by David Matz
Who ended the Taba negotiation, and why? Yossi Beilin says that Shlomo Ben Ami and Abu Ala (Ahmad Qurei) agreed to end it, but Abu Ala denies this. Gilead Sher says he and Saeb Erekat were planning from at least Friday to end it on Saturday. Ehud Barak acknowledges that he wanted to end it, and there is no record that the Palestinians objected. So it is a reasonable inference that leadership on both sides were comfortable with a termination at that point. The question is why? Why in the face of a Sharon election, time racing away, a growing intifada, and the real possibility of a framework agreement, would the two leaders decide against sprinting for the goal line?
I put the question to former prime minister Ehud Barak: With an agreement at least possible and with at least four days left to negotiate, why did you end a negotiation on Saturday? He was equally direct: “Because that was the day the Palestinians brutally killed two Israelis and further negotiation was impossible.” When I pointed out that there were no terrorist killings on Saturday or Friday, he said, “Oh, right, but that was the day that Arafat made that horrendous speech calling us fascists, and there was no way to negotiate with someone who spoke like that.” And when I pointed out that that speech was made the day after Taba ended, he said, “It doesn’t make any difference why I ended it. It had to end because it wasn’t going anywhere.” When I told him that my piecing together of interviews and memoirs suggested that a framework agreement was at least possible with a few more days of negotiating, Barak simply denied it.
This of course may represent precisely how he saw things on Saturday, January 27. In the swirl of an election campaign, with a somewhat loosely managed negotiation, and with little effort made to coordinate the various negotiators working on different issues, it is possible that Barak did not know how close the negotiators were to reaching agreement. Indeed it is possible that no single person at the negotiation was aware of this larger picture either. Barak, however, is not known as one to acknowledge when he is uninformed or in error. In any event he rebuffed further effort to discuss what he knew at the time.
What Barak did not do was take the easy, conventional way out. He did not say that Arafat wanted no deal, and he did not mention the Wednesday night meeting. This is a hint that he had not been aware of it at the end of Taba, and perhaps, if he had not read Sher’s memoir, he had not been aware of it at all. Barak did explicitly negate the idea that Israelis would not have accepted a deal: “If we had reached an agreement at Taba I was ready to go door to door throughout the country to convince Israelis to approve it, and I believe they would have,” he said.
One possible reading of a survey of forces at work around Barak is that his optimism and drive to reach an agreement were not enough to overcome the pessimism and skepticism all around him, and in him. It would have taken a leader of extraordinary strength, willing to take larger risks, with something larger than his tiny and diminishing base of popular support, to continue the negotiations and push for agreement.
I have less evidence about Arafat’s motive. He sent a good team, one that clearly thought agreements were possible, that worked diligently throughout the week and that tried to keep the Israelis at the table. But perhaps the clearest clue to Arafat’s intent, oblique to be sure, is the ready acquiescence by the Palestinian leadership on Saturday to the Israeli decision to end the negotiation. When I asked Palestinians close to Arafat why he seemed willing to end the negotiation, they professed no definitive knowledge of his motives.
Negotiation and PoliticsM
During the week of Taba, Barak gave inconsistent, unenthusiastic signals about his desire for an agreement. Most of his negotiators, however, behaved as if seeking some kind of an agreement was their purpose. What accounted for this difference?
Politics is one way to resolve differences, negotiation another. Each has its own imperatives. (“Politics” here refers to the full range of a politician’s legitimate concerns, from staying in office to the welfare of his/her nation.) The point of negotiation is to reach agreement, and the process creates strong tows in that direction. Politics is more open to the play of forces that pull both toward agreement and toward non-agreement. Politicians can see as much value in conflict, stalemate or delay as they can in agreement. (The right enemy can be a political asset.) Negotiation will normally be deemed a success only if it results in agreement. Negotiation tends to have a near horizon. Politics can have one near or far. When it works well, negotiation can change the viewpoint of the negotiator by increasing his/her understanding of the other side’s view. Politicians are close to constituent pressures, negotiators somewhat less so. Politicians see a bigger picture; negotiators see the possibilities and frustrations posed by the opposing negotiators with a clarity often lost on their principal.
