A closer look at the Palestinian negotiation strategy reveals that even a master negotiator is doomed to fail
In a fascinating scene from the documentary movie “The Fog of War,” Robert McNamara, the American Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, discusses a 1992 meeting with Fidel Castro. During that meeting, McNamara discovered for the first time that during the Cuban Missile Crisis the Soviet Union had already delivered 162 nuclear warheads to Cuba. Shocked to the depths of his soul, McNamara stops the meeting and asks Castro three questions:
(1) Did you know the nuclear warheads were there?
(2) Would you have recommended to Khrushchev – in the face of a US attack – that he’d use them?
(3) If he had used them, what would have happened to Cuba?
The dictator answered immediately:
(1) I knew they were there.
(2) I would not “have recommended to Khrushchev” – I did recommend to Khrushchev that they’d be used.
(3) It [Cuba] would have been totaly destroyed.
McNamara, still refusing to believe what he heard, thinking about the nuclear destruction, and with tears of despair, said: “That’s how close we were,” indicating a tiny space between his forefinger and thumb.
History of the Negotiations
There is no doubt that McNamara had mistaken expectations with regard to Castro and his behavior. “Rationality alone will not save us,” declared the former Secretary of Defense. But this is a lame excuse that seeks to cover up his failure in understanding the opponent, his thinking and objectives.
The history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is also paved with tears of despair. In order to explain why, it is crucial to understand the fundamental beliefs which guide the Left’s expectations. There are four such convictions:
1. A comprehensive peace deal is good for both sides;
2. The differences can be bridged;
3. Prior negotiations came close to an agreement;
4. Everyone knows what the solution will be.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians always seems “so close” – but remains elusive. And similar to McNamara, the fault is not with the other side; instead it is the Left’s mistaken understanding of the Palestinians. The tears of despair are the result of misguided expectations. In order to examine this, the following is a summary of the negotiations led by Left wing governments in Israel.
After it became clear in Israel that agreements such as Oslo, which are not permanent accords, do not achieve the intended results; there were a number of attempts to reach a “comprehensive peace agreement.”
Already in the 2000 Camp David summit, Ehud Barak surprised even his Israeli staff with a far reaching proposal. When President Clinton heard it, his eyes lit up. “Now”, he announced, “we have something to work with.” Encouraged, Clinton went to convince Arafat, and, according to Dennis Ross, explained to him clearly –
why the stakes were high and this was the moment, and maybe historically the Palestinians never controlled their own destiny –but this is the moment. If this fails he (Arafat) couldn’t blame this on others.
All of the elements of a peace deal were present: a great “deal,” plenty of goodwill, a charismatic American president with convincing arguments and a strong desire to leave a legacy of peace, and a determined “courageous” left-wing Israeli prime minister. Euphoria swept over Camp David. History was about to be made.
But Arafat said: NO.
Shortly thereafter, Clinton tried to save something from Barak’s tenure, and suggested his generous “parameters.” Clinton thought progress had been made, and still had hope in his heart. He met Arafat again, utilizing all his wit and charm.
But Arafat again said: NO.
One may say, “well, that was Arafat.” But the negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) prove that we are dealing with a deeper issue.
In 2008, the most generous offer ever made was presented to the Palestinians. The concessions were excessive, crossing every Israeli red line: Olmert promised to withdraw all presence of the Israel Defense Forces from Judea and Samaria; he conceded sovereignty over east Jerusalem and the Old City – including the Western Wall! He offered 94% of the territory of Judea and Samaria, and the remaining 6% would be given to the Palestinians with land swaps in central Israeli areas, including a tunnel that would connect Gaza to the West Bank. Olmert implored Abu Mazen: “The Palestinians won’t get an offer like this even in another 50 years!”
Again, everything was ready. The teams were excited. Abbas himself admits that such a generous offer was unprecedented. Only one thing was missing to finally end this cursed and unnecessary conflict, one with gaps that can be bridged and a solution known to all: that Abu Mazen would say: “yes!”
But Abu Mazen said: NO.
