An insider’s view: ‘Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are a waste of time’
At the time of its signing 25 years ago, the Oslo Accords were seen as a milestone on the path toward Palestinian liberation, a sign of better times to come for one of the world’s most entrenched occupations.
Instead, the Israel-Palestine crisis has dramatically escalated. Over the last 12 months the Trump administration halted all funding to the main agency providing support to Palestinian refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), including healthcare aid. Beyond de-funding, several countries, led by the US, have recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the Israeli Parliament passed the Nation-State Bill, granting the right to self-determination exclusively to Israelis.
I spoke to Diana Buttu, a former advisor to the Palestinian negotiations team (1999-2001), about the erosion of the peace process, why negotiations failed and why she now sees the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign as the only way forward.
HR: You’ve said it was ‘like negotiating with a gun to your head’. But what was your job like on a day- to-day basis?
DB: When you think of negotiations, you don’t think of [how] the parties are going to come together – by parties, I mean men, it’s always men. But I think of the physical process of actually getting the men to come together in the room. And that’s very much a feat. To give you an example:
All of the negotiations were held outside of the West Bank which meant, for the Palestinian negotiators, that they needed to have an Israeli issued permit to be able to travel to the negotiation session. Whether for travelling overseas or to get a meeting place in Tel Aviv they always needed them [Israeli permits] and have to cross an Israeli checkpoint.
I didn’t need a permit because I’m [also] Canadian. Without fail we were [stopped by] Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and held up, sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours, as soldiers checked the validity of the permit.
So when I say we were negotiating with a gun to our head, it was literally that – it was waiting for a soldier and then not losing your mind, and just trying to maintain that composure. And that’s just the physical side of things.
Whether it was the issues that were going to be discussed, or physically getting to a negotiation, there was distinctly a power imbalance and somebody in control.
I don’t know if master-servant is the appropriate analogy, but they held all the cards and we held none, and that’s what it felt like on every level.
HR: What happened when you got to the negotiating table?
DB: There were different types of negotiations, so if we were going to be discussing water for example, they would bring their water experts and we would bring our water experts and then we would discuss things. The other style, which became much more prevalent in the later years, was not with technical people present, but mostly politicians.
And when it was politicians present, a lot of the time was wasted talking about issues of the day. I remember in one negotiation session there had been an announcement of new settlements and so that ended up being the focus of the discussion, but not in a productive way. It was like: ‘You Palestinians just need to accept it. We have coalition problems so we’re going to forge on ahead.’
HR: Did you ever get to negotiate on the fundamental issue of the right of return?
DB: Yes, that was my file. Each side had a principal negotiator and the main Israeli negotiator was a man named Yossi Beilin.
On the Palestinian side was a man named Nabil Shaath. And then there was us, the lawyers: me and another guy on the Israeli side, a man named Daniel Levy, who has since changed his political beliefs to realizing that nothing’s going to happen through negotiations.
So [we were] sitting in that room with, on the Israeli spectrum, a Zionist, but perhaps the most left-wing Zionist that I could imagine. And with a Palestinian, Nabil Shaath, who was not really pressing hard on the issue of a right of return. With somebody like Yossi Beilin – he’s personable, he’s gentle, and he’s kind and there are a lot of good traits to him – but on the issue of right of return, he had this complete shutdown. He wouldn’t even engage. It was so deep, so embedded, that I remember thinking if somebody like Yossi Beilin is coming at it with this level of cruelty then just imagine the rest of the Israeli society that he does not represent.
And so, the words that came out of him were very much xenophobic and racist comments. He would use terminology like: ‘I don’t want Israel to be flooded with refugees’. Like, what? What are you saying? These are the people who you kicked out, these are the original inhabitants of the land. What do you mean you don’t want them flooding the country?
My father is a Palestinian refugee and it just hit me hard. The Palestinian negotiator [Nabil Shaath] ended up being like a therapist and trying to get Yossi to see that Palestinians were people too. I came to the conclusion, in January of 2001, that negotiations were a waste of time.
HR: So the most fundamental issue was never really addressed?
