Negotiations lack clear terms of reference

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The recent US-led efforts to resume direct talks, that ended with the two sides agreeing to renew direct negotiations, reminded many observers of US efforts to establish a peace process and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in the early 1990s, then described as "constructive ambiguity".

The move from indirect to direct talks this time was delayed because Palestinians and Arabs were insisting on clear terms of reference as well as behavior from both parties conducive to talks in order to avoid previous mistakes. Previous efforts have led to years of negotiations but little progress toward peace.

However, in the last few days, two different statements were released. One was the Quartet statement, which dealt with most of the requirements and concerns of the Palestinian side. But then there was a concurrent public invitation by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a subsequent press conference by the US government’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, in which neither made any reference to the Quartet statement.

This appears to be an effort to satisfy Israeli requirements and concerns ahead of the resumption of negotiations. But it has caused a situation in which the two sides are coming to the same negotiations with different anticipations and two separate sets of terms of reference.

Hence, if the objective of direct talks is simply a process of negotiations and physically ensuring that the two sides are sitting at the same table, the international community has scored a success. However, if the objective is to have the parties move toward the kind of peace that the international community foresees in the roadmap and other international resolutions, then we are still very far from achieving these objectives.

The Palestinian side was always eager to engage in the kind of negotiations that can help roll back the occupation and realize comprehensive and lasting peace and thus wanted to show a positive attitude toward international efforts. However, the absence of clear, agreed-upon and binding terms of reference for negotiations enables the Israeli government, which represents a coalition whose politics are far from the international consensus and international legality, to manipulate the resulting vagueness and ambiguity in order to further stall and thereby satisfy its right-wing constituency, in thrall to the Israeli settler movement.

This is a fatal flaw. In previous negotiating attempts, the failure of the peace process to prevent the consolidation of occupation through the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory, including occupied East Jerusalem, was the single most important factor responsible for failure. The Palestinian and the Arab parties are coming to the negotiations in good faith, but they will be looking at Israeli behavior on the ground, particularly when it comes to settlement activity, as the major criterion for judging Israel’s intentions and the credibility of the peace process.

It is thus of paramount importance that the international community, which in the roadmap agreed that the objective of the peace process is to "end the occupation that started in 1967", not tolerate any attempts by Israel to create unilateral facts on the ground of the kind that would jeopardize that objective.

The peace process is supposed to complement the serious state-building process that the Palestinian government has been undertaking. It will also answer the question of what the international community is ready to do in order to realize a two-state solution in case the bilateral process fails to achieve that objective.

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