Yet, Olmert’s failure didn’t discourage the progressive and most pro-Palestinian Administration since the Carter era, led by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The staffs were reassembled for negotiation talks, and on July 30, 2013 Kerry announced – with a latent comic talent – that he planned to reach a historic agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians “within nine months!”
Once more, the stage was set. Kerry oversaw the negotiations and Obama led from behind. The American president even met Abu Mazen and implored him to seize the moment. This was a grace period for the Palestinians: The complete support of an American president who dreams of a peace legacy in Middle East – even at the expense of Israel’s interests.
But even to this duo, Abu Mazen said: NO.
To better understand the Palestinian refusal, the Palestinians’ conduct during negotiations must also be examined. Here, too, there is a clear pattern that is documented by people on the Left. For example, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said to journalist Ari Shavit after the Camp David failure:
Ben-Ami: After a while Clinton became very angry and yelled horrifically. He said to Abu Ala…that the Palestinians have to present their own positive proposals….
Shavit: The Palestinians didn’t offer a counter proposal?
Ben-Ami: No. That’s the heart of the matter. There is never a Palestinian counter offer. There never was one and there never will be. Therefore the Israeli side always finds itself in a dilemma: either I get up and go…or I make another concession, another squeeze. But at the end, even the most moderate person reaches the point where he says to himself: wait a minute, the people on the other side have no end goal. Another squeeze and another squeeze, but it’s never enough for them. It never ends.
The story of the heartbroken dove Ben-Ami is in line with many descriptions of the Palestinian conduct, including from the American team. For example, this is how Dennis Ross describes the back and forth between President Clinton and the Palestinian negotiating team at Camp David:
President Clinton said: ‘This is the beginning of the negotiations, so I need you to respond to it.’ Abu Ala said: ‘I can’t respond to this.’ [Clinton said] ‘At least point out what were the problems with the Israeli map. Don’t just reject it. Point out the problems.’ And they wouldn’t even do that. Every suggestion he made, they simply said no to.
In a similar way Ross describes the meeting between the President and Arafat about the Clinton Parameters, which were meant to create a framework for future negotiations. “Arafat,” he says,
immediately started to question everything that he’s asked to do. Every single item in the Clinton Parameters that required something of the Palestinians – he rejected.
This was not merely a problem with Arafat’s character or his unwillingness to reach an agreement. As Palestinian staff member Saeb Erekat reveals, when their team received Ehud Barak’s far reaching plan, Abu Mazen himself said to Arafat: “It’s a non-starter, and we cannot accept this, it’s a liquidation sale.”
Three Monumental Historical Facts
There are an abundance of such testimonies. But the time has come to look at the big picture, from which three determinative facts arise with regard to the Palestinians’ conduct in everything related to negotiations.
1. The Palestinians never initiate negotiations. They are always forced upon them.
2. During the negotiations, the Palestinians never present their own peace plan.
3. The Palestinians end every negotiation, no matter how generous the offer, with a refusal.
These are monumental facts. Three Palestinian resounding NO’s that repeat themselves again and again.
A Necessary Paradigm Change
When a thinking person discovers that reality repeatedly contradicts his convictions, he must ask himself whether he is holding on to a false set of beliefs. He has to check if there is an alternative theory that explains more facts and that would have better predicted occurrences.
In this case, there is a simple and convincing explanation that covers all the relevant data: the Palestinians do not want to negotiate a permanent agreement.
Let us consider our two competing theories. The first theory states that the Palestinians desire peace, like the Israelis and Americans who negotiated with them, but for some mysterious reason they act as if they are not interested in it. Consequently, the Left, who espouses this theory, is forced to start making excuses for the Palestinian’s behavior, instead of explaining it.
The problem is that it isn’t easy to explain five “historical opportunities” that were “missed” in only the last 17 years, especially in light of the complete lack of positive evidence for the claim that the Palestinians want a final-status agreement. The best this theory can offer is that the facts and testimonies are evidence of a Palestinian negotiations tactic – which means that the Palestinians are very poor tacticians, because the negotiations always fail.
On the other hand, the competing theory states that the talks always fail because the Palestinians are not interested in negotiating a permanent agreement. This claim successfully explains Palestinian behavior during the past two decades of negotiations, from signing agreements that were not final, to the stubborn refusal to advance in the direction of a permanent and comprehensive peace agreement.
According to this thIt’s not a negotiation tactic that fails each time, but the exact opposite: it is a successful strategy of abstention from a permanent agreement.
If the new theory sounds strange, it in only because we have become accustomed not only to the idea that everyone always prefers a peace treaty, but also to the paradigm that is rooted on “missed historical opportunities.”
The truth is that when there is joint will to reach an agreement, there is no need for unique “historical opportunities.” But when there is no such will, there is only an illusion of “opportunities.” The bitter joke that “the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” is completely illogical. Since the Palestinians don’t want the end that these “opportunities” present, for them these are not opportunities at all – more like historical traps. This is why they need to be avoided rather than taken advantage of.
Changing the paradigm has consequences. It turns out that the Left’s four principles of faith, that we opened with, are false: (1) the Palestinians don’t think a “comprehensive peace deal” is good for them; (2) from their perspective the gaps can’t be bridged; (3) no negotiation came close to a successful conclusion; and (4) they don’t accept the same end of conflict resolution that the Left believes “everyone knows.” These are but myths based on nothing more than the Left’s internal discourse.
There Won’t be a Deal, There Will be Violence
When the 2000 Camp David talks collapsed, President Clinton said in his publicized speech:
Prime Minister Barak made some very bold decisions, but in the end we were unable to bridge the gaps. I think they will be bridged, because I think the alternative is unthinkable.
But not only was the alternative “thinkable” for the Palestinians, they chose it in a very real manner. And here we reach the danger in dogmatic thinking about the conflict.
The routine problem of the history of negotiation failures is that they lead to Palestinian escalation and violence. Now we can understand why. Since the Palestinians oppose negotiations, after every round of forced talks, the Palestinian leadership has to prove to their people that they did not concede anything. And so, after the pendulum has swung from the status-quo to the direction of “peace,” they have an urgent political need to compensate by diverting the pendulum in the direction of violence.
Such escalations are not only terrible not for the Israelis and the Palestinians. They are also bad for the brokering American president, because both the failure and Israel’s need to react to the new escalation tend to weaken his stand in the Middle East.
All of this is bad news for President Trump. He is certainly an expert in negotiations and closing deals, but a deal has a prerequisite of two sides thinking it can benefit them – a condition which doesn’t exist on the Palestinian side. Even the best mediator cannot bridge the gap of the refusal to bridge gaps.
It is more likely, therefore, that like all of his predecessors, the negotiation that Trump will force upon the Palestinians will end miserably. It is not a lack in mediation skills that will foil Trump’s efforts, but the mistaken conception that the Palestinians are interested in negotiating a peace agreement at all.
Therefore, were I able to advise him, I would ask President Trump to give up on the attempt to achieve “a deal”. This is in sync with what he said in his speech in Saudi Arabia:
We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. We will be guided by the lessons of experience, not the confines of rigid thinking.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations history is the best example of inflexible ideology, contradicted to its core by the real-world outcomes and lessons of experience.
If the President is still unconvinced and wants proof ahead of failure, I would ask him to perform a simple test: before he commits to negotiations, he should ask the Palestinians for their peace plan – the Israelis’ he has long had. If he receives one, by all means, try another round of negotiations. But if the Palestinians send him – as Arafat used to say – “to drink Gaza’s sea water,” it’s a sign that nothing has changed and failure is looming on the horizon.
This doesn’t suggest that there is no path forward. With realistic expectations and an understanding of both sides, there are many things that can be done. But, as strange as this may sound to him, his biggest success would be to concede in advance the attempt to reach the “most difficult deal” – because it is a fake deal. The best thing to do is to let the misleading peace dogma finally rest in peace.
Dr. Ran Baratz served as Director of Communications for Prime Minister Netanyahu between 2016-2017.