Just how close did Israelis and Palestinians come to a peace deal in 2008?
In 2008, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas came close to outlining a shared vision of peace between their two nations — closer than the two sides had ever come. But what really happened in those meetings? And why did they fail to clinch a deal?
This week on The Negotiators, we hear from Khaled Elgindy, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the Annapolis talks. Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, where he also directs the program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestine Affairs. His latest book is Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.
Also: Host Jenn Williams talks to Govinda Clayton, a conflict resolution expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a co-creator of The Negotiators. They discuss Elgindy’s story as well as negotiations covered in previous episodes.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
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JENN WILLIAMS, HOST:
From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.
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JENN: This week, we’re going to hear about a round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that began with the Annapolis Peace Conference in late 2007. And look, I understand what you’re probably thinking when I say “Israelis and Palestinians”: endless conflict, hopeless peace process. But the talks following Annapolis were actually different. In direct negotiations, Israeli and Palestinian leaders came really close to outlining a shared vision of peace between their two nations, closer than the two sides had ever come before. In the end, though, they failed to reach a deal. And to this day, each side blames the other for that failure.
In the first part of today’s episode, we’re going to hear from Khaled Elgindy, who served as an advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during the Annapolis talks. He was a member of the Negotiations Support Unit. You’ll hear more about that in a minute. Later, we’ll talk to Govinda Clayton, a co-creator of the show and an expert on conflict resolution.
OK, so before we get to the story, here’s a little glossary for the episode. So Elgindy mentions President Mahmoud Abbas. He’s the president of the Palestinian Authority. Some people also refer to him as Abu Mazen. Elgindy also talks about Ehud Olmert. He was the prime minister of Israel during this time. And he refers to the dramatic events in the Gaza Strip in 2007. So what he’s talking about there is the takeover of Gaza by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which caused a really big political rift between the West Bank and Gaza that remains a big problem to this day. OK. Elgindy takes it from here.
I came to the Negotiations Support Unit almost by accident. I happened across a job announcement that was cryptically written but didn’t mention the Negotiations Support Unit, and it just said, you know, “We’re looking for policy advisers to provide technical support to Palestinian negotiators.” And so it sounded very intriguing. I applied. They flew me out to Ramallah for an interview, and two months later, I had packed my bags and moved to the West Bank.
The Negotiations Support Unit was set up, actually, as a donor-funded project. There were European donor countries who kind of came together and decided that Palestinian negotiators were lacking, specifically in technical expertise. They had been going to these negotiations throughout the Oslo years with no lawyers and no maps of their own. And so this was a way for the donor countries to help level the playing field on some level, and they managed to convince the leadership that this was in their interest. And so the first iteration of the Negotiations Support Unit were mostly Palestinian American, or Palestinian Canadian or Arabs from the diaspora. I’m not Palestinian American, I’m Egyptian American. But as a political nerd and history nerd, I sort of came of age during the First Intifada. I was in college. I was sort of the same age as the Palestinian activists who were out in the streets organizing, mobilizing against occupation. And it had a real impact on me. And so my role at the NSU was as a policy advisor on the settlements file, which mainly meant collecting data and maps related to the settlement project in the West Bank and, you know, looking at the territorial situation in future negotiations.
It was a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Palestinian leadership. On one hand, I think they appreciated the fact that there was this bank of expertise that they could go to that could produce materials fairly quickly and reliably, and they could do it in English and, in some cases, French and Spanish and even Hebrew — we had a number of Hebrew speakers at the NSU. On the other hand, there was sometimes a little bit of resentment from these young upstart kids who seemed to be telling these seasoned veteran negotiators how to conduct their business. So they didn’t always take kindly to our advice.
