Almost two decades have passed since the launch of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, more if we count the unofficial contacts over the years that paved the way for formal talks. The “Declaration of Principles” (DOP) signed in Washington D.C. by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Government of Israel on 13 September 1993 provided for a transitional period not to exceed five years, during which all outstanding issues were to be resolved through negotiations and a final agreement reached. This provision notwithstanding, the transition period, with all of its well-known limitations and deficiencies, has continued with no mutually agreed-upon end in sight.
From the moment the DOP was signed, critics have argued that the Palestinian negotiators lacked the requisite competence and knowledge of the issues on the table; that their negotiating positions were not based on international law; that their lack of proficiency in the language of the negotiations, English, led them to agree to texts they did not fully understand. More crucially, it was argued that the negotiations had been futile from the start, since any resulting agreement could only reflect the existing (im)balance of power between the two parties.
Indeed, the results of the two-decade long Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” have been meager (not to say sometimes counter-productive) for the Palestinian side, and as the efforts to bring the parties back to the negotiating table underway since summer 2010 have foundered, it seems a good time to reassess the negotiations in some detail. Such an assessment is all the more relevant in view of Israel’s relentless rightward march and the Obama administration’s stunning retreat from its early attempt to change the ineffectual “rules of the game.” The lessons that this essay will draw from the Palestinian experience will concern two sets of questions: (1) how these negotiations should have been—and should be—conducted; and (2) whether new bases, or even a new negotiation paradigm, should be adopted before reengaging in such asymmetrical negotiations.
In evaluating the negotiations to date, I will not utilize a historical framework of the process with its various stages and fluctuations, but rather will focus on significant issues typically considered in any international negotiating process—e.g. prenegotiations, decision-making structure, material and immaterial assets, psychological interaction, method, the role of third parties, and so on. I will examine each of these issues with regard to the Palestinian negotiating situation and approach to date, in light of the Palestinian national program outlined at the 1988 Palestinian National Council (PNC) session in Algiers, which called for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jerusalem as its capital and a just resolution to the refugee problem in accordance with United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 194. I will complete this examination by looking at the negotiations from “outside the box” in order to suggest the conditions under which negotiations could take place and how they should be viewed from the viewpoint of the Palestinian struggle.
CAMILLE MANSOUR, formerly professor of international relations at the Sorbonne and founder of Birzeit University’s Institute of Law, is currently chairman of the research committee at the Institute for Palestine Studies. He was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the 1991–93 peace talks. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the IPS-organized seminar Palestine: Lessons of the Past, Challenges of the Present, Strategies for the Future held in Cyprus on 25–26 February 2011.