Time and negotiations

Time has played a major role in most negotiations. Whether they are labour or political negotiations, each side of a conflict waits literally till the very last minute before revealing its true position.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been quoted as saying that they wish they had just a little more time to reach a solution to the Middle East conflict.

Time and again one saw the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at a potentially breakthrough point, only for the hopes of the two peoples to be dashed because of the failure to reach a resolution.

After six years of Palestinian Nakbeh and the creation of the state of Israel, and following over 40 years of military occupation of the rest of Palestine, it is a joke for negotiators to wish they had just a little more time.

A quick look back at the Wye River negotiations with Benjamin Netanyahu, the 2000 talks with Ehud Barak at Camp David and the Taba talks led by Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabo shows that negotiators used time both positively and negatively to proceed with or to scuttle the talks. The tyranny of time led the negotiators in Taba to agree that "we have never been closer to an agreement".

Of course, such optimistic statements seem comic today, after thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis were killed, after Ariel Sharon made his provocative visit to Al Aqsa Mosque and Israeli soldiers brutally put down anti-Sharon demonstrations thereafter, all resulting in what is commonly called as the Aqsa Intifada, or the second Intifada.

If there is one thing clear in this conflict, it is that the absence of a resolution has nothing to do with time but has everything to do with the absence of a political will. Before the latest Abbas-Olmert time-related quote, two negotiators went about to prove that the issue is not time related. Beilin and PLO executive committee member Abed Rabo decided to make an intellectual exercise. The two gathered experts from both sides and reached consensus on a detailed agreement which is called the Geneva Agreement. Hundreds of respected Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals have since signed this document.

Other two leaders, Palestinian Professor Sari Nuseibeh and former Israeli intelligence agency leader Ami Ayalon, also sat down and came up with a signed documents. Again thousands of Palestinians and Israelis signed what became known as the People’s Voice.

Olmert has indeed shown signs of a political conversion. Not only was he instrumental in the withdrawal from Gaza and the removal of Jewish settlements there, he has also publicly made breakthrough statements for a sitting Israeli premier. His verbal burial of the idea of Greater Israel and his empathy for Palestinian refugees have never been made so clearly by an Israeli official.

Speaking at the beginning of a Cabinet meeting does give the sense of a change of heart for a Likudnik who has been publicly proud of being a follower of Jabotinsky, Begin and Sharon.

Abbas has also shown courage not seen before by a Palestinian leader. Not only has he been a consistent opponent of the militarisation of the Intifada and a strong opponent to the rockets from Gaza, he has also publicly lowered Palestinian expectations of any large-scale return of Palestinian refugees.

The Palestinian president has been weakened by losing Gaza to Hamas. His days might be numbered as his present term comes to an end. On the other side, Olmert will soon be running a caretaker government and thus unable to make strategic decisions.

Time might be a factor, but after decades of delays and procrastination it certainly is not the only factor. Unfortunately, however, delays affect mostly Palestinians under occupation while allowing the occupiers to continue their illegal settlement expansion, thus negatively affecting a future solution.