Posted on November 10, 1997 in Washington Watch

The negotiating positions that the Israeli side brought to Washington last week, and one might add, the fact of the negotiations themselves, stand in stark contrast to the very logic supposedly underlying the fourth Middle East/North Africa (MENA) Economic Summit due to take place in Doha.

The position of the Netanyahu government going into the Washington talks was initially framed in a formula. From their side, the Israeli’s indicated they were willing to consider: 1) a slow down in settlement expansion – not a halt; and 2) reopening discussions of the nine subcommittees formed to implement the annexes to the Hebron agreements (regarding the Gaza port, airport, safe passage, etc.). What they wanted in exchange was Palestinian agreement: 1) not to press for any new Israeli redeployment in the West Bank; and 2) to convene speeded-up final status talks.

When the Palestinian negotiators balked at these formulations, the Israelis, in their public comments, resorted to blaming the Palestinians for the impasse.

At week’s end, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu demanded to know what the Palestinians were willing to offer as a “concession” for Israel to agree to their concession that they “limit” (not halt) settlements.

What all these Israeli antics amount to is a nullification of the very logic and details of the Oslo accords. To make the matter clearer, Zalman Shoval, the head of the Likud’s Foreign Affairs Committee, in a Washington address last week stated that the Oslo agreement “can no longer be considered a relevant framework for the Middle East-Israel peace process.”

The Israeli tactic of affirming acceptance of Oslo while simultaneously refusing to implement its most basic provisions or insisting on renegotiating what was to have been implemented is now understood by all sides.

The Palestinians lack the leverage to force a change in the Israeli position; Israelis, themselves, are engaged in a bitter debate about their government’s policy; the U.S. is deeply frustrated with this Israeli obstructionism but has so far not directly and publicly confronted it; and the Arab world, while angry, has taken no clear stance in the matter since the 1996 Cairo Arab League Summit.

Which brings us to the upcoming Doha event. Partly out of a concern for the Qatari hosts, but mostly out of a fear of the negative repercussions both domestically and internationally, the U.S. has insisted that the Summit be held and has worked doggedly to increase participation.

It was clear early on, however, that no real business could be done at the Summit. Businesspeople know when there are opportunities and when conditions are promising and when they are not. In the current stalemate, the hope that drove earlier summits is absent. If businesspeople with deals in mind do not come to Doha or dominate its agenda, politics will. And given the current environment, political speeches will be markedly different from those that characterized the founding Casablanca event.

Recognizing these realities, the U.S. debated the matter, but resolved to go forward with the Summit, concerned that a cancellation or postponement would doom not only this event, but future summits as well.

What is ironic, of course, is that is was Oslo that made Casablanca, Amman, Cairo and now Doha possible. And while the Netanyahu government rejects the principles of Oslo and the obligations it imposed on them, they expect the Arabs to continue to behave as if the path toward peace and normalization continues. This is a unique characteristic of Israeli negotiating tactics.

At the beginning of the process, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker urged the Arab states to rescind their secondary boycott against Israel on the condition that Israel would freeze settlements. The Arabs did, the Israelis did not. In Oslo, the Palestinians accepted the legitimacy of Israel and agreed to a phased interim approach to peace in exchange for a mutual agreement that neither party take unilateral steps that would predetermine the final status of peace. Throughout the entire four year history of Oslo the West Bank has witnessed an explosion of Israeli settlement construction and land confiscation unparalled in any previous four year period.

And now. Netanyahu returns to the Palestinians with yet another demand:
“If Israel is asked to take limitations on settlements, we must ask what limitations the Palestinian side suggest for itself.”

Notwithstanding, the very correct critique of Palestinian Legislative Council member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi that Palestinians should “not be asked to pay a price for Israel to stop illegal activity”, the fact is that Palestinians and Arabs have already paid the price for the never ending settlements in three previous rounds of negotiations.

It is as if the Israelis began bidding for an object at eight and agreed to compromise with the seller at four. Then after the deal was done, they insisted on reopening the negotiations and brought the price down to two. After a while, they succeeded in reopening the file and renegotiated the price down to one and are now demanding yet again to renegotiate and insisting that the Arab side agree to compromise and accept less than one. All for the same object!.

This penchant of Netanyahu’s to reopen old files and insist that only one side honor commitments while insisting that all old agreements be renegotiated is what the current impasse is about.

The Arab response must be clear and firm. To send low level delegates to Doha or to quietly object sends no message at all. If Arab states meant their resolutions at the Arab League’s 1996 summit, and if they truly seek to protect the integrity and gains of the peace process, they will send a principled message of “no peace, no business as usual” to Doha next week.

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