BICOM Analysis: After the handshake, taking the strain: Returning to bilateral talks


After the fanfare of Annapolis two weeks ago, a confluence of events in the past week reminded anyone who might have forgotten how delicate and challenging the bilateral peace process between Israelis and Palestinians really is. On Wednesday, 12 December, the two sides met for the first time to begin the negotiating process. By all accounts the talks were tense, and foundered on mutual recriminations about recent events. The Palestinians are angry about the housing construction moving ahead in the controversial Har Homa district of Jerusalem, even though this was approved before Annapolis. Israel is dissatisfied by Palestinian efforts on security.[1]

The start of talks came the day after a more vigorous than normal Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip to confront the militants responsible for rocket attacks, and was accompanied by a particularly fierce barrage of Qassam rockets fired at the Israeli town of Sderot. And this week the violence has continued, with more rockets being fired into Israel, wounding a toddler on Sunday, and with the IDF launching a series of air strikes killing more than a dozen Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants on Tuesday. 

With these various incidents, dilemmas which plagued negotiators in the past have been revived for both parties. Quite separate from the problem of bridging the gaps in the sides’ expectations of what a final agreement between the two will look like, the interlocutors must deal with the host of background incidents that can stop the negotiation process itself in its tracks. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni reportedly told EU diplomats on Thursday that the negotiations need to be divorced from “current events”. But what kinds of events have the potential to disrupt the process, and how far is it possible for the negotiators to cut themselves off from them?

The ‘cycle’ of violence

Tension between violence that may be taking place on the ground and talks taking place in the conference room has been a perennial feature of the Palestinian-Israeli bilateral process. The threat of Palestinian terrorism, carried out by groups which want to undermine the peace process or extort political influence within the Palestinian camp, presents both a practical and a political problem for both sides. The practical problem is that Israel is unwilling to make concessions, i.e. withdraw military forces from Palestinian territory or reduce restrictions on Palestinian movement, if that is going to raise the risk to Israelis from terrorism. Unfortunately, at no point since the beginning of the Oslo process has the Palestinian Authority proved reliable in preventing terror attacks against the state of Israel emanating from areas handed over to its control. In recent years the PA has persistently failed to reform its security services into a force equipped for this task. They themselves are currently under no illusions that they are ready for the task of controlling terror groups.[2]

The political problem is that violence emanating from Palestinian terror groups makes it harder for the Israeli leadership to justify continued negotiations, which are likely to lead to security concessions and a greater risk from terrorism. This is not a new problem. Yitzhak Rabin’s solution was to place dealing with the terrorists and dealing with the negotiations in two separate categories, effectively saying that: we will work for peace as if there is no terrorism and fight terrorism as if there is no peace. Ariel Sharon’s approach represented the opposite extreme from that of Rabin. His policy was ‘no negotiations under fire’ and he expected complete calm on the Palestinian side before entering talks. In the intervening years Netanyahu took a third approach. He tried to apply conditions of reciprocity by setting the pace of the peace process according to extent to which the Palestinians were dealing with terror, and therefore making them responsible.

Today this old problem has a new twist. In the past Israel dealt with a ‘moderate’ Palestinian leadership which was expected to cooperate with Israel to control the extremists in its midst. Today, there are two separate Palestinian leaderships, the Fatah leadership that Israel is dealing with, based in the West Bank, and the Hamas leadership that continues to refuse to recognise Israel, renounce terrorism, and accept existing agreements between Israel and the PA. Israel is not holding Abbas and Fayyad responsible for the rockets that are being fired daily from Gaza at Sderot, but the predicament of Sderot still puts strain on the relationship, and makes it difficult politically for Israel to advance a process which appears to put Israel at further risk.

Violence coming from Gaza complicates things for the Palestinians also. Whilst Israel is able to make a distinction between Palestinian violence emanating from Gaza and that coming from the West Bank, it is harder for the Palestinian leadership to make a distinction between Israeli military activity in either territory. The threat of a major IDF incursion into Gaza to attack the sources of Qassam rocket fire has been growing almost since Israel withdrew from its last major operation towards the end of 2006. Israel has set a high bar of tolerance for Qassam rockets. It has absorbed the impact of hundreds of rockets on Israeli population centres without responding with a major and sustained incursion into Gaza. But there is a tipping point, which may be approached the next time a Qassam rocket causes loss of life. There have been a number of very near misses with frequent direct hits on houses and other inhabited buildings, and the risk that a Qassam killing one or more people at any time is very high. If Israel were to respond with a major incursion into Gaza, even if it were aimed at Islamist groups unconnected to Fatah, a major loss of Palestinian life would make continuation of talks with Israel impossible for the Palestinian leadership.

Israel is also conducting nightly operations against militants in the West Bank but at a less intense level, and in a more predictable environment. The basic rule for both sides is, whether emanating from the West Bank or Gaza, that the bilateral relationship can sustain a certain degree of violence. But the room for manoeuvre is small and things can quickly spiral out of control.

Putting houses in order

Lying behind the issue of incidents of violence is the fact that both sides have made commitments under the Roadmap that are important to the building of trust but remain unfulfilled. The Palestinians have long been committed in theory to a major reform of the security, finance and political sectors to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state that Israel can live with. Israel is committed to a freeze on settlement construction, and to evacuating illegal settlement outposts. The Palestinians are also demanding that Israel relax its security restrictions in the West Bank to allow its economy to recover.

The Palestinians have just been pledged $7.4 Billion in international aid at a major donor conference in Paris to help revive their economy. But the Palestinian economy has not collapsed since 2000 for want of international aid. The Palestinians have received higher levels of sustained per capita aid than anyone else in the world. The failure of the economy is due to two factors, one the mismanagement and misappropriation of the funds by the Palestinian Authority, the other Israel’s security measures, particularly since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, to confront militants and restrict the movement of Palestinian people and good within the West Bank and Gaza and between those territories and Israel.