President Abbas had been pushing for a return to permanent status negotiations pretty much since the moment he got elected in 2005. It really didn’t gain any traction, though, either inside the Bush administration or in the Israeli government. The Israeli government was more concerned with the disengagement from Gaza, and then it was really after the events in Gaza — in which Hamas took over the Gaza Strip violently in 2007 and basically kicked out the Palestinian Authority from Gaza — that suddenly it became urgent to restart negotiations. And so they held this conference in Annapolis in 2007, and from there they launched a pretty elaborate process with two tracks: the leadership level and then the technical committees.
So after this international conference to relaunch negotiations, we had a meeting with the Palestinian leadership as advisers, and the question in my mind — and I think the same question was on everyone’s mind — was: Does President Abbas have a mandate to negotiate? I mean, he was in the weakest position he’d ever been — that the PLO leadership had ever really been in — because this was happening after Hamas had taken over Gaza, and we now had this split between the West Bank and Gaza. And was he going to have the ability to actually make these far-reaching compromises? The answer that I got was not unexpected. It was: Of course President Abbas has a mandate and the legitimacy, because he’s not only president of the Palestinian Authority, he is chairman of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents all Palestinians everywhere. And it’s not even just limited to the West Bank and Gaza. You know, that was technically true, but clearly the split affected the legitimacy of this leadership. And so I wasn’t at all convinced. I don’t think many folks were convinced that these negotiations were going to succeed, if only because the Palestinian leadership had never been in a weaker position. So it just — it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I think there is a school of thought inside the Palestinian leadership that the way to overcome Palestinian weakness was to clinch a conflict-ending permanent status deal with Israel that would give birth to an independent Palestinian state. And from a substantive standpoint, the gaps aren’t insurmountable — whether it’s on Jerusalem or borders or even an issue like refugees. You know, the pieces, they felt, were there. And if they could just find the right combination, in terms of an American administration and an Israeli leadership that could bring it all together, they could clinch it and sort of save their legacy, and it would negate all of this pettiness between Hamas and Fatah. But it was also a very, very tall order. It turns out that for negotiations to succeed, you need to have more than just good substance that is being discussed around the table. You need to have the right conditions outside of the negotiating room, and that’s where things were just completely out of whack.
So shortly after the conference, after everyone came back, there was an announcement of major settlement tenders, I believe, in Har Homa and other East Jerusalem settlements. And it immediately caused a crisis. From a Palestinian perspective — actually from, I would think, a logical perspective — if the goal is to negotiate over a pie, and one side is eating the pie as you’re negotiating, then it becomes, obviously, very problematic. And to be doing it in the midst of negotiations is even, I think, more egregious. And so, it screamed this contradiction with a negotiated two-state solution. There was a real debate inside the leadership as to what they should do. Should they continue, or should they sort of fall on their swords and say, “This process isn’t going to work. Otherwise, we’re going to be giving cover to settlement activity”? And I think the Americans were putting a lot of pressure on the Palestinians — ”don’t walk away from this process.” And of course, the Palestinian leadership decided to continue. I think what was behind that reasoning was this ever-present Palestinian fear that the leadership had of being blamed for the process failing. And so they weren’t going to pull out from this process, but they were going to make their objections known.
The approach for the negotiations was to set up two tracks: There was a technical track and then a political track. And of course, the technical track was supposed to support the political track. And in that two-track process, there was very little progress made. You know, I headed the territory team on the Palestinian side, and whenever we would meet with our Israeli counterparts, which we did quite frequently on a regular basis — we even did field visits out to various parts of the West Bank together — those meetings were really pointless, to be honest with you. Because, you know, we began almost every meeting with the same argument: What is our starting point? What are the terms of reference? And for us, the terms of reference, naturally, was international law, the 1967 lines, Resolution 242. That’s the starting point. And we can make deviations from the 1967 line through land swaps and other things, but that’s the starting point. The Israelis kept insisting the starting point is realities on the ground — which meant where settlements are now, and where the separation wall was now — and then we could negotiate from that standpoint. And so we had this sort of Groundhog’s Day kind of dynamic with the Israeli side, where we were having the same debate over and over in these meetings. And we would go back to the leadership and say, “We’re not really getting anywhere, because the Israelis won’t acknowledge the 1967 line as the starting point.” And we were told by leadership, in so many words, “Just keep meeting anyway.” And so, certainly at the technical level, we weren’t getting anywhere. There really wasn’t any real progress until it escalated to the top leadership level between President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert. And they began negotiating directly, one on one.