Though Barak was in close phone contact with the negotiation through Gilead Sher, the negotiations often developed their own momentum. They moved seriously and quickly into solving problems, and many on each side seem to have been stimulated by the seriousness of the other side. This created a sense of optimism among at least some of the negotiators that seems not to have been true for Arafat or Barak. Taba can thus be seen as a tug of war between Barak at one end of the rope and some of the negotiators on the other: on Monday and Tuesday the negotiators were winning, on Tuesday afternoon Barak pulled back; on Thursday and Friday the negotiators gained ground, and on Saturday Barak, with Arafat’s apparent concurrence, ended the negotiation. Several of the negotiators asserted that the negotiation would have had a better chance of reaching an agreement had it been conducted in secret, i.e. a step further removed from the pull of politics, and more like Oslo. Further, as the question of how many Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to Israel was explosive politically, the negotiators worked to complicate the issue. They developed several categories and time frames through which Palestinians could return, making it possible for political leadership on each side to justifiably assert different numbers returning. On the issue of the holy places, on the other hand, the negotiators were unable to find a solution that would be acceptable politically, and were prepared to leave it to the political leaders to confront.
Writing it Down
The basic question for this inquiry has been to learn why the parties did not reach agreement. A clue can be found in the pervasive anxiety, shared by both sides, about anything written as part of the negotiation. On some occasions this took the form of a resistance to putting anything down in writing; on others it took the form of not allowing anyone outside the negotiation, and perhaps not even others inside the negotiation, to see the writings that were produced. Since Taba there has been a clear Israeli-Palestinian coincidence of intent (was it an outright agreement?) to keep all such writings secret.
There are a number of examples during the negotiation in which turning a discussion into a draft would have fit negotiating need, and such drafts were proposed several times. But the proposals were declined, each side doing so on different occasions. Some drafting did occur, however, particularly around the refugee question, but post-Taba hiding of these drafts, or denying their existence, has produced almost comical contortions. One previously unpublished Israeli draft concerning refugees turned up in Le Monde several months after Taba. It is headed “private” and a “non paper”, suggesting that the Israeli cabinet minister who authored it was, somehow, acting not in his official capacity. “Non paper” has shown up heading other Israeli-Palestinian negotiation documents in the past as well.
Why all this hesitancy and secrecy? The memoirs and interviews reveal a range of comments that I connect as an explanation for both. These comments point to an interlocking set of fears that constrained both negotiating sides. The first is fear of the other side. Putting something in writing can give the opponent a tool for use in a future negotiation, defining a place from which to demand yet more. It is one version of the fear of the slippery slope (if I concede on this then I will not be able to resist conceding on other things). A concession on paper will be used by the opponent at a future negotiating table, in the press or with an important third party. For all the close, personal, long term, often convivial, relationships between negotiators from each side, they were not immune to this fear. The second fear was of citizen and government groups, on both sides, who saw themselves as smarter and tougher than the negotiators. Those groups were eager to criticize the very act of negotiating, and were especially eager to criticize particular concessions. Many of those groups were important because they would be needed to approve an agreement and to implement it, and because they were needed by individual negotiators for other purposes. Though the negotiators sought some degree of privacy from the outside world, leaks, during Taba and later, were inevitable. A document attributable to one negotiator could be easily converted into a weapon. It is one thing to try to persuade groups who were not at the negotiating table to accept a package of concessions that come with a full agreement; it is another to take one concession, as it might appear on paper, and to justify it in isolation without the surrounding agreement.
Within each negotiating team there was a great deal of competition, disagreement and even hostility. The exact dynamics do not seem to have been the same on each team, but this they had in common: each negotiator had good reason to fear being undermined by members of his own team. Thus, any document might be used within the negotiation, or outside it, to discredit a negotiator in the eyes of other team members (“he’s giving away the store”), in the eyes of the boss, or in the eyes of some other groups.