The latest World Bank report repeats the conclusion it has made several times in the past, that even if the Palestinians do everything possible to create a responsible and well managed budget, their economic position will not improve without Israel relaxing its restrictions on their movement and trade.[3] Israel’s willingness to lessen its presence will depend on their trust that the PA can secure territory under its control. But the PA’s security forces, like its public sector in general, is over-inflated and ineffectual.[4] Two other reports published last week, one from the Red Cross, and another from Oxfam point to the same conclusions.[5]

The failure of Fatah to deliver benefits to the Palestinian people cost them an election to Hamas in January 2006. If Fatah leaders continue talks with Israel whilst the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank shows no improvements, they risk yet further erosion of their waning authority and the further strengthening of Hamas in the West Bank. Therefore a complete divorce from reality on this issue does neither Israel nor the Palestinians any good.

Quartet envoy Tony Blair, tasked with helping the Palestinians develop their institutional capacity, appears to be assuming the role of mediator in this particular conundrum. His job looks like manoeuvring a large wardrobe through a small door, where he has to forcefully but carefully nudge each side a little at a time. On the Israeli side he is running into Israel’s internal political issues. Ehud Barak has a significant role to play in this regard and the personal relationship that Blair appears to have been building with the defence minister will be important to persuading Barak to engage with the process, when Barak’s own political position is aided by giving only little room on the issue of easing security restrictions.[6]

Whilst a failure of the PA to reform its security infrastructure and general institutional capacity makes it difficult for Israel to make concessions on the ground, continued Israel settlement construction puts the Palestinian leadership in a difficult position. Israel is not engaging in a major settlement drive, but it is continuing to build within what it calls existing settlement blocs, in areas it believes will stay part of Israel in a final peace deal in any case.[7] This and the building of the security fence are, of course, highly antagonistic to the Palestinians. Israel also has a long overdue commitment to evacuate ‘illegal settlements’ of the type established independently by Israelis opposed to withdrawal from the West Bank. Failure to move on these issues erodes Palestinian confidence at the negotiating table, and Palestinian public confidence in Israel’s real intent to conclude a deal. 

Regional interference

An additional source of upset to the process is the regional players. The role of the region in the dispute has never been more complex. Rival Arab states have historically competed to exert some control over Palestinian internal politics, rather than being seriously committed to finding a solution. But the situation has been greatly complicated by Iran’s increasing sponsorship of Hamas, and Hamas’s rise to power. The current division between Hamas and Fatah is the biggest roadblock of all Palestinian independence. How an agreement made between Israel and Fatah to create a state on Gaza and the West Bank can be implemented without Hamas losing power in Gaza is hard to envisage. The division between Fatah and Hamas, and Gaza’s isolation, suits Iran, which can exploit the situation to increasingly bring Gaza and its militant groups under its influence.

The Annapolis conference and this entire process is given its international urgency and interest by a united desire in Israel and across the Arab world to halt the growth in Iranian influence. But reports from the past week indicate that there are moves taking place to bridge the gaps between Hamas, or at least more moderate parts of it, and Fatah, and a rapprochement between Hamas and Sunni Arab states.[8] Whilst Hamas leaders are no doubt looking for a way to end isolation for themselves and the Gaza Strip, any attempt to unite Hamas and Fatah in power sharing or a unity government, such as that attempted by the Saudis in February, will the shortest route to ending the negotiation process with Israel.[9] Israeli leaders will not deal with Fatah if it is in any kind of alliance with an entity committed to its destruction. They wish to see Hamas collapse under the weight of its inability to provide practical benefits to the Palestinian people, and have no interest in any deal that will help the organisation survive.


Whilst the approach to developing the Israeli-Palestinian track has changed over the years, there has always been an interaction between the situation on the ground and what is being discussed by the negotiators. If either side thinks it can talk now and act only later, when it’s more convenient, it will find the situation has slipped further beyond its reach yet again.

Each side has to deal with the challenge of how to relate the theoretical peace talks taking place in comfortable conference rooms in Jerusalem hotels to events that are taking place on the ground. If the negotiators respond to every adverse event, they will never proceed, and they will grant the power to violent extremists to disrupt the process whenever they choose. If they ignore completely what is happening on the ground, and the need to actively create a situation which would allow an agreement to be implemented, the negotiations risk being out of touch with reality. The negotiators need to conduct their talks, not in a room without windows, but in a room with the curtains partly drawn.

[1] PA, Israel point fingers in tense talks, Herb Keinon and Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, 13 December, 2007

[2] PA battles with reforming security, Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, 14 December, 2007

[3] Investing in Palestinian Economic Reform and Development, Report for the Pledging Conference, 17 December, 2007

[4] World Bank West Bank and Gaza Public Expenditure Review Volume 1, February 2007

[5] ICRC, The occupied Palestinian Territories, Dignity Denied, 13 December, 2007 and Breaking the impasse: ending the humanitarian stranglehold on Palestine, Oxfam, November 2007

[6] International Herald Tribune, World Bank: Palestinians will get poorer, despite massive aid, if roadblocks remain, The Associated Press, 13 December, 2007

[7] Har Homa homes mar new talks, Barak Ravid, Ha’aretz, 14 December, 2007

[8] Mashaal: Hamas ready to cede control, Jerusalem Post Staff and Khalen Abu Toameh, 12 December, 2007

[9] Livni: Israel will cut ties with PA if Fatah, Hamas create unity government, Jerusalem Post, 13 December, 2007

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