DB: No. There were always two levels of discussion. One level that was very much on the ‘let’s be pragmatic and practical’ side. And then you had these visceral issues. And so on the pragmatic, practical side, there were things like what do we do about security. Security ended up being one of the issues oddly that was the least problematic. And then [there were] ideological issues with the worst issue being refugees, Jerusalem and settlements.
I’ve said this in the past and I firmly believe it. If it had just been about drawing a line and a border, then the border would have been drawn a long, long time ago. But the negotiations very much touched upon many of these ideological issues. Israel was never prepared to address its history.
That’s why we see a mindset of control, of occupation. I mean it just permeated through all of the discussions – so things like water, permit control, this obsession with controlling how much water Palestinians use. [It was] very ideological, very colonial.
HR: So now that you’re no longer involved in negotiations, are you more involved in BDS?
DB: I’m a lawyer and I also teach in the United States. I’m active in the BDS movement and very much support it. Over the years I’ve really come to realize that nothing in Israel is going to change of its own accord. It’s grown so used to being an occupier, serving in the army is considered a rite of passage.
You hear people say: ‘I’m putting my son in as a child and he’s going to come out as a man’.
Israeli society has very much shifted to the right. We’re having elections on 9 April and the alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu is a man named Benny Gantz. His campaign slogans have been bragging about assassinating a Palestinian. He’s bragging about sending Gaza to the Stone Age – he tweets this.
I think the only way that things are going to change is if there’s real pressure coming from outside sending the message to Israel that what they’re doing is not normal and that things have got to change.
HR: Would you say there’s a friction between the BDS campaign and the PLO?
Yes and no. Formally, the Palestinian Authority is only supporting the very limited element to BDS, by supporting a settlement goods ban.
In fact, in some cases [the PA] has spoken against BDS. They’ve referred to it as not being helpful. And in the PLO, you've got some political parties that are very active in supporting BDS, and then others that are still toeing the Palestinian Authority line. So it’s kind of a mixed bag at this point.
The BDS movement is really focused on grassroots, civil society and political movements. The PLO/PA is much more of this elitist institution, for lack of a better term. Many of them are really wedded to negotiations, even though nothing’s been achieved through that.
HR: Have the PA lost legitimacy as a result? I’ve seen them described as sub-contractors for the occupation.
DB: Absolutely. They’ve lost credibility not just on BDS but also on a number of issues, like security.
The Palestinian Authority has two main functions. One function is to serve as a funnel for donor assistance to provide health care and education to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And the other, which was one of the features of the Oslo Accords, was for the PA to show that they would be able to be a state – so to take on a lot of the security functions that Israel was conducting.
This is why they’re called security sub-contractors. I now call them security collaborators.
Here we are 25 years later and there’s no independence. With each and every raid on the West Bank and Gaza, there are increasing cries from political movements, trade unions, civil society and grassroots activists, you name it – saying enough is enough, you don’t need to be Israel’s security collaborator anymore.
They’re very much focused on keeping this security apparatus in place and they don’t have a vision for liberation. People are getting killed by the PA on Israel’s behalf, or sometimes the PA is arresting people that Israel then kills.
HR: Why do you think it’s important for people to support the BDS campaign internationally?
DB: The only way the situation is going to end is through the BDS movement. Negotiations are definitely not going to change the situation. We’ve tried it for 25 years. I don’t think that Israel is going to come to its own senses by itself. I don’t think that it’s going to wake up one day and say that it’s been an occupier for five decades.
I think the only thing that’s going to change it is grassroots pressure. In [the Republic of] Ireland, they just passed their BDS motion [on banning settlement goods]. Just in the same way it changed the situation in apartheid South Africa, the BDS movement began in Ireland with women who were working behind cash registers at grocery stores refusing to ring up goods that were that were coming from there.
That then creates a conversation. It creates a movement and it’s those types of things that will lead to the downfall of the apartheid regime in Israel. But left to its own devices, it’s definitely not going to happen and left to the right-wing elements of the [Israeli] Labor Party, they’re going to continue to support the land theft and war crimes that Israel’s been allowed to perpetrate for a long time.