Paul Pillar

The Palestinians' Messaging Problem

Chief Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat made remarks at a small but on-the-record gathering at the Brookings Institution Tuesday that deserve more notice than they will get. Erekat not only accepted President Obama's negotiating formula of mutually agreed land swaps based on the 1967 boundary as clearly and unambiguously as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the formula last month. He also said that if Mr. Obama invited the two sides to U.S.-mediated negotiations based on that formula, the Palestinians would immediately accept and begin negotiating, provided that Netanyahu accepted on the same basis. This would mean the Palestinians' setting aside their insistence on a cessation of Israeli settlement construction, even though—as Erekat said he reminded U.S. interlocutors during his current visit—this quintessentially unilateral activity is still highly damaging to the whole concept of negotiating a settlement regarding the occupied territories.

As was noted by others in the room, this Palestinian position ought to be getting headlines, but for some reason it doesn't. Maybe the Palestinians need better publicists. Probably the main reason is the messaging prowess and political muscle of apologists for the Israeli government, who have strong political reason to depict the Palestinian leadership as supposedly resisting a peace settlement, as a way of detracting attention from the reality of Netanyahu's government resisting such a settlement. Against the backdrop of the political muscle displayed in the Congressional reception of Netanyahu, Erekat observed that if he says one thing and Netanyahu says something different, he has little chance of his version being accepted.  Whatever the combination of reasons, a sort of urban myth has taken hold among much of the American public to the effect that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli offers that would have given them what they say they want.

The myth has been applied, for example, to the last serious and detailed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, between the PLO and the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert in 2008. Erekat recalled how both sides brought to that negotiating table positions replete with maps based on the land swap concept. The Israeli side proposed a larger amount of swapped land than the Palestinians did, but it was the sort of gap that, with sufficient decisiveness on both sides, could have been bridged. Those negotiations ended amid Olmert's domestic political problems and the Israeli military invasion of the Gaza Strip, followed by an Israeli election and Netanyahu's coalition becoming the government. And yet the lingering belief is that the negotiations ended with the Palestinians showing their supposed lack of interest in peace by rejecting yet another generous Israeli offer.

Erekat is the epitome of the weary veteran negotiator who asks, “What more can we do?” The PLO recognized the State of Israel, fully and formally, back in 1993. Its leader has repeatedly reaffirmed such other requirements as the Palestinians' security obligations. After repeatedly hearing the complaint that there was not a single interlocutor who could speak for all the Palestinians, the Palestinians endeavored to fix that with the recent accord between Fatah and Hamas, only to have that step condemned instead.

The dismay over having seen the can of a peace settlement kicked down the road for so long is palpable. Erekat observed that if the status quo were to continue this would mean it would not even make sense to continue the Palestinian Authority, which was only supposed to be a transition toward a Palestinian state, and which despite its name doesn't really have authority over its territory; the Israelis do. Pretending that the PA really does have authority doesn't fool the people in the territories. “Palestinians don't have a neon 'stupid' sign on their foreheads,” said Erekat. He was equally biting in accurately describing Netanyahu's posture toward negotiations, which has been to lay down conditions that are incompatible with anything resembling a Palestinian state worthy of the name and then to say, “Come here, boy, and negotiate.”

A wonder in all this is that a Palestinian faith in a two-state solution endures despite all the delay and humiliation. It also is somewhat of a wonder that those identifying with the current Israeli government have managed to lead many people to believe that, against all logic, Palestinians supposedly prefer a state of no agreement, with all of the abuse and disappointment that has entailed for Palestinians, over a peace agreement that would give them what they have long wanted: their own state, living in peace and security alongside Israel. The ball of peace is definitely in the Israelis' court, and Benjamin Netanyahu can hit the ball by accepting President Obama's basis for negotiations.