Well, Olmert had his own set of personal and political calculations. He was facing corruption charges, and most people felt that an indictment was imminent, and there were going to be elections early the following year. And so everyone saw him as a lame duck. And so he was in a position where he very much wanted to clinch his legacy. And so when he took control of the process on the Israeli side and began to engage directly with President Abbas, I think Abbas welcomed that. And we had a relatively serious process of negotiations between them that happened. And the third part of that was Condi Rice as secretary of state, who also very much wanted to clinch a deal. So theoretically, the three key pieces are there.
So there was this moment where Olmert presented a fairly detailed vision for how he saw final status on the whole range of issues — from refugees to Jerusalem to statehood and borders — and presented that in a pretty detailed way to Abbas in this one-on-one meeting. Olmert was prepared to hand back almost all of the West Bank, with the exception of around 6.2% that would be swapped with territory inside Israel as part of a land swap arrangement. And he later improved on that proposal and brought it down to 5.8%. I think it was pretty far-reaching for an Israeli proposal. I think Olmert’s ideas were serious in that he clearly had thought about a map and a vision that was in the realm of possibility for Palestinians to accept. You know, when he got feedback from the Palestinian side, he tried to improve on his position. The conditions for Jerusalem — he had an international commission that would be set up that would be responsible for the most sensitive areas like the al-Aqsa Mosque / Temple Mount area. There would be an international body made up of — I think it was Morocco and Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries. This was a nod to the specialness of this particular site, and essentially giving up Israeli sovereignty over this very sensitive area. So again, from a substantive standpoint, you would be insane to dismiss it out of hand.
JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back.
JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So, it’s 2008, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has offered to withdraw from more than 90% of the West Bank in exchange for peace with the Palestinians. But even though the offer itself is groundbreaking, other things are not going so well. Olmert has been indicted for corruption, and his time as prime minister is running out fast. Also, tensions are rising between Israel and Gaza, with Hamas firing rockets across the border. Elgindy picks it up from there.
KHALED: Basically, the way Abbas responded was, he said, “Thank you, and I’m going to take this back, look at it.” And he gave it to us. We analyzed it, and we had a number of questions: Can you clarify where exactly the swaps would be? Can you clarify this point on the mechanism for the al-Aqsa Mosque? So I think it was something like 14 or so questions that we had put together to convey to Olmert, for him to clarify before the Palestinians could have any official response to the proposal. And from what I remember, we didn’t get a response to those questions.
I think everyone understood that the clock was running out. The clock was running out on Olmert’s tenure as prime minister. The clock was running out on the Bush administration. And so, people naturally were looking at early 2009 as the drop-dead point. Any deal would have to be clinched, really, before the end of the year. And there was, I remember, an interruption in the process because of the US election. You know, Americans were distracted. Of course, everyone was focused on who would win, and what would the dynamic be? And there was a bit of a pause after November, in — “Let’s wait to see how things play out going into the final weeks of the administration.” I do think that there was an expectation that things would pick up pretty quickly in December.
On the other hand, there was some real dysfunction on the Israeli side. Tzipi Livni, as foreign minister, was sending the message, “Don’t bother with Ehud Olmert. He’s a lame duck. He’s not going to be prime minister. I’m going to be the next prime minister. Keep talking to me. I’m the track that matters.” And Olmert was trying to compete with that, I think, in one-upping his own proposals. You know, he was trying to show how serious he was, and I think he was quite desperate, even, to clinch a deal — maybe to seal his legacy, or maybe he thought it would prolong his life politically. And so that conflict between Livni and Olmert was pretty evident for all of us, and we didn’t honestly know what to make of it. I think, you know, President Abbas had made it clear: There’s one prime minister. He’s my counterpart. He’s the one I’m talking to. And so that — that was the default process.
