Thursday, 29 July 2010

Behind the Negotiating Scenes in Palestine

"The Palestinians have set three impossible conditions: that the negotiations start from the point they left off at the end of 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, that they be based on a total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and that the freeze of [settlement] construction continue."
These were the distraught words of Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom in reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' pre-conditions before re-entering into direct talks with the Israelis.  It normally is the Palestinians who are exasperated with Israeli obduracy and not the other way around. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Palestinian negotiating strategy, entitled Tipping Point, documented this newfound stubbornness in Abbas' bag of tricks. According to the ICG, Palestinian officials believe that the next round of negotiations are their last attempt before they lose credibility in front of their people and in the face of opposition from Hamas: "If we fail again, why should anyone believe we could succeed later." Moreover, the rise of the Obama administration, replete with senior advisors such as Samantha Power, General James Jones, fmr. Senator George Mitchell, and General David Petraeus who are seen as partial to the Palestinian position, has offered the Palestinians an opportunity. It hasn't hurt that across the table sits an increasingly irrational Israeli government, led by a maligned Foreign Minister in Avigdor Lieberman, viewed as extremist by much of Western Europe.

Despite these fortuitous circumstances, the Palestinians and their negotiating team have failed to capitalize, build serious momentum for their cause, or offer innovative approaches. This is despite 'gifts' in the form of international aid flotillas -- to which the PA was largely agnostic except for the Turkish ships in May -- or the Goldstone Report -- which Abbas acted against at the UN in Geneva. Additionally, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is viewed favorably in the West, even having a movement named after him by Tom Friedman called 'Fayyadism.' However, while a young guard is 'modernizing the economy', and a political young guard to an extent has penetrated political circles, this change has not entered the 'negotiations' realm. Even the title of the recent report that the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD) of the PLO put out in December, reads as 'old school': "The Political Situation in Light of Developments with the US Administration and Israeli Government and Hamas' Continued Coup d'etat - Recommendations and Options."

Let's look at the 'political' context for the NAD. It is an arm of the PLO, which is a completely stagnant body. The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964 and was intended to be a democratic representation of Palestinians around the world; it consists of ten member parties (Hamas is not one of them). It is chaired by Mahmoud Abbas, and is governed by an 18-person executive committee, last chosen in 1996, six of whom are dead. The PLO in fact is responsible for all foreign relations for the Palestinians, has observer status at the United Nations, and conducts final status negotiations with Israel.

Recently Fatah, the most dominant party in the PLO, held new elections for its Central Committee during a 2,000 member pow-wow in the West Bank (August 2009). It was then, that many of the Palestinian 'young guard' from the security/political realm were finally empowered. If you recall, the battle between the young guard (primarily Palestinians who grew up under the occupation or were in Israeli prisons) and the old guard (primarily former exiles from when the organization was based in Tunis) was one of the main triggers for the second Intifada in the early 2000s. Leaders of the young guard included figures such as Jibril Rajoub, Muhammad Dalhan, and Marwan Barghouti, all of whom were elected to the 22 person Fatah Central Committee last year.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is responsible for the day-to-day management of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and is led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad since June 2007 in the West Bank; the Gaza Strip is government by an alternative Hamas government, since the 'fitna' severed the territories from one another. While Fayyad has contacts with Israeli government officials (i.e. Ehud Barak) he cannot conduct final status negotiations. Ostensibly, he is accountable to the Palestinian Legislative Council elected from among Palestinians in the occupied territories, but because many of its members are in Israeli jails, a quorum cannot be held; thus Fayyad has been appointed by Presidential decree (additionally the constitutional terms of both the President and the Parliament ended in January 2010, if not earlier).

Therefore, the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD) is under the tutelage of the PLO, a generally unaccountable body; it is from time to time also subject to the political winds of Fatah.  It is led by Saeb Erekat a historical spokesperson for the Palestinians. To buttress the Department's capacity, in 1998, the PLO approached the United Kingdom for assistance. Under an agreement, the UK began to fund something called the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) within the Department, to provide technical support for the negotiations process for the Palestinians. The NSU forms the foundation - but not the direction - for the NAD, and consists of two departments: legal and policy affairs, and communication. Funding has been provided also by the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Until earlier this year, the NSU which forms the foundation for Palestinian negotiations, was managed by a British sub-contracter, Adam Smith International (on a for-profit basis), as mandated by the UK government.

For the last 12 years, the NSU, within the NAD - the primary negotiating vehicle for the Palestinians - has been a throughway for a new young guard of Palestinian professionals. Lawyers, policy analysts, media strategists and others, particularly from the diaspora have been recruited into the fold. Many of them are graduates in fact of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; others are from leading law schools in the U.S. and Europe. These are people such as Wassim Khazmo or Issa Kassissieh or Nisreen Haj. Others such as Diana Buttu and Michael Tarazi rose to the media spotlight -- only to be forcibly removed from the scene under external pressures. And therein lies the problem. While the NSU has served as a think-tank for great minds, the PLO and the NAD have not allowed for an incubation of great ideas.

There are several elements to this. Buttu and Tarazi who were virtuoso television spokespersons, may have in fact elicited envy form their political counterparts for the attention they were receiving (note Israel does not have an issue with Mark Regev's ubiquitousness as he is effective). There are a number of very precocious and articulate advocates of the Palestinian cause within the NSU and elsewhere who should be on media stations around the world, but they are not. On another level entirely, the communications strategy of the NAD-PLO is not even 2.0, or 1.0; maybe it's at 0.5. The entire concept of building an audience through new media (YouTube, podcasts, livestreams, etc) or social media (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc) is non-existent. Even NAD's recent report in December read more like a UN resolution than a strategy.

The relatively fortuitous circumstances (within the context of an occupation) that the Palestinians today find themselves in, provide the opportunity to truly build a multi-platformed, innovative strategy for negotiations that can prove more effective than any weapons held by any militant group. What does this mean? It includes hosting international study groups; having systematized briefings on each issue (border); coordinated messaging; weekly press 'teach-ins'; running consolidated campaigns around Goldstone, the flotilla or other 'opportunities.' Most of all it means empowering the young guard within the Palestinian braintrust to lead the way (much like President Obama in fact did in his campaign for the Presidency). However, recently, a newly installed head of the NSU, a European-Palestinian with strong credentials, was quickly removed after a month for trying too quickly to change the system.

None of this should discount advancements made within the PLO, or by the NAD, or the NSU itself. However, the stakes are too high to be working at half-effectiveness. As the Palestinian official quoted in the the ICG report stated: "If we fail again, why should anyone believe we could succeed later."

This post was written without the knowledge, input, or expressed approval of any persons mentioned in this post.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this background and central place of NAD. I feel that Avigdor Lieberman's positions are clear and pointed. Israel does seem to have an underlying identity crisis when it continually starts and stops construction trying to play to their ardent supporter (in many ways spurred on by the real success of Israel as a State, somewhat realpolitik) and to the international community (as harbingers of democracy and human rights.

    While there is much overlapping for these approaches to work together, Israel can often seem to be pulling in two separate directions. For instance, though I reserve judgement on the building of the wall, I understand that attacks have decreased since the construction. This is a pragmatic policy for any state to follow, but at the same time inflicts stricter barriers (geographic, but also demographic, social, economic, etc.), where there had previously been more interchange.