In short there was a kind of 360 degree fear: From the front, from behind, and from the side. Each fear was linked to the other and each re-enforced the other. Together they lead to a deep aversion to putting anything in writing. Enhancing these fears were the highly equivocal mandates under which each set of negotiators worked: There was no clarity about which concessions would be accepted by one’s own boss, and there were conflicting interpretations within each team about this question. Underlying all these fears was one that, though inherent in most negotiations, is especially potent among Israelis and Palestinians, the fear of being seen as a dupe or a sucker.
This pattern of fears suggests that most of the documents are kept hidden because, as mentioned above, they contain concessions. Were they to be revealed in isolation and not as part of an agreement, they could endanger their authors. The negotiators’ commitment to secrecy was part of their effort to overcome those fears. In a setting flooded with incentives to distrust, both sides worked hard to combat them. That so much of the writing generated at Taba has still been kept secret is a sign that the negotiators continue to see value in protecting each other and the ideas they produced.
But keeping it oral and secret had a price. Most obviously, there is no reliable record on which future negotiations can build. There is an ongoing controversy about what was accomplished at Taba, generally fed by the absence of available documents. In addition, the absence of writing means that a highly charged and complex negotiation was conducted using only spoken words and human memory. That made a tough job a good deal tougher.
In trying to understand a particular negotiation, it is good to assume that all contemporary accounts, based usually on what the participants say, are misleading or worse. It is fair to generalize that all Israeli-Arab negotiations have been marked by a mix of skepticism and hope. Certainly that was the case at Taba. When the negotiation failed to produce agreement, however, the respective views tended naturally to emphasize the recalled skepticism, thus distorting how things looked at the negotiation itself. One result of this distortion is that public opinion, formed primarily by what the press presents, becomes itself a force, influencing a politician’s sense of possibility in future negotiations. The same hazard holds for scholars creating negotiation theory when they base it on examples from those sources. Thus the importance of looking skeptically at first hand accounts, of seeking a more reliable account of what happened in a negotiation.
Every negotiation is characterized by ambivalence. Parties want a certain solution, but only if the price is right. Parties can’t afford complete candor, and even if they provide it, the other side can’t know if it is candor they are hearing. Constituents are as difficult to placate as are the negotiators across the table, and neither those away from the table nor those across it are likely to be of a single view. The passion for an agreement is always at odds with the fear of being taken for a fool, as are the related incentives to collaborate with the other side and to seek victory. The negotiation at Taba exemplifies this ambivalence, and it is a tribute to the negotiators that they could resolve these tensions so often on the side of seeking agreement and come as close to success as they did.
I think there will never be a better opportunity than was present at Taba to reach an agreement. The inevitability and power of the deadline they faced, the inevitability and power of increasing violence if they failed, the quality of the negotiators, the small size of most of the gaps they had to bridge, all these constituted an unprecedented coincidence of settlement-inducing events. Nevertheless, as with any long-term conflict, there were enormously powerful forces working against agreement. There were reasons not to agree that gave even the most pro-peace partisan at least some pause. Finding agreement was not only a matter of finding the right answer to an intellectual problem; it required a response to the reasons and forces (including violence) working against agreement. The possibility of intra-Israeli or intra-Palestinian civil strife could never be ignored. Though the job for negotiators included strategy and problem solving, the overall task was more like that of two teams playing chess on the deck of a ship in a storm: they had to play out the game while coping with a tumultuous environment which included the possibility of a violent attack by an apparently uncontrollable leviathan.
The press, popular opinion, and the official memories of participants all account Taba to have been a failure. I dissent. In the same way that Palestinian concessions at Oslo, Israeli concessions around and after Camp David II, and President Clinton’s guidelines will be seen in the view of history as the largest steps toward finding the acceptable ground for agreement, Taba will be seen as the occasion on which the negotiators demonstrated that an agreement between them was, probably, reachable.