One aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has received more attention in recent years has been the topic of setting preconditions for negotiations. This is partially due to the Obama administration’s decision to demand a full settlement freeze–including “natural growth”–from Israel before the U.S. would throw its weight behind renewed talks.
It was poorly conceived, since prohibiting “natural growth” has no impact on borders and puts Palestinian day laborers out of work. And it didn’t do much to get negotiations going. But there is another reason preconditions should be used sparingly, and Abbas today demonstrated why. According to Haaretz:
The Palestinian Authority is set to demand that the Quartet pressure Israel to release prisoners in fulfillment of a pledge made by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, senior Palestinian sources told Haaretz on Monday.
Among the prisoners the PA wants released are Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat. The former is a member of the Fatah leadership, while Saadat is Secretary General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
At the Knesset on Monday, MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) said that Israel should not be surprised if the two current conditions the Palestinians have set for restarting talks–a halt to construction in the settlements and recognition of the 1967 borders as a basis for negotiations–become three, the third being the prisoner release.
This is obviously in response to the recent prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas for Gilad Shalit. One of the concerns about the deal was that it would strengthen Hamas. And in fact, the Haaretz article casually mentions that Hamas will be franchising its product, opening offices in Cairo and Jordan.
But more specifically, Abbas’s demand is patently absurd, and a clear indication he does not want to restart negotiations. Netanyahu has played hard-to-get himself in recent weeks, following the Palestinian attempt to void the Oslo accords at the UN. But Abbas is transparently torpedoing negotiations. He does not want Barghouti released; the suggestion that Barghouti was involved in the Shalit deal was universally seen as an attempt by Hamas to embarrass Abbas.
Abbas’s term in office legally ended quite some time ago. Barghouti’s popularity would easily eclipse that of Abbas, and finally give the Palestinians a reason to evict Arafat’s understudy. Abbas knows that Israel won’t agree to this trade. And that is the danger in opening the door to multiple preconditions: it’s a slippery slope. If the Obama administration supported the settlement freeze as a precondition, why wouldn’t they support Israel using the 1949 armistice lines as a precondition? And why not Barghouti too?
Abbas’s fear is that, just as Netanyahu agreed to the previous settlement freeze, he will agree to another one. So a second precondition had to be added, in the form of using the armistice lines as the basis for negotiations. But then there were murmurs that Netanyahu was willing to accept those too. So a third must be added. Whatever it takes to keep negotiations at bay. Because negotiations are also a slippery slope: what happens if a peace deal is reached? Just think of all the trouble Abbas has had to go through just to void the last one.