Almost no sooner proposed than the renewal of peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians seemed to be, unsurprisingly, in jeopardy. Despite the promise made by US Secretary of State John Kerry in mid-July that peace talks would very soon be resumed after a three-year stalemate, both parties began refuting various claims made since the announcement in regard to the talks. Although the proposed Israeli representative to the negotiations, Tzipi Livni and her Palestinian counterpart Saeb Ereket, did not comment, other officials on both sides hinted that they might not start as expected. Furthermore, each side offered a different opinion as to whether preconditions had already been made and agreed upon in order for the renewed peace talks to begin. As of mid-August, the talks were set to begin after a controversial release (for the Israelis) of a number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Kerry’s announcement of a resumption of talks came after a month of visits with Palestinian and Israeli officials. The announcement was met with both surprise and expressions of pre-emptive resignation and pessimism. Pundits in both the US and Israel dissected the announcement, the conditions necessary for the talks, the choice of veteran negotiators (who achieved little during the Oslo and Camp David years), the timing of the negotiations in regard to the European Union’s recent announcement of new guidelines for interaction and funding between the EU and Israeli settlements, the release of Palestinian prisoners in order to secure the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) participation and the usefulness of the negotiations themselves. In the occupied Palestinian territories, Kerry’s speech was met with cynicism and a shrugging of shoulders. Indeed, what will new talks bring in terms of practical changes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza? More importantly, when one considers the Palestinian situation circa 2013, does the PA even have a legitimate mandate to enter into new peace talks?
Shortly after Kerry’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made an important, although not unusual, declaration to the Israeli public and the international community. The declaration can perhaps even be construed as a threat of sorts: any agreement by the two sides that came out of the peace negotiations, Netanyahu stated, would need to be ratified by the Israeli population in a national referendum. The impact of such a statement is not insignificant when considering the position that it puts the future Israeli negotiating team in. It is also important when considering the general idea of putting an agreement in front of the citizenry of one side in order to be voted on. On the one hand, the Israeli negotiating team would need to work out a way in which to structure the talks to ensure that the ultimate agreement reached would be ratified. Yet on the other hand, a referendum could mean that the same negotiating team could proceed in such a fashion as to ensure that any agreement would not be ratified by the Israeli electorate. In both cases, Israel would give an impression of its commitment to peace. Of course, the talks will need to succeed in producing an agreement for Netanyahu’s national referendum to be put into place, but the idea itself could be used in a pragmatic fashion if the talks do get off the ground.
The national referendum would work in Israel, but what if the idea were analysed for the Palestinian case and a referendum considered for the Palestinians despite their muted reaction to the renewal of the peace talks? Indeed, a discussion on a referendum might well offer an interesting look into a number of issues faced by the Palestinian Fatah leadership in choosing to enter into new talks. For example these issues include the structure of the peace talks themselves, the late 2012 successful statehood bid by President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations, the fragmented political system in the occupied territories, the lack of elections and thus the lack legitimacy of the Palestinian president, the position of both Palestinian citizens and Palestinian nationals vis-à-vis the PA and the concept that “the people are the source of power” as stated in the 2003 Basic Law. In particular, what is the role of the collective Palestinian citizenry in determining the nature and the goal of peace negotiations? In order to come to any sense of a conclusion or argument on the role of the Palestinian citizen (or indeed of the Palestinian national within the diaspora) in future peace talks, a number of these issues should be considered.
Since 2011, one of the main points of contention between officials in the West Bank and those in Gaza has been the outline of the political reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas. Despite the high hopes in the West Bank and Gaza in mid-2011 as officials from both political parties came together in Cairo to begin a unification deal, neither side has had much to show for their efforts in the past two years. Instead, quite the opposite has happened: the West Bank and Gaza are more politically fragmented than ever and Fatah has become considerably weaker as a result. In fact, Secretary Kerry’s efforts at renewing peace talks were blamed by individuals in the Hamas government, such as senior official Mousa Abu Marzouk, as the reason for the continued failure of a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal. Specifically, Hamas publicly stated that the decision made by President Abbas to enter into the talks does not represent the will of the Palestinian people and that such talks are contradictory to the wishes of the population. Abbas, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri argued, does not even have the legitimate right to negotiate in the name of the Palestinian population. The argument is not a new one, as Hamas and others have made similar statements concerning Abbas’ statehood bid at the UN and his recent appointment of a new prime minister to replace Salam Fayyad (the former resigned shortly after the appointment). In 2010, after a short-lived attempt by the US to resurrect peace talks, Hamas’ political leader Khaled Mishal stated that Hamas would accept any Israeli-Palestinian agreement that the majority of Palestinians also agreed upon. He emphasised the starting point for the negotiations to be the pre-1967 borders, dismantling all of the settlements in the occupied territories, the declaration of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the right of return and the guarantee of true sovereignty.
