Will Palestinian Negotiations Tactics Work?

05/09/2013 09:33 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013

One of the hardest decisions that a political leader has to take is when to engage in negotiations and when to refrain. This has been the dilemma facing Palestinian leaders for decades. At times they are blamed for refusing to engage and at other times their engagement has given the other side a cover to keep doing what they were doing before the talks.

For years the Israelis have been repeating the statement made by Israel's UN ambassador that Arabs don't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. In 1993, Palestinians did engage Israel in a process that many thought would lead to a genuine breakthrough, only to find themselves two decades later in a much worse position than they were when the Oslo accords were signed. Twice as many settlers are now living in illegal Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian areas compared with before the famous handshake at the White House Lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

Both leaders have since died unnatural deaths but the peace for which Shimon Peres received an advance payment in the form of a Nobel Peace Prize has not materialised.

Some argue that the inability of Arafat to stop Hamas from carrying out deadly attacks against Israelis during the peace talks is to blame. Arafat is also blamed for refusing a "generous offer" made by the Israelis in the last days of the Bill Clinton presidency. That offer, which was never laid out in any maps, has been shown to be much less generous than the hype it got from Israel and its apologists.

In the post-Arafat era, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adopted a totally disciplined policy. He rejected any militarisation of the Intifada, publicly criticised Hamas rockets and helped set up a security apparatus that has been credited with keeping the longest period of calm for the Israeli public in years. Abbas has done everything the Israelis wanted and hoped for, including democratising Palestine (at the cost of Hamas winning) and cleaning up Palestinian TV from incitement to violence. But Palestinians are still not able to enjoy the independence that was promised to them within the five-year interim period following the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the PLO and Israel. Not only have settlements and settlers doubled in these years but the ability of Palestinians to carry out any activities to strengthen their steadfastness in East Jerusalem has been consistently blocked.

Despite commitments made to the US secretary of state to allow institutions that were operating in Jerusalem before 1993 to continue functioning the Israelis have annually used emergency laws to keep the Orient House, the Chamber of Commerce and other Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem closed.

Some of Palestine's friends advise the Palestinian leadership to engage the Israelis in the hope of reaching a breakthrough. They suggest that politics is the art of the possible and you need to take what you can for now and continue struggling for what you want, hoping that the balance of forces can change. This is possible, although PLO officials will argue that this is what has been happening for two decades with absolutely no results. They argue that if we can at least suspend settlement activities we can continue to negotiate for a long time without having to worry about the Israelis using the pretext of talks to continue to advance their Zionist dream of constantly taking Palestinian land and moving Jewish settlers into the occupied state of Palestine.

Managing the peace talks with the Israelis and their main benefactor the US is a complicated and sensitive issue with so many moving parts, several of which have their own interests with the US and even with Israel. Some Palestinians have argued that the compromise presented by the Qatari foreign minister was a cheap gift to the Israelis who have done nothing substantial on the peace front to deserve it. Speaking on behalf of an Arab delegation that included the Palestinian foreign minister, the Qatari minister announced that the Arab Peace Initiative will now include the concept of equal land swaps.

At present a formula seems to be developing that will allow for an attempt to explore the possibility of substantive talks with the Israelis quietly, not provoking Palestinians with any more announcements of new settlements. The announcement on Israel army radio this week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his housing minister not to make any new announcements of settlement construction might have been part of such a secret agreement.

The Israeli occupation has been declared unacceptable by the UN Security Council and must end.

Time will tell whether the current Palestinian policy will produce results or if the situation will perpetuate for a long time.