President Abbas asked us to put together a Palestinian counterproposal to Olmert’s maps. It wasn’t a full-blown vision for all the permanent status issues, but it was mainly the map that seemed to be what the Palestinian leadership was mostly focused on. I believe it was a 1.9% land swap — so significantly less than Olmert’s, but it still included a majority, an absolute majority of the Israeli settlers who would not be evacuated. They would remain in settlements that would be swapped. But it did include some major precedents, like evacuating key settlements inside East Jerusalem, like Har Homa. They were not going to let a bad faith settlement like that go. And so it became a red line for the Palestinians. And so this was unprecedented, in terms of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, for a Palestinian leader to put forward his own map.
Well, what ultimately brought an end to the process was the Gaza War that broke out in late December of 2008 and that went on until early 2009, and really only ended just a few days before Barack Obama was sworn in as president. This was unlike any kind of Israeli offensive that we’d seen in Gaza before, on terms of the scale of the bombing. There was a land invasion in the Gaza Strip. It was a massive operation — similar to the ones that we’ve seen since then, but up until that moment, it was a new escalation, and the scale of death and destruction was too much for the Palestinians to continue in any sort of process. And so they officially pulled out at that point. They had no choice. They could not continue in the process as long as Israel was bombing Gaza.
I left Ramallah in mid-2009, so it wasn’t long after the Gaza War, and shortly after Obama had been inaugurated and also after just after Netanyahu was elected. But I didn’t leave for those reasons; I left because it was time for me and my family to go. You know, my wife grew up in Palestine, so she was more accustomed to living under Israeli occupation. And so it was home for her. But for me and for our kids, it was — you know, it was time to go. And professionally and personally, we felt like it was just the right time to come back to Washington.
It took me a few years to kind of figure this out — like, what is it specifically that the Americans keep doing, and doing wrong, that is making this process not work? It really is this formula that is so deeply ingrained in Washington that it’s almost like a religious dogma. And that is this belief that negotiations can only succeed if Israel feels secure. It has to feel secure militarily, certainly from a security standpoint, but also diplomatically, politically, economically, because that’s the only way to get Israel to, quote, take risks for peace. And so the idea is, if you’re constantly having to reassure the Israelis, then you’re not going to put pressure on them. You’re just going to find positive incentives rather than negative ones. And if there are negative incentives, it should mainly be for the Palestinians, who, of course, are the weaker party. There isn’t much of a political cost to pressuring the Palestinians, whereas pressuring the Israelis can produce a political cost back in Washington.
JENN: Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, where he also directs the program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestine affairs. His latest book is called Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump.
Israelis and Palestinians have done a lot more negotiating since the talk between Abbas and Olmert ended, but they’ve still not reached an agreement. So let me introduce Govinda Clayton. He’s a negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich. He’s also one of the creators of the show. We spoke to Gov not just about Elgindy’s story, but about the negotiations we’ve covered in other episodes. We’re at the midpoint of our season, so this is a good time to stop and take a look at some of the common threads that all of these high-stakes negotiations share, and what lessons we can learn from them.
So I want to go back to what we just heard about the Palestinian and Israeli peace talks. I’ve actually known Khaled Elgindy for many years — I used to work with him back in my days at the Brookings Institution. And it was fascinating to me, you know, he — he didn’t often talk about his experiences in these negotiations. And so, even though I know him and I’ve worked with him, it was fascinating to actually finally get to hear this story. And so, you know, I was wondering what stuck out for you about Khaled’s story in particular?
