Abbas and Netanyahu
The Palestinian-Israeli peace talks under the auspices of the Americans were on the verge of collapse. But collapse does not mean that the talks were ending. Instead of engaging in a real ritual death dance over the demise of their respective greatest hopes and a revival of their greatest fears, the two leaders of Palestine and Israel respectively demonstrate quite clearly that both parties are committed to shadow boxing rather than wrestling with one another.
Under the Kerry non-traditional approach to negotiations, instead of dancing around on the periphery and dealing with soluble issues like negotiations over sharing water as confidence building measures, the two parties were to focus on the core issues that stood in the way of an agreement: the disposition of East Jerusalem and particularly the Old City with the Golden Dome and the great Mosque as well as the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter; the drawing of other borders and the disposition of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the question of refugees and the right of return; the security arrangements.
It may be hard to believe, but in three years Palestinians will have lived under occupation for fifty years – for half a century. It took an enormous amount of time, decades, for the two peoples. Palestinians and Jews – or at least a majority of them, though a larger majority among the Jews than among the Palestinians – to give up on the idea of vanquishing one another and, instead, accepting the idea that the two peoples could and should and would live side by side one another in two separate states governing portions of the land. No mutual solution could be envisaged in which one party became the ruling nation over all the land and the other was allowed to live there as a tolerated minority. And the ideal of two nations sharing the land and a single state remained only as the delusion of either utopian dreamers or a tricky but hardly hidden device for one nation to achieve predominance under the illusion that Palestinians and Jews were just individual humans with only individual and no collective rights.
Further, though the gross numbers of the populace in each nation were not dissimilar, Israelis as victors inherit 78% of the land and Palestinians only get 22%, a seemingly very bitter pill for the losing party to swallow except when actual populations on the ground are considered – 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank versus 8.6 million Israelis (6.1 million Jews and 2.5 million non-Jews, most non-Jews being Palestinians). Previous negotiations demonstrate that most Palestinians have swallowed that pill. But they also demonstrated that the Palestinians adamantly refuse to swallow any more. And the minority of Jewish Israelis who are eager to swallow more of the land eagerly point to the Palestinian militant resistance and those who refuse to accept this accommodation at all. Thus the Palestinian and Israeli militants mirror one another and serve each other up as reasons why no deal can ever be made.
However, that is not the explanation that both parties are now engaged in shadow boxing rather than either a draw or a final fight to the finish – which the international community would not tolerate for a variety of both hypocritical and sincere reasons. Let me first demonstrate that both parties are engaged in shadow boxing rather than in pacific wrestling with one another. I begin with a brief explanation of shadow boxing. As the name suggests, each fighter boxes not with an opponent but by themselves. There is no recipient for the punches thrown. Shadow boxing is useful in refining timing and perfecting technique but plays absolutely no role in determining outcomes. Shadow boxing is a warm up exercise not even for the main bout but for preparing to enter the ring in the first place. In shadow boxing, the concern of each party is not with landing the right blow but with projecting his own rhythm and identity and how the party appears a boxer. Shadow boxing is not a facsimile of real boxing. It is not sparring but a dance form of non-engagement with the other and absolute engagement with oneself and one’s own appearance to improve one’s style and rhythm. Each practices drills rather than engagement.
In boxing, there are two different styles of engaging in shadow exercises. Muhammad Ali used shadow boxing to perfect his musical shuffle as his body keened forward and backwards and his long reach alternated with short but punitive jabs and straight shots to the head. A fighter disadvantaged by height, weight, reach or speed tends to practice a very different style – huddling and crouching and shifting his torso from one side to another. His movements are left and right rather than forward or back as he searches for openings and opportunities to jar his opponent with surprise punches slipped through openings that appear and disappear with the blink of an eye. The long method of the former style of shadow boxing is an exercise in strategic engagement. The short style of the disadvantaged opponent requires a more slippery and tactical rather than strategic approach in which muscle, weight and willingness to receive punishing blows count more than finesse. Once an opening is found, the fighter pummels away as rapidly and furiously as possible to take advantage of the situation. The latter style is exemplified by Mike Tyson versus Muhammad Ali.
When Mahmoud Abbas announced that if talks end on 29 April without an extension, he promised that he would never appear in the ring again and would force the Israeli government as the occupying authority to take responsibility for the citizens of the West Bank. He promised to dissolve the Palestinian Authority if the peace talks were not renewed. Since such threats have been uttered at least a half a dozen times before, and since his main rival, Nabil Amir, a former adviser, and his lead negotiator, Saib Erekat, both openly ridiculed the idea, it is too easy to dismiss Abbas’ threat. But when viewed as an exercise in shadow boxing, it is Abbas’ long jab. He is just flailing for everyone knows how much the Palestinians are dependent on international donations. The USA is the largest single contributor. And that is precisely why he made the lunge. He did not want to be weighed with the responsibility of ending the talks.
His second short and powerful jab was meant to reinforce his alignment with John Kerry. He insisted that if the talks are extended a further nine months, the first three months should focus on final borders, which would mean focussing on Jerusalem, the central issue still in contention.
