On December 8, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion at the Diplomatic Club with Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian Delegation to the final status talks with Israel, a former minister of public works and housing, and the current minister for the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR). The talk covered the history, present status, and possible future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The event, which was followed by a lively question and answer session, was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities.
Shtayyeh began the discussion by elucidating the 19-year peace process, which he described as having become “an industry for peace.” As the first Palestinian to land in Madrid for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 1991, Shtayyeh was present for the launch the peace process. Since then, he has seen failed attempts to conclude the negotiations at Camp David, Annapolis, and most recently in Washington, D.C. “The problem with the peace talks,” he explained, “was that there were no terms of reference.” Shtayyeh explained that the Madrid talks were possible only because Secretary of State James Baker provided clear terms of reference for the discussion of “land-for-peace.” Shtayyeh went on to describe the failure of Camp David, citing a lack of Israeli commitment to the process, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak refusing to meet individually with Yasser Arafat. At Annapolis, though there was valuable discussion, Shtayyeh regretted that the talks were ultimately unsuccessful due to lack of clear terms of reference.
Shtayyeh then turned to the most recent peace efforts, which began this year when the United States suggested proximity talks between the two parties. During these discussions, Shtayyeh asserted that Israel wanted to discuss only borders and security issues, rather than engaging in serious dialogue about core final-status issues. After seven months and six rounds of indirect talks, the United States facilitated direct negotiations, inviting both parties to Washington, D.C. At that time, Shtayyeh described the international community and the Obama Administration as stressing a single point: Israel should not continue constructing settlements in Palestinian territory during peace talks. As a result, Israel agreed to a 10 month moratorium on their construction.
Shtayyeh said the Palestinian negotiating team had high hopes for the talks, as it agreed with the Americans on two critical points. First, that settlements are illegal and should be frozen. Second, the two parties supported the establishment of an internationally recognized Palestinian state. “The problem,” in Shtayyeh’s words, “was that Washington did not exert enough pressure on Israel to bring it to the negotiating table.” When Israel refused to extend the moratorium on settlement construction on September 27, the peace talks fell apart.
From the Palestinian side, as described by Shtayyeh, it was clear that talks could not continue while settlements were being built. He called settlements “a real blow to the international community and a serious erosion of the geographical base of the Palestinian state.” While there were no Jewish settlers in Palestinian land in 1967, today there are 431,000 Jewish settlers in 185 settlements on Palestinian soil.
Shtayyeh asserted that Israelis are interested solely in their security, as they refused an offer from President Abbas for a demilitarized Palestine with outside forces patrolling a buffer zone. Shtayyeh believes that Israel wants only to maintain the status quo, which he describes as “continuation of the colonization program and maintaining the [governing] coalition.” He added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not consider the question of Palestine to be a priority because Israel has been able to maintain the status quo at no cost and even manages to profit from the territories, earning some $4 billion annually from goods exported to the West Bank and Gaza. Instead of focusing on Palestine, then, the current Israeli administration is consumed by Iran. Despite theses impediments, Shtayyeh expressed willingness to negotiate with an Israeli government that makes the Palestinian issue a high priority: “If you have a peace partner, it has to prove itself willing to provide peace. If Israel has a coalition for peace, we will talk to them.”
In his concluding remarks, Shtayyeh emphasized that the peace process should not involve only Israel and Palestine and also should have a set time frame. Because Israel and Palestine have been unable to forge a sustainable peace after 19 years of negotiations, the Palestinian team may be forced to consider alternative methods. Shtayyeh laid out the Palestinians’ plan to earn independence. First, Palestine will turn to the international community and ask it to recognize an independent Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, as Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have already done. If this does not work, the Palestinians will turn to the UN Security Council to recognize their state. If the proposal is vetoed, he said, the Palestinians will then call for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly under “Uniting for Peace,” whose resolutions carry the same political weight as those of the Security Council. If that does not work, Palestinians will ask for UN custodianship of the Palestinian territories. Finally, if all the above options fail, the Palestinian delegation will, in the end, return control of all civilian affairs to Israel.
Following Shtayyeh’s presentation, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the situation of Palestinian refugees, the role of the United States, and the possibility of a one-state solution. Moderator SalmanShaikh asked whether the alternative of resistance is being considered as a possible means to rectify the Palestinian situation. Shtayyeh answered by stating that Israel’s most important goal is maintaining the status quo, and he affirmed that Palestinians are in a position to spoil this situation through popular resistance. Shtayyeh made clear, however, that any direction the Palestinians choose to take will be “fully coordinated with Arab countries because the Palestinian cause is an Arab cause.” He concluded, “we never rule out any option that makes occupation costly.”
One audience member asked whether the Palestinian delegation had considered speaking directly to the American people to explain to them that they pay a high price by supporting Israel. In response, Shtayyeh responded that Americans should be aware of the amount of American tax money that goes to Israel. He considers it to be Arab responsibility to show people the unhappy reality of most Palestinians, citing Al Jazeera as doing a great deal toward this goal. Shtayyeh believes that the reality of the Palestinian case will increasingly reach the U.S. and international publics, so they will see the consequences of unqualified support for Israel.
Another question concerned whether uniting Hamas and Fatah would help advance the peace process. Shtayyeh explained that, in his eyes, Palestinian reconciliation has nothing to do with negotiations, as it is necessary outside of the peace process regardless of whether talks proceed. He did assert that Palestinians should agree on a single goal and the best means of achieving it. In Shtayyeh’s view, Fatah is on its way to achieving this goal of uniting by signing the Egyptian-mediated agreement and hopes that Hamas will come to the same position as well.