Sure. I mean, I think firstly, on a personal level, it was very much interesting to hear — I mean, at least as he told the story — how close they were to an agreement on the actual substance of the conflict. And looking back now, 15 years later from those negotiations, and seeing how many difficulties we have in that process now in terms of moving forward, it was a little bit sad to reflect on, potentially, a missed opportunity in that moment. But I think kind of more analytically, what really stood out for me — in terms of the case, and what we can maybe learn from it — was, was the point that Khaled mentioned in terms of the importance of the context over the substance. So I think he even specifically mentioned that the kind of substantive issues were solvable, but perhaps the kind of conditions in the context was — was what were the real problem.
JENN: Yeah, I found that interesting, too. You know, he said that you have to have the right conditions outside of the negotiating room. What are the context factors that tend to be the most influential for negotiators?
GOVINDA: Yeah, it’s a great question. And so, how we often think about that is in terms of what we might call “conflict ripeness.” So just like with fruit, if we perhaps pick a piece of fruit too early, it might be sour and inedible. Or if we leave it too late, it might become rotten and inedible as well. In terms of a conflict, we’re also looking to identify this kind of ripe moment at which the negotiation has the most chance of being successful. And over the years, a number of different key factors have been identified. So, first of all, the kind of internal political factors are really kind of key here. So having the right leaders under the right amount of pressure, with the right incentives. And importantly, a kind of shared recognition, but then the need to find a solution. And so, in military conflicts, that often relates to the specific military situation on the ground. What we might call a kind of “hurting stalemate” — a context in which both of the parties are kind of suffering as a result of the conflict, but importantly, have come to the recognition that unilateral solutions are really no longer going to work anymore. And so, this kind of shared understanding — or this shared recognition — that they need to work together to find an agreement.
JENN: So speaking of this ripeness, you know, theory — it feels like around 2015 was a pretty ripe era for these kinds of agreements for some reason. You know, we had the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement and even the Philippine peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. So basically, most of the episodes we’ve done so far. Why do you think this was a golden era for these kinds of agreements? Or was it just a fluke?
GOVINDA: I think, in this era, a particularly important thing is we did have international leadership that was pushing for these different types of agreements. But I think, absolutely, having international leadership from major world leaders who are keen to promote international cooperation and multilateral agreements was obviously very much important to a number of these agreements. I think it’s obviously very challenging in order to try and bring together the technical precision and the detail that’s often required for these agreements, while at the same time satisfying the political demands of the countries in which the negotiators are representing. I think one of the ways in which that came out in a really interesting way — across the different cases that we’ve discussed in this series so far — has been the extent to which there’s been different levels of specificity and ambiguity. And so, in negotiated agreements, sometimes negotiators will use what we might call “constructive ambiguity.” So that’s where parties agree on something that is deliberately vague in order to allow the countries that they represent to sign up to something, knowing that there’s perhaps not complete agreement on the specificity of the terms. And so, for example, we saw — in the Paris negotiations, we saw the use of some very constructive language, talking about “shall” rather than “should” —
Now, “shall” has a very different meaning in an international agreement than “should.” “Shall” is a legal requirement and necessitates — for example, in the US, Senate approval. And within 20 minutes, John Kerry was at the door, incandescent with rage about the fact that actually …
GOVINDA: — and kind of inspiring the parties to look beyond two degrees, but not specifying exactly what that should be. And so in this case, this constructive ambiguity allowed multiple countries to sign on, and it created some momentum in the agreement. Whereas, for example, in the Iranian nuclear deal, the specificity was absolutely key here. And so, in this case, for the parties, having more detail and agreeing on each of these different technical elements was key. And so, in this context, constructive ambiguity was certainly not part of the process.
JENN: Right. Because I could imagine, you know, it’s all well and good to — to build in that constructive ambiguity in order to get a deal passed, but then what happens when you actually have to go implement the deal and then there’s all that ambiguity? The constructive piece of that ambiguity — is it actually constructive, in the long run, to do that?
