Negotiations must be about substance not form

Among Palestinians, the discussion that has been held in political and media circles in recent weeks about the need to move from indirect to direct talks is perceived as being about Israel trying to escape its responsibilities by trying to shift the focus from substance to form.

In the Palestinian understanding, the form of negotiations, whether direct or indirect, is not what has been preventing progress in the peace process. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have negotiated, mostly directly, for over 18 years without much progress. The problem is not the lack of or form of negotiations, but rather the level of seriousness evinced by the parties about the substantial issues of negotiations.

In addition, there is a strong feeling among Palestinians that Israel has two other motives behind the desire to move from indirect to direct talks.

The first is that the proximity talks that have been conducted so far involve the presence of a US mediator shuttling between the sides. This kind of negotiation thus includes a witness to the level of seriousness of each party, who can testify as to who has been adhering to the terms of reference and the relevant stipulations of international law. In direct talks, however, it is one side’s word against the other as to who is responsible for any lack of progress. Israel would like to remove this witness.

The second is that from past experience, Israel likes to play power politics to ensure a reflection of the imbalance of power on the ground at the negotiating table. The Palestinian side wants to ensure that this time, negotiations reflect specific terms of reference based on the internationally accepted roadmap, which later became a UN Security Council resolution, other relevant international resolutions and previously signed agreements. This is something the current Israeli government seems uncomfortable with.

Another Palestinian concern is related to continuing Israeli practices that consolidate the occupation. The fear among Palestinians is that resuming direct negotiations without ensuring a cessation of all Israeli settlement activity will only provide a cover for continuing these Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.

Palestinians very well remember that while the years of negotiating the implementation of the Oslo agreement did not move us toward an end of occupation, they did allow Israel to increase the number of settlements and double the number of settlers on the very territory that is supposed to become, through negotiations, the land of a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian side is committed to a peaceful and negotiated solution and is enthusiastic about resuming negotiations. However, with past failures in mind, Palestinians want to ensure that lessons have been learnt properly for any next phase of negotiations. The last thing the Palestinian side wants to see is another Annapolis process. That would only empower the wrong forces in the two respective societies while undermining the peace camps, which are promising their respective publics freedom, peace, security and prosperity through negotiations.

It is crucial that any next phase of negotiations, in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, from the outset contain as many ingredients for success as possible. These comprise preventing the two sides from any activity that could jeopardize negotiations, including all violence and all settlement activities. They also include clear commitments to signed agreements and the roadmap, which stipulates that the aim of negotiations is to end the occupation that started in 1967.