BICOM Briefing: Abbas’s letter to Netanyahu

Last update: 18/4/2012, 9am GMT

Key points

  • A Palestinian delegation delivered a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, blaming Israel for the impasse in the peace process, and reiterating Palestinian demands. The letter watered down planned threats to dissolve the Palestinian Authority.
  • Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad dropped out of the delegation at the last minute,  apparently unenthusiastic about the initiative and fearing embarrassment as a result of his participation.
  • No significant exchanges took place in the meeting, which appears to be largely a public relations exercise on the part of the Palestinians, who are resisting considerable international pressure to return to negotiations with Israel. The two sides issued a very brief statement expressing a shared hope for peace.
  • Israel sees this as an opportunity reiterate its desire for a sustained process of direct negotiations without preconditions, and will send a return delegation with a letter from Netanyahu to Abbas.

What happened in the meeting?

  • A Palestinian delegation delivered a letter to the Israeli government on Tuesday which outlines its positions on the impasse in the peace process.
  • Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad was originally expected to lead the delegation along with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and PLO Executive Committee member Yasser Abed Rabbo.
  • However, Fayyad dropped out at the last minute, apparently unsupportive of the initiative and reluctant to participate. Yasser Abed Rabbo also chose not to attend. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu joined by his chief negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho, met instead with chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and the head of the Palestinian Authority military intelligence, General Majad Faraj.
  • No significant exchanges took place in the meeting, which appears to be largely a public relations exercise on the part of the Palestinians, who are resisting considerable international pressure to return to negotiations with Israel. The two sides issued issued a very brief statement expressing a shared hope for peace.
  • A follow-up meeting with Abbas in Ramallah has already been scheduled, where the prime minister’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, will bring a letter which outlines Israel’s positions on the questions of borders and security arrangements.

What is the purpose of the letter and what does it say?

  • It is clear from the leaked content of the letter, and from the public way in which it is being delivered, that it is designed largely for international and domestic public opinion. The Palestinians have been under considerable international pressure to resume direct negotiations with Israel. They broke off a short lived round of talks in Amman in January 2012.
  • The Palestinian letter is a continuation of Palestinian efforts to thrust the blame onto Israel for the stalls in the peace process, rather than an attempt to find new ways to circumvent them.
  • In his letter, Abbas blames Israel for the impasse, and accuses Israel of not responding to the Palestinian peace offer submitted during the recent talks in Amman.
  • It reiterates previous Palestinian demands, that Israel stop settlement construction, accept 1967 lines as the basis for a territorial agreement, and release prisoners. It also calls on Israel to ‘Revoke all decisions taken since 2000 which undermine agreements signed between Israel and the PLO.’
  • Three phrases set the overall tone

1.    “My political program which respects signed agreements, recognizes the State of Israel, and renounces violence.”

  • The letter reiterates the PA’s commitment to the principles laid out by the international Quartet for recognition of Palestinian governments, and thereby distinguishes itself from the Hamas government which rules Gaza. The letter later describes the difficulties in finding a unity agreement with Hamas and blames Israel for being ‘diametrically opposed to Palestinian national reconciliation’, though neither Mahmoud Abbas, nor his Hamas counterpart Khaled Meshaal, have been able to gain acceptance for a unity agreement within their own parties.
  • The letter restates the PA’s willingness to recognise the State of Israel, but does not answer Israeli demands to be recognised as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which Israel has said must form part of a final status agreement.
  • The letter claims that the Palestinians have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards violence, whilst contrasting this with continued Israeli settlement activity.

2.    “We will seek the full and complete implementation of international law.”

  • Unwilling to respond to Netanyahu’s call to enter final status negotiations, the Palestinians have been searching for alternative diplomatic strategies. Their bid for membership of the UN was blocked in 2011 by the Security Council. An application for the International Criminal Court to extend jurisdiction over Palestine as a state on the 1967 borders has also been rejected on the basis that Palestine is not yet a state. Despite this, the letter to Israel indicates that they have not abandoned the international route.
  • The Palestinians still have the option to ask the General Assembly to make Palestine a “non-member observer state”, a status held by the Vatican and previously held by Switzerland. This may allow the Palestinians to reapply to the International Criminal Court to extend jurisdiction the Palestinian territories, thereby enabling the Palestinians to bring legal actions against Israel. The Palestinians may also apply for membership of other international bodies, as they successfully did with UNESCO last year.
  • However, the Palestinians will be wary of possible negative responses from both Israel and the US if they resume unilateral efforts to gain recognition in international bodies. Israel temporarily suspended tax revenue transfers to the PA and the US suspended bilateral aid transfers in response to previous such Palestinian attempts.

3.    “The Palestinian National Authority no longer has any authority.”

  • It appears that this part of the text has been watered down significantly ahead of today’s meeting. Previous drafts announced that the PA was to dissolve itself, but the Palestinians reportedly came under heavy international pressure not to make such a declaration. A phone call last month from US President Barack Obama reportedly played a significant role in softening the tone of the letter. It now threatens, if Israel does not meet its demands, to “seek the full and complete implementation of international law as it pertains to the powers and responsibilities of Israel as occupying power in all of the occupied Palestinian territory.”  It adds that “the P.A. is no longer as was agreed and this situation cannot continue.” The dissolution of the PA, and the consequent power vacuum, would be a major structural change in Israeli-Palestinian relations and a threat to the current calm.
  • In an interview with Palestinian daily al-Ayyam yesterday, President Abbas rejected the idea of dissolving the PA. He also dismissed the idea of ending coordination between Palestinian and Israeli security forces, noting its positive contribution to Palestinian daily life, and again endorsed his support for a two-state solution
  • Other Palestinian political figures are now downplaying the importance of the letter. PLO official Hanan Ashrawi told Palestinian news agency Ma’an, “this is just a letter, a step within a series of Palestinian diplomatic procedures in light of the current stalemate.” Ma’an also reported that the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction, dismissed the “cycle of letters and negotiations” as only prolonging the status quo.
  • Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahhar has taken an even clearer position, declaring Hamas’ opposition to the letter. Interviewed in al-Quds, he asked, “what could possibly be said in the letter? The Palestinians in the West Bank only give concessions to the Israeli side.”

What is the Israeli response?

  • Whilst scepticism is high on the Palestinian side about the initiative, Israel has cautiously welcomed it. Though expectations of meaningful progress are low, Israeli officials stress that every meeting between Israelis and Palestinians is important.
  • Netanyahu has consistently called for a sustained top level negotiation process between the sides since coming into office in 2009. Israel apparently views this letter as an opportunity to create some manner of dialogue and exchange between the sides. It agreed to accept the Palestinian letter, on the condition that Israel could send its own return delegation with an Israeli letter to Abbas.