GOVINDA: Yes, and there’s very much, kind of, two schools of thought on this, and it can also vary very much across different cases.
GOVINDA: And so, I think — as you kind of reflected in your remarks from the discussion of the Paris climate change negotiations — the problem with the constructive ambiguity was that there’s been problems with implementation. So the lack of specificity and the lack of enforcement in the arrangement means that, in the end, it’s provided an opportunity for countries to shirk from their responsibilities. And the lack of specificity was perhaps a real problem here. Whereas in other cases, we see the momentum that’s created by an agreement — and creating an opportunity for the parties to work together in a more constructive way — means that getting the agreement was an achievement, and the parties can then, in the future, solve some of these more challenging contexts.
JENN: Maybe this is a basic question, but you know, it feels like with all of these negotiations — and maybe this is obvious — but the issue of fairness, right, is really kind of critical. If both parties feel like they gave up an equal amount, but got an equal amount in return — it seems to be pretty key. So how do you ensure that each party gets their fair share? And what are the other qualities that are important to achieve, maybe, besides fairness? Maybe fairness isn’t the end-all, be-all at the end of the day?
GOVINDA: Yeah, I mean, I think fairness is one way by which we can judge the outcome of a negotiated settlement. But there’s different ways in which we can think about fairness. So the first is, we can think about fairness in terms of the kind of procedure: So was the negotiation set up in such a way that everybody felt that they had a fair chance to get the outcome that they desired? Or we can think about fairness in terms of the substance: So did the agreement eventually result in an agreement that everybody felt they could get behind? Another way we can think about fairness is the distinction between kind of equality and equity: So did everybody get a kind of equal share, or did everybody get what they kind of felt they deserve in relation to what they put in? So, I mean, if we think about, for example, how are we going to deal with carbon emissions with regards to climate change? Like, equality — in terms of everybody having the same level of emissions allowed — perhaps isn’t the most efficient, effective or fair way to divide them, in terms of, there’s — different countries have different historical legacies, different countries have different outputs right now. Whereas equity — thinking more about what do people get out in terms of what they put in, in different types of way — would be thinking more creatively about a solution that better reflects the historical patterns and the current situations.
JENN: OK, that makes a lot of sense. I think that’s really helpful, and especially with the current climate negotiations. You have a lot of experience here. Was there anything that — that you learned from listening to these episodes, or anything that surprised you that you weren’t expecting, maybe?
GOVINDA: What I’ve really enjoyed the most, and what I always enjoy the most from hearing the stories from people involved in these processes, is the anecdotes and the moments of — the little things that happened that you could never predict or you could never teach —
I started a conversation about this. I said, “You know, it’s sort of awkward. I can’t shake your hands. It’s a little unusual.” But I, in fact, grew up in a Jewish community, and in Orthodox Judaism, most men won’t shake hands with a woman who isn’t their wife or daughter or mother. It was a very fascinating conversation …
GOVINDA: — that had an influential effect. So the sharing of pictures of grandkids; the personal connection that somebody had from years gone by. Training as a Zen Buddhist monk for some time —
TOM: Having been a Buddhist monk has changed all parts of my life, actually. I feel like it’s changed all my relationships. I feel like it’s changed so many things, and it’s difficult to kind of pin down exactly what …
GOVINDA — these kind of elements that are very unique to each of the cases, that seem to have had a really influential role. And it’s these aspects that can’t be taught, that can’t be understood, that for me, make a series like this so interesting.
JENN: That was Govinda Clayton, a negotiations expert at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich and a co-creator of this show.
The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you want to help us out, please subscribe on your favorite platform and leave us a review.
Next week on the show, a former gang member becomes a mediator to stop violence on the streets of Chicago.
WOMAN: His mom just called Tio, saying that he’s loading up a AK-47, and we need your help. He’s going to go up to the school and he’s going to shoot his teammates.
JENN: That episode next week on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.