The new results have created an unprecedented political situation in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) areas where now two extremely different institutions will have to share the power that so far had been largely dominated by Fateh. Today, the presidency and the premiership are on two different tracks. One needs to understand the ramifications such a situation will have regarding the negotiation process with Israel.
In this connection, it should remain clear that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is the highest Palestinian body in charge of negotiations with Israel. That is why all the political agreements were signed between it and Israel. The PNA itself is an outcome of those agreements. The PNA ministers who negotiated with Israel throughout the past ten years were doing so in their capacity as PLO members, and their terms of reference were and will continue to be under the umbrella of the PLO. This explains the statement President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) made after the election results came out, that he would personally be in charge of negotiations with Israel and would continue the process regardless of the election results.
Is it possible today for negotiations to really take place between the PLO and Israel? Why would Israel negotiate with the PLO now when it opted not to negotiate with it through the PNA when the latter was in full control? These questions arise from the fact that Israel was so bent on a unilateral approach that it closed the door on any kind of bilateral discussions with the Palestinians, and the Standing Cooperation Committee (SCC) is, in this context, living proof of that policy. By doing so, Israel weakened the moderate line of President Abbas, prompting the average Palestinian to vote for Hamas in order to punish Fateh for failing to bring the kind of concrete achievements the Palestinians expected of them and for which they elected Abbas as president in January 2005. Former Shin Bet head, Ami Ayalon, did not mince any words when he openly blamed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's policy for strengthening Hamas and weakening the PNA.
The main guidelines of the SCC operation are to specify the means and forms of achieving cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli parties; to exchange data and ideas in all fields of cooperation, including convening meetings for officials and experts from both sides, holding joint meetings, workshops and study groups; to provide technical, administrative and organizational assistance; and to promote joint programs in all fields of common interest to both sides, such as the environment, the economy, water, agriculture, education and others. The main concept is to utilize the spirit of cooperation in order to create a working atmosphere that supports team work and enhances the understanding that ending decades of conflict and bloodshed can only be attained through a just, durable, comprehensive and genuine peace agreement based on the two-state solution along the 1967 borders. The SCC itself is an outcome of the Oslo Accords. Annex VI of the Interim Palestinian-Israeli agreement that was signed in Washington on September 28, 1995, states among other things:
The two sides are determined to establish dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality, fairness and reciprocity within the context of the interim period, and to act together in order to ensure that peace, stability and cooperation between them are reinforced and sustained.
In striving to live in peaceful coexistence, the two sides will seek to design and implement various programs which will facilitate the efforts leading to full reconciliation based on the agreed political process, and make it possible for smooth implementation of a permanent settlement based on Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
Abbas and Sharon meet: Neither leader was serious about matters of substance.
One-Sided Commitment to Negotiations
On February 8, 2005, President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon reached an understanding in Sharm el-Sheikh on Israel's withdrawal to the pre-September 2000 lines. Their understanding also included a paragraph on developing future cooperation and reactivating the SCC and other committees. Both leaders emphasized the importance of economic growth, especially on the Palestinian side, and of cooperation based on equity and reciprocity as a key factor in the context of peace-building and reconciliation. The declaration they made at the end of the summit was regarded by many as just one more occasion for a photo opportunity since neither leader was serious about matters of substance.
This was not exactly true, at least not for Abbas. A month later, on March 5, the Palestinian president ordered the reactivation of the protocols of the Palestinian-Israeli cooperation based on Annex VI of the Interim agreement. He delegated then-Minister Hassan Asfour to head the Palestinian party to the SCC. His instructions were clear: to achieve a "qualitative breakthrough" with regard to Palestinian capacity-building and to transform the agreement protocols into a solid base that would help further projects based on justice and mutual cooperation. Abu Mazen's decision was evidence of the seriousness of his intentions and of his consistency in endorsing negotiations as the only means to solving the conflict.
On the Israeli side, however, that was not exactly the case. Sharon never accepted the Oslo process as the only term of reference vis-à-vis relations with the PNA. He chose a different path, opting instead for unilateralism, ignoring any plans of action that would engage the Palestinians in genuine cooperation, dialogue or negotiations. This route proved to be very detrimental to both sides as it only fanned the fires of extremism. In the absence of negotiations, many radical elements on the Palestinian side saw this as a pretext to go ahead with a unilateral track of their own, escalating attacks on Israelis and undermining the rule of law on the Palestinian side.
The Difficulty of Reactivating the SCC
The reactivation of the SCC was a brilliant idea. It came at a time when most channels of communication and contact between Palestinians and Israelis were closed. But one cannot ignore the array of problems and obstacles that have so far prevented its proper reactivation leading, as a consequence, to added unnecessary friction between the two sides.
Since the SCC was based on the Oslo Accords, what exactly is the stand of the Israeli government today in this matter? A government that is making every possible step to reverse the Oslo process and is moving only on a unilateral track cannot qualify as a partner. Without a clear acceptance by Israel of the Oslo Accords as the obligatory terms of reference for relations with the PNA, any move, including the reactivation of the SCC, will remain hollow and a waste of time.
