The Pitfalls of Preconditions

April 3, 2012 § 6 Comments

Barak Ravid reports in Haaretz that long-time negotiators Saeb Erekat and Yitzchak Molcho recently met in secret in an effort to revive dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and that the PA has outlined a number of demands that it plans on presenting to Netanyahu as preconditions to negotiations. Unsurprisingly, Abbas’s preconditions are that negotiations begin with a baseline of the 1967 borders and that Israel freeze all settlement activity.

While the Palestinians are in a difficult spot and want to gain some leverage going into peace talks, the preconditions gambit is a continuation of the same negotiating mistake. A little reminder of recent history is helpful in understanding why this is. When AIPAC convened its annual conference in March 2010, the attendees gathered during a particularly rocky period for Israel diplomatically. Earlier that month, Vice President Biden had landed in Tel Aviv to be infamously greeted with an announcement of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem which led to a mini-crisis with the United States and an hour-long dressing down from Secretary of State Clinton.  Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon was fresh off causing a diplomatic crisis with Turkey following his attempt to humiliate the Turkish ambassador with cameras rolling in response to Turkish television dramas portraying Israeli soldiers as kidnappers and intentional murderers of innocent civilians. Britain was also threatening to cut intelligence ties and cease intelligence sharing following revelations that Israel had used British passports while assassinating a Hamas military leader in Dubai.

Most importantly, serious pressure was building up for Israel to make real concessions in service of creating an independent Palestinian state. President Obama had called for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to resume negotiations and had pressed Israel for a freeze on all settlement activity. The PA seemed for the first time in nearly two decades to be making progress in building state institutions in the West Bank, and the U.S.-trained PA police force was winning accolades for its progress and professionalism.  There was also a growing sense among military officials that a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front was becoming a problem for the U.S., embodied by General David Petraeus’s Senate testimony that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East was partly due to the absence of a Palestinian state.  The momentum for an independent Palestine was building, and following the Biden episode and the fury among top U.S. officials at what they saw as an unacceptable humiliation of the vice president, the Palestinians were in an ideal situation to negotiate a favorable resolution to the conflict.

Such negotiations never took place, however, because the Palestinian Authority committed the crucial mistake of setting preconditions before coming to the negotiating table. As every first year law student required to read the seminal negotiation treatise Getting To Yes can tell you, setting preconditions to negotiating is a tactic that almost always fails. The book’s very first lesson is not to bargain over positions as it is inefficient, damages the relationship between parties, and leads to bad agreements. Tactics such as setting preconditions and refusing to negotiate until they are met are fated to backfire if the objective is to reach an agreement, as the other side is likely to dig in and paint the refusal to negotiate as evidence of bad faith. Over time, the party setting the preconditions will become hostage to the perception that it has no interest in reaching a deal, and will then be forced to maintain its principled position even when events on the ground put it at a disadvantage or give up credibility and leverage by dropping its demand entirely. In short, setting preconditions before agreeing to negotiate an agreement is rarely going to be a winning strategy.

In early 2010, Abbas insisted that no negotiations could take place absent a complete freeze on all building activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which was a condition that Israel was in no way prepared to meet given the extension of the freeze request to East Jerusalem.  Netanyahu did, however, agree to a 10 month West Bank settlement freeze, allowing him to take the high road by announcing that he was making concessions and was ready to negotiate at any time while portraying the Palestinians as unwilling peace partners. By September 2010, following months of demands that Israel freeze all East Jerusalem construction, the Palestinians finally agreed to negotiate, but by that point it was too late, as Israel’s settlement freeze expired. Events on the ground had also shifted by that point and Obama announced his unwillingness to ask the Israelis for yet another halt to all West Bank building activity, and the Palestinians were in no position to make a credible case having squandered months of potential negotiations. Fast forward two years later to the most recent AIPAC conference, and the Palestinians and peace negotiations barely registered with attention turned exclusively to Iran.

Despite all this, Abbas is about to pull a Groundhog Day and make the exact same mistake, although this time his starting point is far less favorable and thus his tactic is even more unlikely to work. The question is whether the PA actually wants to have serious negotiations at this point in time or is just looking to win a p.r. battle with Israel. If it’s the latter, then setting preconditions makes sense since it highlights Israeli settlement activity, which is already being cast in an unfavorable light following the High Court’s Migron decision and the current standoff between the IDF and the prime minister’s office over the Beit Hamachpela group in Hebron. If the objective is to actually negotiate though, Abbas and Erekat need to wake up to the fact that setting preconditions is a terrible negotiating strategy that is fated to fail from the start.

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