Palestine’s acceptance of direct negotiations with Israel, without preconditions, is a return to the drawing board in the process of political settlement between the two parties. The ‘zero point’ is certainly the Oslo accords signed in 1993. Seventeen years of negotiations followed on from the Oslo agreement, and matters have returned to the start. The only new aspect this time is that the negotiations will be public, not secret, and the Americans, who were observing the Oslo negotiations with eyes from afar, will this time monitor the Washington negotiations through a magnifying lens.
The return to the zero point is not the only similarity between the two sets of negotiations. There are other aspects which are important to highlight.
The first of these similarities is the presence of an undeclared ‘cartel’ of individuals, conducting the negotiations behind the scenes. During the Oslo accords it was Mahmoud Abbas who ran this group, and it was Ahmed Qurei` (Abu Alaa), who traveled in secret, and returned carrying a report detailing the most recent round of negotiations. Besides Mahmoud Abbas, other notable individuals were consulted, such as Yasser Abed Rabbo, giving them a heightened sense of importance that did not exist. The same process is repeated now, as overseeing the forthcoming negotiations is Mahmoud Abbas himself, and sitting next to him, the very same Yasser Abed Rabbo. The only difference in this scenario is that the two men are not asking themselves: What have we done? What have we achieved in seventeen years? Why have we gone back to the starting point? The answer of course is well known, but those who succumbed to the previous negotiations do not have the answer.
The second similarity is that negotiations are being conducted in the name of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). Seventeen years ago, the PLO had been used as a banner, a screen, or even a veil, according to the language used these days. Once, Yasser Arafat came out of a meeting of the Executive Committee, which was in session to discuss the Oslo agreement (not to settle it), and went to a secret meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, where he signed a “document to recognize Israel’s right to exist – the so-called letters of mutual recognition”, and returned to the original meeting without anyone knowing what had happened. Today we see a similar scenario, with the PLO acting as a cover to legitimize the [Palestinian delegation’s] decision to go to the new negotiations.
However, the Palestinian negotiator has achieved a false legitimacy. He had been invited to a meeting of the PLO Executive Committee, consisting of 18 people, yet only 9 attended, which did not meet the quorum to convene the meeting, meaning it was illegitimate. However the conference proceeded despite this, discussions took place, and the outcome was that only five of those present were in support of the negotiations. The four opponents were representatives of four organizations allied with Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas. Despite all this, the Palestinian negotiator issued a statement saying that the PLO’s Executive Committee had met, discussed and agreed to go into direct negotiations without preconditions. This act is similar to forgery, but of a slight variation. Whereas it was secret forgery last time [during the Oslo negotiations], now it is of the public Variety!
The third element of similarity is that the Oslo accords, at the time, divided the Palestinian people in two: between supporters of the agreement and opponents. This was a serious division at the time, because the PLO had previously succeeded in uniting the political stance of the Palestinian people (on the basis of an armed struggle and the Palestinian National Charter), but with the Oslo accords, the united stance of the Palestinians broke down, and the Palestinian streets were divided into two sides. They later reunited when it appeared that the negotiations were a ‘joke’. Today, the Palestinian public is divided on the Washington negotiations. Support here, opposition there, but the balance is different, for the minority is in support, whilst the majority opposes the negotiations.
If Mahmoud Abbas has succeeded in finding a niche for himself, representing the factions of the Palestinian left, such as the Popular and Democratic Fronts, he has lost this cover now, since both the Populists and the Democrats announced their opposition to the negotiations. Thus Mahmoud Abbas has become a lonely figure in a confrontation with his own Fatah movement in Ramallah. If the PLO was defined as an organization uniting factions around one political approach, it is now clear for all to see, the organization is merely an exclusive Fatah group in Ramallah!
The fourth element of similarity between the Oslo accords and the Washington negotiations is that the Olso agreements were somewhat strange; they were essentially agreements on nothing. The Oslo accords agreed upon on the intervention of Palestinian leaders into “Gaza and Jericho firstly”, and subsequently to begin negotiations on autonomy. President Hafez al-Assad – may God have mercy on him – summed up the situation perfectly when he said: “What is this agreement…for each point you need a new agreement!” Negotiation and debate have continued around an agreement for seventeen years, until we arrived back at the start, where new negotiations will begin, as if nothing happened during those long years!
During the Oslo phase, the men responsible for the negotiations at the time, among them Dr. Nabil Shaath, said that the autonomy agreement, which constitutes the basis of the Oslo accords, was based upon 90 percent of the land [for a Palestinian state], and the negotiations with Israel would revolve around the remaining 10 percent. This included the settlement territories, and the locations of the Israeli army camps. Then the truth emerged, that autonomy was based on only 22 per cent of land in the West Bank, and all other areas would remain under the authority with Israel, which in any case resumed control of the entire West Bank under Sharon in 2002!
Now, the story repeats itself. The Palestinian negotiator said he was heading to the Washington negotiations in order to seek the establishment of a Palestinian state, within one year. But the Israeli’s say something different, talking about a temporary Palestinian state. Meanwhile, the Americans also say something else, seeking with Israel for a formula for continued Israeli settlement construction (within pre-existing settlements), whilst confronting the Palestinian issue at the same time! America has sent their expert Dennis Ross to address the issue. This resembles a difficult chemical equation, and no one knows how to solve it bar three individuals: the Israeli official who imposed the conditions, the U.S. official who supported these conditions, and the Palestinian official who was defeated in the matter. He had always called for the implementation of what was originally planned, sitting in his office with his advisor Yasser Abed Rabbo, asking questions yet not directing them at anyone: What do I do? What hand can I play? Can I confront America?!
Then comes the answer as he ultimately caves in, endorsing the ‘legitimacy’ of the PLO Executive Committee, even if only 5 out of 18 members [agreed to the negotiations]!