Reporter's notebook'Imagine we start talks tomorrow, without a framework, and they fail. Imagine the disappointment on the streets. We've already been in that disaster'

There’s no Palestinian ‘Plan B,’ just an unrealistic ‘Study 13’

Abbas has no clear strategy for ‘the day after’ Kerry’s effort to restart peace talks fails, just Saeb Erekat’s melodramatic series of ‘fateful decisions’

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Ramallah on Sunday, April 7, 2013. (photo credit:AP/Mohamed Torokman)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Ramallah on Sunday, April 7, 2013. (photo credit:AP/Mohamed Torokman)

RAMALLAH — “Forget about plan B, there is no plan B,” a Palestinian official told me during a Sunday visit to Ramallah. “If you think they [Abbas and the Palestinian leadership] know what to do after Kerry’s attempt to renew the negotiations, you’re wrong.”

My talk with this Palestinian official took place barely two hours after yet another meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and US Secretary of State John Kerry had ended. This time, they met in Istanbul. According to the Palestinian ambassador to Turkey, this talk, too, did not result in anything significant. Kerry has already met with Abbas in Riyadh, Amman, and Ramallah — and that last one was directly after President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem and Israel. None of these meetings yielded noteworthy results.

Israel continues to refuse the Palestinians’ preconditions for returning to the negotiating table: a declaration regarding terms of reference for Israel’s obligation to the two-state solution based on 1967 borders, and/or a construction freeze in West Bank settlements. Israel is willing to make a few economic gestures, and possibly release a few high-ranking prisoners, but nothing more.

The frustration in Ramallah is widespread, and senior PA officials, as well as the Palestinian public, are mired in a general state of melancholy, not only because of the lack of political headway with Israel. For the time being, it seems that the Palestinian leadership has no clear strategy or plan to turn to “the day after” American attempts to renew the negotiations fail. In addition, reconciliation talks with Hamas have been stagnant for a long period of time, the economic situation does not show signs of improving, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, fed up with Fatah internal dirty politics, resigned last week — despite the drastic improvements in quality of life felt in the West Bank since he was appointed in the summer of 2007.

His position, for all those who might be interested, remains vacant as of this writing.

Study 13

The only kind of “Day After” plan is a paper that was written by the head of the PLO negotiation team, Saeb Erekat. In early April, Erekat presented the Palestinian leadership with a document he called “Dirasa 13,” or “Study 13.”

Erekat, who also oversees the Negotiation Support Unit, a foreign-funded NGO that advises Palestinian negotiators, laid out a series of steps that could be taken should negotiations remain at a dead end, now that Palestine has been granted non-member observer state status by the UN.

Over one thing, one might find a rare consensus in Ramallah: ‘The question is not if Kerry fails, but when’

Erekat dramatically called his plan “the moment of truth — crossroads — decisions of fate,” despite the fact that the plan doesn’t contain a single decision that could have fateful ramifications for the Palestinian people. Rather, Erekat and his staff recommend: drafting a Palestinian constitution, making progress on reconciliation with Hamas (this goal is unrealistic, said a Palestinian who recently met newly reelected Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khaled Mashaal) and finally, that the “State of Palestine” join international organizations, and adopt international conventions/protocols.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Saeb Erekat in Jerusalem, April 2012. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Erekat wrote that Palestine must immediately adopt the Fourth Geneva Convention, the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations (including conflict resolution), and 19 other international recognized protocols, some more well-known than others.

The specific “fateful decisions” that must be taken, according to Erekat, are as follows:

  1. Adopting the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which would allow for membership in the International Criminal Court.
  2. Joining the International Criminal Court. Erekat warns that joining the ICC can get tricky, and require consultation with experts on international law:
  3. Joining the International Court of Justice. Here, Erekat takes a step back and explains that joining this court would require approval from the UN Security Council, on which the US has veto power.
  4. Joining the Permanent Court of Arbitration — this would require willing cooperation from Holland.

It can be understood from Erekat’s presentation that the Palestinian Authority’s options on the legal front are quite limited.