At the time Abbas was setting out his conditions for renewing negotiations – and expressing his sincerity in following up with John Kerry’s priorities – Azzam al-Ahmad, a senior Fatah official, was leaving for Gaza for the first time since 2007, when Hamas evicted the PLO from the Gaza strip, to try to forge the basis for ending the division within the Palestinian camp, but ending it on a basis in which those opposed to any deal with Israel would be within a single overarching tent. Since those Israelis opposed to the talks continually cited the divisions among the Palestinians as one reason the talks were futile, while others said that if the rejectionists were included within the Palestinian Authority, it meant the talks could go nowhere – putting the Palestinians in a no win situation, the PLO effort to answer Prime Minster Ismail Hamiyeh’s invitation to find a basis for national reconciliation to forge one government and one political agenda could be interpreted as either answering that primary criticism or as a final nail in the prospect of a successful conclusion of the talks since Hamas has been labelled a terrorist organization by many Western governments as well as Israel. Netanyahu informed the Austrian Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz, that the PA could either negotiate with Israel or reconcile with Hamas, but not do both.
Unless, of course, Hamas has given up its opposition to making a deal with Israel and has agreed to renounce terror – a previously far–fetched idea but not an impossible one given that Hamas has been outflanked on the terror front by Islamic Jihad and given the economic perils in Gaza especially following the Egyptian military government’s enforcement of the closure of the tunnels. That would mean that the rumours that the two sides had developed a power-sharing formula and agreed to forge a common front in dealing with Israel, the other main block to a united front. New elections are evidently promised in the next six months. More importantly, it would mean Hamas had given up being Hamas and had renounced terror and the reliance on armed struggle – even if only while negotiations are underway, and, even more importantly, if it would have to accept the Quartet’s bottom line – recognition of the State of Israel if a new National Unity Government was to be able to continue negotiations with Israel.
Clearly, the PLO has developed not only a fallback position in addition to its international initiatives with the UN but a forward strategy in negotiations with Israel to counter balance Naftali Bennett’s forceful presence in the Israeli cabinet. This fallback position includes providing full backing for the BDS campaign against Israel which Abbas alluded to in citing it as an indicator that at least the Europeans had become supporters of the Palestinian cause. Of course, there are the other conditions, release of the final group of 26 of the 104 prisoners as promised, a benefit of the talks the PLO is loathe to forfeit, and a freeze on settlements, this time not only in the West Bank but in those portions of Jerusalem across the old Green Line, including Gilo, an accession that would mean that the growth of Jerusalem would be virtually stalled in its tracks if the government acceded to that demand and, therefore, an unlikely concession even if only for the next nine months or, as Abbas hinted, even for just three more months. This is clearly a new demand since the talks up to now were based on Israel being allowed to build in areas which the PLO previously conceded would be part of Israel in a future deal.
On the border issue, Abbas indicated that he was not just interested in preparatory discussions. He wanted a firm offer on the table from Israel – putting the ball totally in the Israeli court since the Palestinian opening salvo was always a return to the old Green Line, an impossible starting point that presumes that Israel had been totally wasted in the Six Day War by the Palestinians. Further, he rejected not only any return to the use of violence and a resumption of a third intifada, but insisted the security arrangements with Israel would continue whether or not the talks resume. The option that the late Faisal Husseini had advocated of renouncing violence and adopting non-violence as the modus operandi of the PLO had finally become the official wisdom informing Fatah if not PLO strategy. In that context, Abbas condemned the killing of the Israeli Police Chief Superintendent, Baruch Mizrachi, on the first night of Passover near Hebron while remarking snidely that Israel has not expressed any regret for the many Palestinians killed.
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu predictably dismissed Abbas’ offers as just gestures aimed at preventing the talks from going ahead, but it was just as clear that his shuffling back and forth and relying on the same small repertoire of quick jabs and long punches were just efforts at shadow boxing but with a radically different style. He too did not want to be blamed by the Americans for sabotaging the talks. On the other hand, though he now accepts a two-state solution, he adamantly opposes the division of Jerusalem and allowing the Palestinian Authority to make East Jerusalem its capital, a position that John Kerry and Martin Indyk have both accepted if there is to be a peace agreement. Netanyahu will have to show some very fancy footwork if he is not to be blamed for destroying the talks. The shadow boxing has become negotiations by another means.
There are very positive signs in all the shadow boxing. The refugee issue and the right of return, which had been such a major source of blockage in the past, is no longer front and centre. Clearly past formulas, at least in outline, have been accepted by both sides for resolving the issue. Lest it re-emerge, Netanyahu is understandably reluctant to make Jerusalem and borders the centre of discussion for the next three months. On the other hand, Netanyahu is faced with his own domestic pressures from his left as well as his right. For Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid has now clearly signalled that his party would sooner rather than later drop out of the coalition if the talks with the Palestinians cease. However, Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi has threatened to bolt if the prisoners are released when the talks seem to promise only failure, though Avigdor Liberman pooh-poohed Bennet’s threats even more vigorously than Ekrat dumped on Abbas’ threat to abandon the Palestinian Authority for direct governance by Israel of the West Bank. Besides, Bennett’s second-in-command, Uri Ariel, currently the Construction and Housing Minster, had already signalled the basis of a compromise – stripping the citizenship of Israeli Arabs released from prison and expelling them.
Will the shadow boxing lead to a new round of peace talks or are the efforts of both sides clear signs of failure? My main message is that shadow boxing is merely training for the main event, an effort at posturing and self-indentification. There is not encounter, merely mutual display. The display is sufficient to predict the talks will continue even if the 29 April deadline is not met. If they do, Netanyahu will find himself in a very perilous position, far more perilous than Abbas.