Not only did Israel try to reverse the Oslo process, it also launched a campaign aimed at changing facts on the ground and enforcing new sets of rule that would ultimately prejudice the outcome of any future negotiations, such as changing the demographic balance of Jerusalem, the continued settlement activity, and the erection of innumerable military checkpoints and the separation wall - separating not only Palestinians from Israelis but also between Palestinian towns and villages. If Palestinians are not allowed to meet their fellow Palestinians within the West Bank itself, is it reasonable to expect them to promote or accept the notion of joint meetings and cooperation with Israelis? Walls of separation, hatred and punishment can never create an atmosphere conducive to such meetings and cooperation.
On September 20, 2005, the SCC held a meeting in Ramallah to follow up on a variety of issues. Those members who attended the meeting were unanimous in noting the lack of seriousness on the part of their Israeli partners in the SCC- Sharon, obsessed with his unilateral approach, had no intention whatsoever to activate the SCC, or for this matter any other form of cooperation or dialogue with the PNA.
The Palestinian SCC partners worked intensively; held several meetings and prepared a number of working papers. They spent a considerable time preparing for a meeting to be held at ministerial level between then-Minister Hassan Asfour and his Israeli counterpart at the time, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom who headed the Israeli side of the SCC. That meeting never took place and nor were any joint steps taken. Israeli domestic political considerations played a big role in hampering any progress in this area. When official steps on the Israeli side did not materialize, the tendency emerged to promote non-official or semi-official tracks of dialogue with the hope of achieving some form of a breakthrough.
Some Feeble Attempts at Cooperation
As part of those efforts, members of the SCC met with the mayors of Sderot in the south and Haifa in the north of Israel and their respective teams. The themes of discussion focused on the possibility of launching a mayors' conference from both sides or having a number of prominent public figures in Israel visit the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to convey a message of peace. Some even suggested that the Israeli figures express their sorrow for the injustices done to the Palestinian people over the past decades. This conference never took place. The Israelis were keen on holding the two events; their enthusiasm, however, was not matched by the bitter reality on the ground. They, for instance, could not understand that Israeli measures against the Palestinians were making things extremely difficult for both sides. Because of this atmosphere, many Palestinians believed such encounters would only serve the Israeli side, promoting so-called normalization between the two parties while the occupation still persisted. Nonetheless, the Palestinian SCC members remained committed to working with their Israeli counterparts in promoting peace, tolerance and an end to the conflict between the two peoples.
Unilateralism Is Not the Way
The truth is that neither party functions in a normal atmosphere. The severity of Israeli measures in the occupied territories makes the work of SCC members very difficult. While they spend months preparing for constructive meetings between the two parties, Israel does not desist from creating facts on the ground, making any talk of a peaceful settlement almost impossible. The Palestinian street is in no position to react positively to joint ventures while suffering Israeli violence, assassinations, the daily harassment at checkpoints, and while the separation wall grows longer by the day, unilaterally delineating the future borders between the two states. Similarly, continued armed adventures and attacks against Israeli civilians by various Palestinian groups made such joint Palestinian-Israeli ventures very difficult. Both actions dissuaded the public on both sides from supporting the principles of reconciliation and bolstered the argument of those who insisted on a unilateral track.
Mayor Eli Moyal of Sderot once wrote to the president of Brandeis University - a nonsectarian, Jewish-sponsored university in the U.S. - asking him to host Israeli students from Sderot with their Palestinian peers from Beit Hanun and Beit Lahia during the summer months or during the regular academic year. "I have come to the conclusion that in addition to the conventional security measures that are being taken by our government policy-makers another avenue must be explored as well. It is my wish to engage both sides of the conflict through dialogue and true openness and thus perhaps help resolve conflict situations and eliminate bloodshed in the Middle East." He is still waiting for the university response. But that is not the only problem. Many on the Palestinian side perceive Moyal's approach as unrealistic and naïve because it does not address the core of the conflict, portraying it only as a matter of getting A and B together, regardless of the reality on the ground.
Israel's elation with unilateralism has neutralized the basic elements of partnership. Any leader who is to succeed Sharon needs to understand that nothing can replace partnership or genuine negotiations between the two parties. Ordering the disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the dismantlement of all the Jewish settlements there and four others in the northern part of the West Bank was a significant step on the part of Sharon. Unfortunately, it wasn't an outcome of dialogue or negotiations with the PNA. A major Hamas slogan in the Gaza Strip following the Israeli unilateral disengagement claimed that "four years of Qassam [rockets] brought better fruits to the Palestinians than ten years of negotiations." Is this the spirit of partnership or of Oslo? I think not.
Learning from the experiences of the past year, only an official engagement and partnership can allow the SCC and similar projects to function properly and bring tangible achievements on both sides. Justice cannot be attained when one side insists on acting unilaterally and yet expects the other party to honor its obligations under previously signed agreements. Both sides must be equally committed to the importance of negotiations in reaching a fair and lasting solution to the conflict.