From here, the PLO chief negotiator lists the various international organizations that Palestine could join, including UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and 18 other agencies. Israel, I suspect, would not be greatly fazed even if Palestine joins every one of them as a full member. Joining most such organizations would be nothing more than a symbolic achievement, and would have very little influence, if any, on the situation on the ground.

We have a nuclear weapon

There are some serious doubts over whether “Study 13” will become the guide book for the Palestinian negotiators, the day after Kerry’s efforts fail.

Erekat’s plan is really a non-paper. It includes many ideas, and, as discussed, many of them are not realistic; others are facing opposition from inside PLO.

Over one thing, one might find a rare consensus in Ramallah: “The question is not if Kerry fails, but when,” a different Palestinian official told me, in his office. According to him, the secretary of state’s ruse to “tempt” Abbas back to the negotiating table with economic gestures from Israel is completely misguided.

As one Palestinian official puts it, ‘It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the freedom.’

“It’s not the economy, stupid,” this official said with a smile. “It’s the freedom. Come see the people in Ramallah. They’re enjoying themselves, sitting in coffee shops, in restaurants. Some of them receive normal salaries. But Israel goes to the trouble to remind us nearly every day that there’s an occupation, and the people are fed up. Arrests within the PA territory, harassment from the settlers, construction on Palestinian land. And even if Israel transfers the tax money on time, or approves plans to build industrial zones in the Jordan River Valley, that doesn’t solve the problem, or satisfy the people’s desire for a state.”

A third Palestinian official with whom I spoke (and who, like his comrades, refused to reveal his name) tried to explain the nature of the threat to turn to the International Criminal Court, should negotiations fail. Essentially, he indicated, the threat was empty, insignificant. “We’ve realized that we have a nuclear weapon,” he said with deep sarcasm. “Historically, we’ve seen that the Israeli reaction to this court is a ‘nuclear bomb,’ just like the one Iran is trying to build, and we understand that it backs Israel into a corner.”

But when the cynicism subsides, the official reveals his despair. “We’ve tried everything, including direct meetings with Netanyahu, but at the moment, there is no common ground at all. During a discussion with Abu Mazen, Netanyahu said that he is not ready to talk about Jerusalem, and Israel will stay in the Jordan River Valley for at least the next 40 years. So who is there to talk to?”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (L) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2010 (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2010 (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

But what do you have to lose? I asked. Why did you agree to talk to the former prime ministerial Ehuds, Olmert and Barak, without preconditions? Are you afraid of the Palestinian public?

“Abu Mazen is not afraid of the Palestinian public. He has shown in the past that he is not fazed by pressure from the streets,” he replied. “Our demands are not ‘preconditions,’ I don’t like that word. But without them, what do we have to talk about? What’s the point? Do you know how many times I’ve been involved in talks with Israel? If there is no agreement that the framework of the talks is 1967 borders, including territory swaps, then there’s no point. The Israeli side is wasting time, Netanyahu is sitting in a government with (Jewish Home’s Naftali) Bennett, who is more extreme than he is, and they will never allow for a Palestinian state.

“Now let’s imagine that we’re starting talks tomorrow, without a framework, without a freeze, and three months later the talks stop because there’s no progress. You can imagine the disappointment in the streets; that could lead to events like those in September 2000 (when the Second Intifada began). We’ve already been in that disaster.”

But if there are no negotiations, you could reach that same scenario.

“Correct, but at this point we are trying to convince the American and Israeli side that it’s still possible to have serious talks.”

This official’s remarks reflect the common position of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, and this is what John Kerry is dealing with, and will have to deal with over the coming months: the Palestinian side — just like the Israeli side — has a complete lack of faith in its “partner.”

“In talks between Abbas and President Obama, the Palestinian president said to his American counterpart that he is 78 years old, and still hopes to see a peace deal with Israel in his lifetime. The problem is that no one on our side sees anyone on Netanyahu’s side as being serious, or having real intentions to advance the peace process,” this official concluded.” It’s sad, but during the last elections in Israel, not only did the settlers become the consensus, but even more than that, no party took an interest in what was going on with the Palestinians. And what’s even sadder is that on our side, yet again, we’re hearing the opinion that only if Tel Aviv suffers, will something happen with the negotiations.”

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