Although Hamas’ arguments against Abbas’ unilateral decision to meet with Kerry and even begin “negotiations for the sake of negotiations” may be valid - without any referendum and without any recent legislative council election campaign it is difficult to conclude what the will of the Palestinian people actually is in regard to peace talks. A national referendum being put to the Palestinians is hard to imagine when the population’s right to exercise the franchise for a new Palestinian Authority president and Palestine Legislative Council (PLC) has been long overdue. Recently, a Fatah official suggested that Fatah will start unilateral preparations for presidential and legislative elections if Hamas did not move forward on a reconciliation deal. Hamas, for its part, seems to be used to exclusion from elections. However, the situation remains that gauging the reaction of the Palestinian people toward Abbas’ legitimacy to enter into talks with Israel is not a straightforward process. Abbas’ term expired in 2009 and the last presidential and legislative elections were held in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Thus, no candidates for the national government have had a chance to state their position on the topic of negotiations, nor have the citizens been given the opportunity to vote for candidates at the executive and legislative levels on the basis of those positions.
Will the peace talks then include any recognition or measure of popular opinion or the will of the people? If their aim, at least on the Palestinian side, is to produce a viable and sovereign Palestinian state for its citizens then what is the role of the citizen in ensuring that such an aim is understood and met? Hamas is correct in arguing that Abbas has no legitimate mandate to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people. According to the Basic Law, the now-irrelevant Palestine Liberation Organization holds the claim to this. Therefore, it seems that Abbas only represents himself in his appointment of Erekat and others to serve as negotiators with the Americans and the Israelis.
Yet, elections themselves are not the be-all and end-all solution, especially as Mouin Rabbani has recently demonstrated. Rabbani asks whether elections hinder the rights of Palestinian citizens and the struggle for self-determination as he considers whether electoral democracy is suitable for Palestine and the particular crises confronting Palestine right now. One of these crises is arguably the failure of past peace negotiations. After 2006, elections—those which took place at the local level and the debates over elections at the national level—have served to legitimise the political fragmentation in Palestine. Rabbani suggests that what must first happen in Palestine is that an official agreement be made by the dominant political parties about the programme of the national movement and the aims of the national struggle. An agreement must be reached before elections can determine who will lead this programme. Now, one can also question whether it is a good idea for the Palestinians to enter into new negotiations with Israel without a consensus on the national programme and thus without new presidential and legislative council elections.
Currently, only the highest officials in the PA can decide whether Kerry’s carrots are enticing enough to attempt to bite. As Nathan Brown recently asked, as long as the Palestinian citizens (and those who consider themselves Palestinian nationals outside of the occupied territories) remain voiceless in regard to their own affairs, who is responsible for appropriately deciding upon the path forward? Reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas would likely mean that the proposed negotiations could not be carried out. The Palestinians themselves have yet to see the practical results of the UN’s acceptance of Palestine late last year. Negotiations make such results even more unlikely. Larry Derfner points out that Abbas’ plan to go to the UN in September and attempt to take Israel to the Hague will be scrapped. This is not a surprise: with disregard to the “will of the people,” as the UN vote took place last year Abbas pledged not to unilaterally bring Israel to court for human rights violations.
Any renewed negotiations, whether they begin in the coming weeks or are postponed yet again, should be scrutinised as much as possible by the Palestinian citizenry. This of course, is well-known. Yet Netanyahu’s plan for a national referendum on any future agreement should also be considered by the Palestinian people and all political parties rather than simply the leadership of Fatah. It is important to assess the role of the Palestinians in determining the aims of the national programme and of future peace talks in order for those future talks to achieve a state that is truly for and by its citizens.