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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

When being a 'yes man' isn't quite what it seems

Palestinians should take a leaf out of the Israeli playbook and say 'yes' to a peace plan – only with a qualifying 'but' to protect their rights, writes Hussein Ibish

Jared Kushner meeting Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his office in Jerusalem. Matty Stern / EPA
Jared Kushner meeting Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his office in Jerusalem. Matty Stern / EPA

The Trump administration is preparing a plan to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, yet Palestinian leaders appear to have been manoeuvered into, and have voluntarily adopted, a losing position before it has even been released. Fortunately, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues can still adjust their strategy and avoid yet another national defeat or disaster.

The first step is a clear appraisal of what’s possible. New talks are extremely unlikely and if any are held, certainly won't produce a final status agreement or end to the conflict. The requisite political, diplomatic, strategic and cultural conditions simply don't exist.

So there’s no real danger of being trapped in a bad permanent agreement in which core Palestinian rights and aspirations are sacrificed. Yet self-inflicted wounds are still possible and avoidable.

As the Israelis have long understood, the main game in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy since the Oslo process started breaking down has been to avoid being blamed for any lack of negotiations or progress. The broader goal in this inescapable caricature of diplomacy is to try to make sure, whenever possible, that the other side gets blamed more, if not completely.

Since Israelis understand this clearly and have many built-in advantages, especially the more-biased-than-ever American mediator, it's going to be very difficult to get most of the world to view Israel as the main obstacle to progress.

Unfortunately, it's usually proven easy for Israelis to cast Palestinians as the obstructionist party, even as Israel continues to kill Palestinians, expand settlements, seize land, heighten their demands and inch towards annexation.

Palestinian leaders have consistently helped Israel do this by categorically rejecting proposals their people consider disadvantageous. That may, temporarily, boost politicians’ domestic political standing but at an exorbitant price.

After all, any strategies Palestinians employ will require a significant degree of international support. They need such help to build their society, economy, capacity and governance; or to pressure Israel in international forums like the United Nations; or to promote boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And on it goes.

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Read more from Hussein Ibish:

Scaremongering and a factional narrative are keeping migrant children and parents apart

The White House iftar with no Muslim Americans encapsulates Trump's attitude to Islam

A failed Trump-Kim summit could mean a return to fire and fury

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Palestinians are already more isolated than Israel - and more than they can afford to be.

Recent comments by Donald Trump's chief Middle East negotiator, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, questioning the peaceful intentions of Mr Abbas are an obvious set-up. Mr Kushner seems convinced Mr Abbas will reject his proposals – as, from what we can gather is probably part of his plan, nearly all Palestinians would instinctively want him to. Or his intention is to make Mr Abbas say a flat “no” so Israel and Washington can claim he is not willing to make peace and bypass him altogether.

There’s only one intelligent response to this.

The word “no” should be avoided in diplomacy, particularly by weaker players. It can only be usefully employed to pander to a domestic political base and help leaders pose as champions of some internal constituency. But in statecraft and dealing with outsiders, the answer "no" is usually self-defeating.

The solution is not complex. It is to say "yes, but…"

Once the “yes” is clearly articulated, a more muted “but” can include anything and everything and it will be up to the other side to claim that your "yes" was actually a “no,” which is difficult, if not impossible.

The Israelis know this perfectly. They have been confronted with dozens of UN Security Council resolutions and even American proposals that they have effectively rejected, although not with a "no" but with a "yes, but".

This was their response to the Clinton Parameters. And the road map of the Middle East Quartet. And virtually everything that didn't come directly from their own negotiators.

Israel didn't even give a clear "no" to the Arab Peace Initiative, which they mainly ignored. In fact, Israel almost never says "no" categorically, except to Palestinians, who should ponder that.

No matter what Mr Kushner proposes, Palestinians should say "yes, but" and then, through that formulation, protect their interests on all sides.

They can insist that anything agreed at this stage be an interim arrangement, possibly with time limits and preserve all their claims on occupied territories, refugee rights, Jerusalem, national sovereignty, territorial contiguity or anything else they like. The decisive "but" following a qualified "yes" can be almost limitless, as the Israelis have frequently demonstrated.

Mr Kushner’s comments suggest his plan will be essentially an effort to buy off Palestinians, a new iteration of the nonsensical idea of "economic peace", without any formula for realising Palestinian national rights. While theoretically such an offer might be regarded as contemptible, it could nonetheless present substantial practical opportunities.

If there are economic or other gains that can be acquired without surrendering core Palestinian rights and aspirations, there’s no rational argument for declining them.

Ridiculous conspiracy theories aside, none of their allies are demanding Palestinians accept anything they don't want.

Saying "yes, but" instead of "no" in diplomacy is an essential way to avoid being set up as a scapegoat by adversaries. Palestinian leaders urgently need to add this phrase to their lexicon.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington