Ever since the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks began this summer, Palestinian negotiators have found themselves without one of their strongest negotiating weapons: the ability to walk out of the talks.
The current peace talks began without the Israelis agreeing on two basic conditions: the suspension of settlement building in Palestinian areas and a clear reference point for the talks. While these conditions were not directly accepted by Israel, the United States guaranteed that the 1967 borders would be the basic reference point of the border discussions. On the settlements, the Palestinians were assured by the United States that Israel would not build any outside the settlement blocks that Israelis hope would be annexed to Israel.
On both these issues, Israel appears to have reneged and the Palestinian side was put in a corner. If the Palestinians walk out of the talks for this violation of the understanding communicated by the United States, the Israelis would stop the process of staggered prisoner releases. Israel has committed to releasing 104 Palestinians imprisoned since before the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accords in accordance with the 1999 Sharm el-Sheikh agreement.
Furthermore, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced during a joint press interview with Palestinian and Israeli journalists that the quid pro quo for the prisoner release was a Palestinian commitment to not seek any further membership as a state in UN agencies. The Israelis have alluded to and have in fact acted on their own claim that they can add new Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, each time they release prisoners. This has happened twice already following the release of 52 prisoners so far in August and in October. The Palestinians are hoping that the remaining 52 prisoners will be released as agreed upon in stages within the next few months.
What exacerbated the situation even further was an announcement by right-wing Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel to add hundreds of thousands of new settlements, including in the disputed E1 area that connected north and south of the West Bank, just east of Jerusalem.
Following this announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cut short a regional visit that was supposed to include Saudi Arabia and returned to Ramallah to head an emergency meeting of Palestinian leaders.
Caught without a credible negotiating weapon, Palestinians have come up with a partial solution. Palestinian negotiators Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh submitted their resignations to Abbas in protest of the Israeli actions. The announcement was followed Nov. 13 by Abbas’ confirmation of the resignations and that the talks would be delayed, but not stopped, as the issue of the resignations is discussed and a new team of negotiators is found.
The resignation of the negotiators appears to have produced a temporary result. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is involved in a tough war of words with the US administration over the Iranian nuclear talks, ordered his housing minister to withdraw the decision, stressing that Israel can’t afford to divert attention from Iran.
It is unclear now whether the Palestinian team will accept this Israeli retraction and continue the talks, or if a new team will be found. Some critics have pointed out that this is not the first time Erekat has resigned and then returned to talks.
A change of the negotiating team could have both positive and negative results. Introducing individuals with fresh ideas and perspectives can shake up the talks. However, such a move can have negative effects in that it can result in some loss of trust between negotiators and the institutional memory that the current negotiators can have on the talks.