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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Does Arab League endorsement bring direct talks nearer?

Key points 

  • In spite of its expressed scepticism about Israel’s intention, the Arab League last week offered its agreement in principle for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In so doing, the League left it up to PA Chairman Abbas to decide when to enter direct talks. This places the burden for the resumption of directs talks squarely on the Palestinian leadership.
  • PA President Abbas now faces an acute dilemma. If he agrees to direct talks with Israel without seeing some of his initial demands addressed, he risks losing political credibility. Refusing to resume negotiations will place him at odds with the American Administration.
  • Eyes now turn to the possible trilateral meeting in Washington next week between top Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators and its ability to create the conducive environment for minimising risks and maximising the chances for diplomatic progress.

On Thursday 28 July, Arab League foreign ministers at a special meeting in Cairo voted to back Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas if he decides to enter direct negotiations with Israel. Importantly, the Arab League left to the PA leadership the decision on the appropriate timing for talks to commence.

The Arab League decision appeared to represent a significant advance in the diplomatic process. However, subsequent statements by senior Arab League officials, and a letter reportedly sent by the League to the White House suggests that the forces and interests guiding regional players are rather more ambiguous. The intense diplomatic activity that surrounded the Arab League’s meeting illustrates the long-term complexity and fragility of the negotiation process.

Why did the Arab League vote to endorse direct talks?

The prevailing view among Arab League countries has been one of deep scepticism toward the present Israeli government. Repeatedly, Arab officials maintained that Israel is seeking talks for its own sake, rather than in order to substantively move the process forward. It was therefore surprising that the League endorsed direct talks as the next step in the diplomatic process.

A statement made by Amr Moussa, Arab League Secretary-General following the vote suggested that the League remains sceptical about Israel’s intentions, but that significant American pressure was applied. Moussa also added three conditions will have to be met before negotiations can commence. “I assure you I am not of the intention to enter into negotiations, without a time frame, without clear terms of reference and without a monitoring mechanism.”

Moussa’s statement is significant because it focuses on procedural preconditions and not on substantial issues like extending the settlement freeze to East Jerusalem or agreeing the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. If these are indeed the Arab League’s conditions, the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks seems much closer. According to a report in al-Hayat daily newspaper, an unsigned letter was subsequently sent from the Arab League to the White House with additional demands. Nonetheless, the public message sent by the Arab League was one of careful readiness to see the Palestinians enter the next phase of talks.

Abbas’s dilemma

The Arab League’s decision and the support for direct talks from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s Kind Abdullah II seem to place Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a tough spot. Speaking at the Arab League meeting, Abbas confessed that he had been under US pressure to agree to the commencement of direct negotiations. A State Department official recently stated that the US was engaged in “full court press” to ensure that talks begin soon. With such international support for talks, Abbas will find it increasingly difficult to maintain his opposition.

However, the PA leadership and the Fatah movement also face domestic pressure. For over two decades Fatah has portrayed itself as the only political force that can reach a negotiated agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, repeated failures of the peace process and widespread corruption have eroded Fatah’s popularity on the Palestinian street. Today, the movement stands between Hamas and its agenda of violent resistance and a growing group of independents led by PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. A leaked internal document, reputedly authored by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, noted that to cave in on the conditions he has maintained until now would be ‘political suicide’ for Abbas.

Explicitly, Abbas calls for a continuation of the Israeli moratorium on settlements and the acceptance of the 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations. However, Israel insists that these issues, along with other final-status issues, ought to be discussed when both sides are sitting around the negotiation table. To overcome this deadlock, Abbas may seek American assurances that the direct negotiation process will have substance and purpose. According to Qatari and Egyptian government officials, Abbas has been given a letter of US assurances regarding the peace process, but the content of the letter has not been made public.

In all likelihood, the American Administration will not provide Abbas with any easy solutions to the core issues of the conflict – Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security. However, the Americans have expressed their willingness to see a clear timeframe for negotiations and the establishment of a mechanism that will monitor how each side fulfils its obligations. The actual terms of reference – the issues to be discussed and the order of implementation – will have to be determined by the sides.

Getting talks underway

After months of indirect talks and relative lack of progress, there is now a broad international coalition backing the US call for the resumption of direct talks. Britain, France, Italy and Germany have actively been working behind the scenes to push the Palestinians back to direct negotiations. Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in recent weeks and received their support for direct talks.

However, the PA, and in a more ambiguous way the Arab League, are clearly reluctant to move forward without further guarantees from Washington. The Palestinian Authority’s stance, according to the latest reports, now appears to advocate a preliminary trilateral meeting of senior US, Israeli and Palestinian officials, which would decide on the agenda and timetable for direct talks. Such a meeting would also discuss the current settlement freeze, due to expire in late September.

With the Israeli settlement moratorium set to expire in late September, there is growing pressure on all sides to avoid a moment of crisis and ensure that progress is made beforehand. Despite Abbas’s reluctance to expose himself to domestic criticism for giving up on his previous demands, there is little more he can achieve by maintaining the current stalemate. It is likely that similar calculations led to the Arab League’s endorsement of direct talks, despite its longstanding scepticism toward the current Israeli government.

Conclusion

The Arab League’s endorsement of direct talks was just one more step toward the resumptions of direct contact between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. In itself, this is a small but important sign that the Arab world will avoid placing any additional obstacles for the renewal of talks and will allow the Palestinians to take the lead on this issue. For better or worse, Abbas and his close circle of advisors will face the final decision on whether or not to enter talks. Eyes now turn to the possible trilateral meeting in Washington next week between top Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators. The question is whether such a meeting has the ability to create the conducive environment for minimising risks and maximising the chances for diplomatic progress.