A New Day for Mideast Negotiations

With President Obama’s reelection, prospects for progress in Middle East disputes have brightened but no one expects the resolution of crises in Syria, Iran, Israel, Palestine and elsewhere to be easy. An offhand remark by a Palestinian leader shows how complex some issues remain, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received attention the other day with a remark about the possible return of Palestinian Arabs to Israel. He was asked in an interview whether he wanted to return to the town in the Galilee region where he grew up and from which he had been driven as a 13-year-old during the war in 1948 that accompanied the establishment of Israel.

Abbas replied that he would like to visit the town but not live there. Although he described himself as a refugee, he referred to the boundary that lasted until a later Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and said that Palestine is on one side of that border and Israel is on the other.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

The comment, despite being an apparently unscripted answer to an interview question, was seized on in various quarters as a significant concession on the longstanding issue of “right of return.” Some Israelis hopeful of meaningful peace negotiations, including President Shimon Peres, lauded Abbas’s remark.

Abbas’s Palestinian rivals in Hamas denounced his comment, saying he had no right to make such a “concession” on behalf of the Palestinian people. Both sorts of reactions vastly overstated the significance of the remark.

Abbas hasn’t really made any formal concessions on this issue. The official Palestinian position is still that there is a right of return, but when commenting at other times about the right of return Abbas has shown himself to be realistic.

He has observed that if all the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, now numbering several million, were to return to Israel that would effectively destroy Israel, and he has no desire to do that, wanting instead to live alongside Israel. He has also appropriately questioned how many Palestinians would want to go back to live in their old home towns. Many say they would in principle, but if the reality would be to live as a minority in the Jewish state, most would have preferences similar to Abbas’s own.

What the reactions to Abbas’s comment illustrate, besides an overplaying of the comment itself, is a common tendency to confuse a position maintained for bargaining purposes with some kind of intractable bottom line demand. Some elements may have an interest in promoting such confusion, such as in this case Hamas, which tried to use the issue as a stick with which to beat Abbas. Partly because of such promotion, others may genuinely but mistakenly believe that a negotiating position is a rigid demand.

In any conflict with multiple major issues in dispute, and that is certainly true of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it behooves each side not to make concessions even on issues on which it is willing to concede until and unless it gets something in return on other issues.

Everyone concerned has long realized that a reasonable resolution of the issue of right of return would be some formula that lets Palestinians claim the right has been recognized but that involves only a symbolically small number, no more than a few thousand, actually moving to Israel, perhaps with monetary compensation provided to the rest.

Palestinian leaders, however, would be foolish to offer such a formula without getting anything on other issues of concern to them, including borders and the status of Jerusalem.

Similar situations arise all the time, including on other matters of concern to Israel. Why should Hamas, for example, make unilateral concessions involving something such as recognition of Israel if it does not get in return something as basic as recognition of Hamas?

On that all-preoccupying matter involving Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranians have given ample indication of flexibility on restricting their enrichment of uranium and on much else. But they would be foolish to make unilateral concessions with no prospect of getting anything in return on matters of importance to them.

When someone seems to be adhering to a position that ought not to be a vital interest to them, we should not make the mistake of interpreting this as a mark of obduracy and unreasonableness. More likely it means they are willing to bargain.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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6 comments for “A New Day for Mideast Negotiations

  1. Rehmat
    November 7, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    I will let American writer and blogger from Philadelphia, Linh Dinh, whom I just watched on RT’s “Cross Talk” show – to answer what’s store for the Muslim nations in the Middle East.

    Linh said that American elections are fraud which only allow American voters to keep electing war criminals and protectors of the filthy-rich Wall Street bankers.

    “America does not have a representative democracy. If you vote for someone for his rhetoric and promises, which he promptly ignores after the election, then you’re not being represented, I’m sorry, though with your votes, you’ve just sanctioned (Obama) him to go on abusing you and the rest of the world. Ignoring his kill list, undeclared wars and other violations of justice, you’ve chosen to swallow whole his sound bites, so you will fully deserve what’s coming to you, though it’s unfortunate that so many other victims will have to suffer also”.

    http://rehmat1.com/2012/11/07/netanyahu-obama-victory-is-good-for-israel/

    • Otto Schiff
      November 10, 2012 at 3:25 pm

      The usual Rehmat crap.

  2. Rehmat
    November 7, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    “Mahmoud Abbas is arguably the most extraordinary the double agent in the Middle East…. Most of what he does for Israeli and the US masters he does in plain sight,” Jefrey Blankfort, an American Jewish writer.

    When Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) called Israeli President Shimon Peres to wish him ‘Happy Rosh Hashana’ – Peres pleaded with Abbas to trust Benji Netanyahu, calling him the best ‘negotiating partner’ the Palestinians living under Jewish boots ever had. ” Don’t abandon the talks before peace is achieved. There is no one more suited than you to achieve peace for your people, and for the entire region,” Peres told Abbas on the phone.

    http://rehmat1.com/2010/09/24/abbas-the-double-agent/

  3. paschn
    November 15, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    So much for the gentle, poor victimized Israel…

    This man was a captain in the IDF until he learned, (through troubled research), the truth about Israel. Peruse his sight, you might get information other than the pablum fed you by the lame-stream media.

    http://www.roitov.com/articles/jabari.htm

    You may also want to revisit the light-hearted party Israeli lackey Bush attended where he waxed comedic over WMD your husbands/sons/daughters/wives died trying to find and lost their immortal souls for their efforts….the same bunch of boot-lickers lying you into invading and ruining yet another nation, (Iran), unwilling to allow a Central Bank into their lives;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvliUuXjbL4

    Here’s a great one to gauge Israel’s deep appreciation over their latest occupied territory, (Washington D.C.), lavishing them with money/blood/reputation;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNMFZZOOZLg

    The above must have been filmed during a break in attacks on Christian and Muslim clergy, eh?

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