza and Jericho, then they concerned the division of the West Bank into areas "A", "B" and "C", with special status given to the city of Hebron. After that, the details concerned the design of special tracks for settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and borders. And then came the further fragmentation of the already small pieces.

On the settlements issue, for example, this was divided into settlement blocs, "legal" settlements, random and security settlements, those already annexed to Israel in East Jerusalem, and others that will be annexed behind the wall, and so on.

The 10th and last of the Israeli negotiating strategies involves buying time and evading the obligations of the negotiation process. The Israelis have devoted themselves to avoiding any set dates for final-status talks, and nothing escapes their procrastination and delaying tactics.

Even when dates have been set, for example those marking the establishment of a Palestinian state first by 1998 and then by 2005, deadlines have been missed. All the while, of course, settlement building has continued, and more Palestinian land has been taken by Israel. The Palestinian Authority, however, is pressured to fulfill all of its obligations, usually for the benefit of Israel and not the Palestinian people.

In all these ways, Israeli strategy is designed to prolong the negotiations, while creating new facts on the ground. In the end, the Palestinians will be left with no further means to influence the process and with nothing to negotiate, except the limited options dictated by Israel.

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